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How safe are air shows? Here’s how many crashes occurred in past decade

UPDATE:

John Cuday, president of the Virginia-based International Council of Air Shows, contends air shows are safe for spectators. No spectator at an airshow – which has different rules than air races -- has been killed since the 1950s because of safety measures in place, he said.

“There is no motorsport in the world that has the safety record of spectators that we do,” he said.

The danger is primarily to pilots, he said.

“The flying that these guys do is more dangerous than standard flying, but they take this risk knowingly” and mitigate risk, he said.

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In what he described as a four-legged stool, the first safety measure is distance between pilots and people.

Small planes, for example, stay at least 500 feet away from spectators. Jets operate up to 1,500 feet away.

“I’ve actually charted where the wreckage has landed and that system has acted precisely as it was to work,” he said.

Additionally, pilots’ knowledge and flight routines are evaluated every year.

Acrobatic maneuvers toward spectators are banned and an acrobatic sky box sets aside restricted airspace for performances.

“That’s the four-legged stool we have come to rely on and it’s worked very, very effectively to protecting spectators,” he said.

INITIAL REPORT: 

In late June just a year ago, a Thunderbird jet flipped over after taxiing at the Dayton International Airport.

The crash occurred on June 23 prior to the Dayton Air Show, and injured Pilot Capt. Erik Gonsalves and Tactical Aircraft Maintainer Staff Sgt. Kenneth Cordova. The F-16 sustained significant damage, and the Thunderbirds cancelled all performances at the air show.

» UNMATCHED COVERAGE: 7 deadly air show accidents that stunned spectators

The Thunderbirds jet mishap was the first major aviation related incident at the air show since the fatal crash of a wing walker and a pilot in front of thousands of horrified spectators on June 22, 2013.

Air shows can be risky for performers. Approximately 52 percent of civil air show crashes that occurred from 1993 to 2013 involved at least one fatality, according to FAA’s General Aviation and Air Taxi Survey and the National Transportation Safety Board data. The data studied 174 civil air show crashes.

Here’s what we know about air show safety: 

1. How many deaths have occurred as a result of crashes and mishaps at air shows and races in the U.S.? 

This news organization reviewed data from the Federal Aviation Administration, which showed that 44 fatalities have occurred in the past decade as a result of injuries sustained in crashes and incidents at air shows and races in the United States. This news organization reviewed fatality reports from 2007 to 2017. That number increases looking at incidents globally. 

2. Have deaths occurred at the Dayton Air Show? 

In Dayton, three deaths have occurred since 2007 at the air show. In 2013, a stunt pilot and a wing-walking performer were killed in a fiery crash at the Vectren Dayton Air Show. The pair was identified as Jane Wicker and pilot Charlie Schwenker. 

Wicker was wing walking at the time of the crash, sitting on the underside of the inverted 450 HP Stearman named “Aurora.”
» PHOTOS: Get ready for these amazing aerial acts at the Vectren Dayton Air Show 

The plane did a cartwheel and burst into flames as it hit the ground. A fire truck was at the crash within two minutes and extinguished the flames.

Since 1990, there have been 160 crashes at air shows and air races across America. Not a single year during that time was there not a crash. Wingwalker Jane Wicker, 46, and pilot Charlie Schwenker, 64, crashed and were killed at the Vectren Dayton Air Show on Saturday, June 22. The biplane appears to have crashed just inside the 500-foot show line which is marked by orange construction barrels seen at right. TY GREENLEES / STAFF (Ty Greenlees/Ty Greenlees)

In 2007, aerobatic pilot Jim LeRoy failed to maintain clearance from the ground during an acrobatics routine and crashed his 400-horsepower, single-seat biplane, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. 

The safety board found that “smoke oil” present in the air where the performers were flying also contributed to the crash. 

LeRoy’s yellow Bulldog Pitts continued from a spiral spin into the ground, slid 300 feet and burst into flames. LeRoy was killed on impact.

3. How many crashes have occurred in the past decade?  

Approximately, 96 aviation accident reports related to air races and shows have been filed since 2007, according to NTSB data. However, most of the accidents investigated did not result in fatalities. 

People on the ground watch as Jim Leroy's plane burns following his crash at the Vectren Dayton Air Show, Saturday, July 28, 2007. (Peter Wine)

4. What has been the worst air show crash in recent U.S. history?

A plan crashed into spectators at the National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nevada in September 2011. The crash killed the pilot Jimmy Leeward and 10 spectators. It also injured more than 60 others, according to federal investigators. 

5. What regulations are in place to keep pilots and spectators safe at air shows?

The FAA provides aviation event organizers with assistance when planning a safe aviation event. Planes are no longer allowed to fly over crowds at air shows inn the U.S., and significant changes occurred after the Reno accident in 2011. Spectators have to be staged a specific distance away from where planes are performing now, and airshows have to follow a ground operations plan

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