22nd August 2015, a stunning day, very much like today as I look out the window, cloudless ethereal blue stretching as high and far as the eye can see.
An air show in full progress, the images so far stunning looking at the back of the camera, some monumental things in the offing, including a JU-52 and C-47 in formation.
The first jet participant of the day, arguably one of the best looking jets ever built, The Hawker Hunter, and an airframe that has become a regular to this event at Shoreham.
A full plan view from the underside as it pulls into a loop, a loop that was never completed, that ended in a fiery inferno on a major UK A road, people and cars nowhere to go as this thoroughbred of the UK aircraft industry came crashing to earth with a sickening ‘thwack’. Then silence on the airfield until the sirens of emergency vehicles sped to the scene……………..
It’s a sight I guess I knew one day I’d witness, and always thought I’d be immune to any effects if I did. Don’t believe it, even I was taken aback by some of my reactions and emotions that day, a half hour or so of anger directly afterwards, disbelief and shock mixed in for good measure.
An hour later, on the phone to my Mum and Grandparents to clarify we were ok, the point at which came the tears, flooding and uncontrolled if I’m honest, my whole body shaking as I cried, speaking to those that you love makes it all suddenly become apparent. But at this ‘homemade’ sanctuary by the car, sitting down behind it, no one could witness this ‘show of weakness’, just Amanda to comfort me, I didn’t mind her seeing this, we had to comfort each other at that point………
Two hours later, walking around a show ground at an Air show not knowing what to do, a new experience for me, never having felt like that before. Walking past a fellow enthusiast with my red and puffy eyes from the previous hour, direct eye contact, and him just nodding back at me in recognition, maybe an element of ‘you’ll be ok…..I think, I don’t really know myself for sure’ in that nod.
Three hours later and the gravity of the ‘incident’ is apparent, there will be no more Air show today, but it’s an Air show we can’t escape as the exit route was blocked by a vintage jet three hours ago, and the destruction it left in its path………
Four hours in, situation accepted, we’re hungry, we need food, a pork roll, sitting down against the crowd barriers on the main display line, quiet, the only ones really there as everyone else was either sat in cars going nowhere, or walking around the show ground trying to come to terms with what they’d witnessed.
Five hours, and speculation everywhere. “He staggered over the top of that loop with no speed, he must have not been with it, blacked out, any other pilot would have escaped at that point and not flown that fateful downward section of the ‘loop’” You know how it is, everyone’s a Hunter pilot and knows best, even though no one but the guy they’d only recently extracted from the cockpit of the aircraft (still breathing) actually knew what had gone wrong……..
So the point to all this? Don’t ever assume you know yourself until you witness something of this nature, because I didn’t, one fine lesson learned. That, though, is not the point of this writing, what is the topic for debate is how has it impacted the air show circuit since that day?
There was an awful lot of fear post 22nd August around the future of shows in the UK, the future of fast jet operations, the future of OUR summer past time. As always, this concern was, I suppose justified, but some of the initial knee jerk reactive statements and ideas coming from the governing body really did concern lots of people within our community.
Granted some smaller shows had their death warrant signed due to the rise in costs through safety measures and insurance, simply making these smaller events a non-viable financial proposition.
But that sets me thinking, how often at these smaller events does it go wrong due to flying regulations being ‘pushed to the limits’? It’s a really difficult one to call, Shoreham was a well organised, established event, its proximity to a major South coast road being its downfall. But that again sets another set of questions into motion. Duxford is right next to the M11, a UK motorway…… It has seen its fair share of ‘incidents’ with the P-38, Firefly, ‘Black 6’, and the P-51 standing out. The P-38 and Black 6 ‘could’ have had an impact on the road, but didn’t, the Firefly and P-51 crashed off site, but without risk to life away from the field hosting the event.
The point being what happened at Shoreham was just such an unpredictable incident, and subsequent investigation has placed the blame fairly and squarely on one significant element of the Hunter display that was being flown that day.
So enters the element of human misjudgement, failure, whatever you wish to call it. And that is an element that will never go away, no matter how big the show, how experienced the aircrews flying the display, how serviceable the machinery, or how stringent the safety planning is. Two Russian pilots caused all sorts of distress and concern for many people at a major international show maybe five times bigger than Shoreham in 1993 at Fairford. Farnborough has seen its fair share of human error, the Buffalo in 84 seemingly standing out. And bringing it up to the minute, Abingdon two weeks ago saw a mechanical failure that thankfully was controlled, and ended in a minimal outcome.
The Human and mechanical elements are two areas you’ll never eradicate from an Air related event such as the ones we all love to spend our summers attending, but that goes with the territory as it were. We have all attended RN and RAF events in the past where our tickets tell us we do so at our ‘own risk’ and ‘no responsibility’ will be accepted by the MOD for our safety. We go there and know the risks, that’s the risk that fast moving heavy machinery creates when it’s out of control. It doesn’t even have to fall into either of those categories really, a Cessna barrelling into a crowd would, I’m willing to suggest, still have a marked impact on those in that crowd. Any event such as an air show, or a motor racing event is inherently dangerous for those taking part, and those in close proximity watching, it goes without saying. Motorsport has learnt the hard way over the years, so the aviation world needs to, and after 2015, it is, no question. The disappointment being that it took such an incident to see the mitigating actions initiated, but then that’s life itself with most things, actions to prevent not being taken until after the event, when everyone sits up and takes notice, especially those who never had an interest in the subject until that point in time. We saw similar actions and restrictions after Ramstein in 1988, after an ‘incident’ that probably had a greater impact that day than Shoreham if truth be told, but not to those who had no interest as it wasn’t in the UK, and didn’t impact those outside the base in the same way.
Air shows went on after that day, an important factor to note in this particular situation we face now, as Air shows are still going on today, two years after the Shoreham event.
Did modern social media habits and the relentless media of today blow Shoreham out of proportion? No not really, an incident of that nature can’t be blown out of all proportion because of the shocking horrific nature of it. Some social media and press comment in the days after left a lot to be desired, but that’s always been an element of the press, so no surprises there when (generally) the person writing or reporting the story in the daily tabloid doesn’t even know what a Hunter is.
So where has it left us?
• Fast jets performing flybys without high energy aerobatics. I can’t see the issue here, would much rather see a Vixen, Hunter, or the like in the air than in a dusty museum any day, and if that’s what it takes to keep them in that state so be it….
• Display line further from the crowd to avoid impact from incidents. Still can’t see the issue here if I’m honest, it’s still an air display, and still provides many opportunities for pictures before, during, and after the display. Looks the same, sounds the same, just not quite as close…. This particular ruling was noticeable at Abingdon 2016, but after a few events it’s become the norm, and when all’s said and done, it’s still an active Air show, something over the winter of 2015 that many thought threatened in its very existence moving forward.
So again, “how has 2015 impacted the Air show circuit”
I’m not entirely sure it has in the negative way in which everyone thought it would. This weekend sees Duxford host its May bank holiday show right next to the M11, proof if it were needed that the Governing body have the faith in the show organisers to act responsibly and adhere to the stipulated rules for the weekend. Granted there have been a few shows that have had to end the game for financial reasons, and the demands on the organisers since 2015 have made them make that decision. But it’s a decision made for the good I’m sure, no event organiser in their right mind would try to keep an established event going at a loss would they?
From what I see on Facebook on a weekly basis through the wonderful images posted by all, from a whole host of events still happening up and down the UK, the Air show is not a breed that is becoming extinct, the interest is still there, and the events that have been able to ‘ride this wave’, and continue to operate, are being better supported than ever before as social media works in a positive way to bring our community closer, and together at these remaining events. The future of shows in this country is positive, I really believe it, even if another cloud is looming on the horizon for public events in the form of random terrorism acts, I feel the ability to host an Air show in an ‘enclosed’ airfield environment helps from a security perspective, hopefully enabling the UK Air Show to ride and overcome another possibly bumpy ride in the future.
Long may it continue, as it’s a UK tradition that has ridden this and many other ‘storms’ in the past, and will continue to do so.
As with all these things, all these opinions are mine, and as such the freedom to challenge them is always there!!.