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Why the Fuck Do Air Shows Still Exist?

The mild enjoyment of watching a plane do a loop-the-loop really doesn't justify the horrific consequences when that loop-the-loop goes wrong.

by Joshua Surtees
Aug 24 2015, 2:55pm

Photo by Jenko88 via Wikimedia

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

A year ago, I got a WhatsApp from a friend asking if I'd like to go to an air show in Ascot, England. Within seconds I replied: "Do not go to that. Have you never seen those disasters with the planes plummeting to the ground?"

An hour later he replied, "I can't go now." I felt genuinely relieved, a feeling that returned to me when I'd read that the event had passed off safely.

I feel slightly embarrassed writing the next line—like a perpetually outraged Daily Mail columnist, or someone who actually handwrites and posts a letter to complain about Rita Ora wearing revealing clothes on The One Show—but: The fact that air shows are still allowed to continue in the modern age is an absolute disgrace.

As a liberal, there aren't many recreational pursuits I would prohibit by law—in fact, there are a few illegal things I'd decriminalize—but I genuinely think air shows should be banned with immediate effect.

The horrific tragedy in Shoreham on Saturday, due to which up to 20 people may end up losing their lives, was not only shocking and sad, it was completely unnecessary. One day later, at a show in Basel in Switzerland, two planes crashed in mid-air and a pilot died. Three weeks ago at Chris Evans's garden party, the pilot of a stunt plane nosedived into the ground and died instantly.

It's legitimate to ask why air shows even exist. For the spectators, there are much safer, less anachronistic things to do on a summer Saturday with your family than watch planes do loop-the-loops while munching on cold chicken drumsticks and sipping warm Pinot Grigio. As for the pilots, are people really prepared to die for air acrobatics? Imagine if there was the same death rate at football matches or athletics meets, or any kind of event; it wouldn't be acceptable. So why do we make an exception for planes?

I'm asking a lot of questions here, but they're all relevant—and what confuses me is that nobody else is asking them.

READ ON MOTHERBOARD: It's Time for Robot Pilots

Google "air show" and it brings up the auto-suggestion "air show crash." Not "air show stunts" or "air show fun": air show crash. Google "air show disasters" and you get a Wikipedia page detailing the list of horrific accidents that have occurred, beginning in 1911, when airplanes barely even worked properly.

There isn't space to list them all here, but here's a quick rundown of just a few:

  • There was the Sknyliv disaster in Ukraine, where—in 2002—a Ukrainian air force jet cartwheeled and exploded into a crowd of 10,000 people, killing 77 and injuring 543. The pilots ejected to safety.
  • The 1938 Usaquen, Colombia crash, where an air force lieutenant attempted to dive through a narrow gap between two grandstands, failed, crashed, and exploded, raining flaming debris down on spectators. Up to 100 were killed.
  • In August of 1988, 300,000 turned out to watch the Ramstein air show at a US air base in West Germany. Seventy people died when the Italian Air Force stunt pilots collided in mid-air and plummeted to the ground.
  • At a recreation of the Battle of Britain in August of 2000, Ted Girdler's Aero L-29 Delfin jet failed to pull up from a diving roll and smashed into the English Channel. The show resumed within two hours after they'd fished his body out of the sea.
  • In Mulhouse, France, in 1988, an Air France passenger plane did a fly-by, skimmed the top of some trees, crash landed, and caught fire, killing three of the 196 people on board, including a disabled boy who couldn't move to evacuate and a girl who couldn't undo her seat belt.

In the last decade, Britain has witnessed nine air show crashes. All of these—as well as all those others I listed, and the many others I didn't—were completely avoidable.

I'm not against all thrill-seeking, per se. I can understand the allure of parachuting out of a plane—though it's not something I'd do myself—and the risk there is only with the person who's decided to hurl themselves towards the ground from 12,500 feet. But air shows are tragedies waiting to happen, and the danger lies with many more people than the pilot alone.

"The government, in a joint decision with the UK Civil Aviation Authority, has banned all air shows with immediate effect," are the words I hope to hear in the wake of the Shoreham crash. But air show disasters will continue, because no government minister or department seems remotely bothered about doing anything to stop them. Instead of being condemned, they're actually endorsed by the armed services, including the RAF's Red Arrows.

The very obvious reality, however, is that these shows are the cause of human tragedies every single summer, and it really wouldn't take much to stop them from happening.

Follow Joshua on Twitter.

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