Hazards Behind the Crowd Line: How Safe is Your Air Show?


We talk a lot in the air show industry about safety being at the forefront of everything we do.  But statistics show that we aren’t always walking the walk. For pilots, 2008 was one of the safest in recent years and we remain hopeful for the remainder of 2009 as the ICAS and the entire air show industry continues its initiative to change the culture of air show safety.

On the spectator side of the fence, however, it’s a different story. Slips, trips, falls, bumps, bruises, scrapes, cuts, gouges, scratches, dehydration, sun burns, and a host of ouches and other pains continue to take their toll on our fans. It’s true that no matter how hard we try to prevent them, accidents are going to happen. But are we trying hard enough? Some shows are and they say the results prove that the right kind of planning and attention to detail can make a difference.

Since most of the injuries sustained at air shows are minor, the majority are treated in first aid tents and never reported. They only show up in a data base when insurance claims are submitted, so the true numbers of these kinds of accidents aren’t available. Data that is available from the insurance industry, however, does give us a good idea of what is happening across the industry and the numbers are troubling. More than 30 percent of insurance claims that are filed each year come from spectators tripping and falling, resulting in everything from minor scrapes to broken bones.

“Too many shows consider their emergency plan to be their safety plan when they are actually two different things,” said Susan Amey of Insurance Technologies & Programs.

The chief difference between the two is that an emergency plan is reactive while a safety plan is proactive. “A safety plan anticipates problems and identifies solutions before those problems can happen,” she said. In addition to a safety plan, Amey advocates creating a safety position within an air show organization, keeping the function separate from the emergency response function.

Amey believes the best person for such a position is an insurance claims agent because they understand hazards and hazard protection better than most. Responsibility for safety, however, cannot rest with just one person or even one committee. Everyone who is involved with the show needs to take ownership of safety for their specific area.

At the Quad City Air Show in Davenport, Iowa, for example, event organizers begin their final preparation for the show with a safety meeting. “Before we set up, we have a safety meeting with our field and grounds people, and with our operations people to discuss where we put things and how we will operate to keep things safe,” said Ken Hopper, the show’s founder and president. Over the years, he says, they have made several changes to improve safety, including doing more to separate people and props. They have also shifted the location of their concessionaires to improve traffic flow and reduce tripping hazards.

“Anything that looks like a tripping hazard from tent stakes to tie-down ropes is either fenced off or has an orange cone over it,” said Hopper. He said they have also added plane captains to stand in front of each static aircraft which has changed the way people walk around the display aircraft and has reduced the chance for accidents.

At the California International Air Show in Salinas, their safety plan is included in the emergency plan developed by their fire department, but treats safety as a separate issue. “We try to think of everything we can that might be a hazard, identify it in our plan, and develop ways to reduce or eliminate the hazards,” said Joe Gunter, Director of Security for the Salinas show. He said his team is on the field three days ahead of the show to look for hazards and correct them as the setup takes place.

Gunter said they make good use of their police and fire personnel who support the show as they become extra eyes and ears when it comes to safety issues. “We have incorporated our police explorer post to help patrol our flight line, we use local volunteers from the Transportation Security Administration, and we strategically place our military recruiting booths on our ramp which have become a great resource for us,” he said.

Like most other shows, many of the safety measures taken at Salinas have been the result of lessons learned from previous shows. “In the past, we had problems with airplanes starting up and blasting our spectators,” Gunter said. He noted they have also greatly reduced the number of flight line passes to minimize the number of people who can be near the airplanes while they are starting and moving. “We used to give out somewhere around 300 flight-line passes each year and it was getting out of control, but now we only have about 20, and this has eliminated a lot of heartburn,” Gunter said.

At the KC Aviation Expo in Kansas City, the safety plan is contained in the show’s operational plan. “With this plan, we are able to teach all our volunteers the same basic information, such as there will be no moving aircraft in our crowds. No airplane on static display can start its engine while on display and — if they need to move — we push them out. We don’t allow crowds near our hot pit area during the show either,” said Ray Olsen, who is the show’s safety director.

The biggest problem faced by the KC event is people overheating. “People don’t drink as much as they should at events like this, so we have water stations around and also offer water and ice for people waiting for busses to take them back to their cars,” said Olsen. With the emphasis on water throughout the day, he said they are seeing fewer people with heat-related problems.

Another show that takes spectator safety seriously is the Oregon International Air Show in Hillsboro. Their mantra is “Safety From the Ground Up.” They have taken their safety protocols and procedures and turned them into a formalized safety manual. “We felt it imperative to formalize our safety plan,” said the show’s safety team leader, Cindy Bolek. “Our goal is to ensure consistency in our approach to safety so our new volunteers as well as our 20-year veterans are doing the same thing and doing it right.”

The safety manual is divided into different categories such as ground operations, concessions, etc., and sets safety priorities for each activity. They then formalized their training process and review the plan annually. “Everyone knows what to do, what to look for, and how to respond to any situation,” Bolek said.

When the safety manual was developed for the Hillsboro show, Bolek said they sat down with representatives from police, fire and a cadre of people with an aviation background to take what she termed a “360 degree look” at the show. “If you can predict it, you can prevent it,” she said. The team included vice presidents from the board who are responsible for specific activities to get their input. Then, during the show, they all keep their eyes open, take a lot of notes and, if necessary, make adjustments during the show.

The second major source of air show insurance claims is damage to aircraft, caused mostly by airplanes being taxied, under power, from hard surfaces onto soft surfaces, resulting in prop strikes. “Often, we find that volunteers aren’t properly trained when they are in charge of parking airplanes and don’t understand the hazards. While the pilot is ultimately responsible for the operation of his aircraft, he assumes the person directing him to parking knows what he is doing,” said Amey. Unfortunately, the pilot finds out too late that the assumption was wrong.

At the air show in Tucumcari, New Mexico, they have a simple solution to this problem that is used by a lot of other shows as well. “When planes come in for static display or simply to see the show, we shut them down on the hard surface taxiway before bringing them onto the ramp or onto grass. By making sure the prop is stopped, we protect the airplane as well as our people,” said show director Bob McClelland.

The Prairie Air Show in Peoria, Illinois is another that uses a formal safety plan. “We call it, ‘Safety Inside the Fences,’” says show director Brett Krause. It addresses aircraft movement, vehicle movement and people movement, focusing on the obvious hazards associated with each.

Krause acknowledges that his show has had its share of trips and falls over the years and said they have learned from these incidents and made changes. He recalled one in particular where a lady was walking through an area covered with tall grass, stepped into a groundhog hole and sprained her ankle. “From that point on, we have worked with our airport authority to rid the area of groundhogs. We also mow the grass several times prior to the show which helps us better see hazards. And we bring in a roller and compact the area prior to the show to make it safer to walk,” Krause said.

Another air show activity that often turns into a major headache is the use and misuse of golf carts. “In 2001, we had four golf cart accidents,” says Krause. “We had three cars hit by carts and one young man was run over and received a broken leg. We instituted a safety program dealing with our carts and we haven’t had an incident since.”

For Krause and the Prairie Air Show, the safety program requires every operator of a golf cart to participate in a safety class every year prior to the show and receive a safety certificate. Only with the certificate can they be issued keys. And that includes Krause.

Krause said there was a time when they were using 60 carts at their show, which amounted to one for every five volunteers. “That’s nuts,” he said. His show has cut that number in half and every year they look for ways to reduce those numbers even further. Additionally, each cart is labeled with the name of the volunteer who checked it out so there can be no doubt who is responsible for which cart.

At the Kansas City show, they have a cart manager who assigns carts only to people with training. But Ray Olsen points out that the problem isn’t always with the show volunteers. “Vendor drivers are the ones we have to watch most carefully. They are often in a hurry to get supplies to their booths and don’t always watch out like they should. As a result, we changed our layout to provide vendors a right of way that is separated from the crowd,” said Olsen.

Safety can be intrusive, but sometimes that’s good. At Salinas, they have signs showing a list of prohibited articles that can’t be brought onto the field. The list includes such obvious things as bottles of alcohol, and weapons, or anything else that would cause difficulties with others. “We look in backpacks, we courteously confiscate things and people have come to learn what they can and can’t bring onto the field, so we don’t get nearly the number of items we used to get,” said Gunter. He said this intrusive aspect of safety also turns some people away who would otherwise want to bring contraband into the show, which is also good.

Everyone agrees that smoking and av gas don’t go together, but smoking on an air show ramp is always going to happen. Some shows simply require smokers to go outside the gate if they wish to smoke. Other shows have learned that the best way to control smoking problems is to have designated smoking areas conveniently located around the ramp. This avoids the problem of having to chase a smoker out from under the wing of a B-17 that’s dripping fuel on the tarmac.

Because most injuries sustained by spectators at air shows are relatively minor…scrapes, small cuts, etc., they mostly go unrecorded, but Susan Amy encourages shows to start collecting the information. “For your own protection, you should require anyone who gets first aid to fill out a form acknowledging the treatment and also acknowledging whether they want follow-up treatment or refuse additional treatment. This can be a big help if someone sues you later,” she said.

When it comes to air show safety, Amey says common sense should prevail. Keep hands and feet out of moving machinery. Don’t use a table or a chair for a ladder. Mark the obvious tripping and slipping hazards. And keep a close eye on your crowd so individuals don’t get out of control. No matter how often the air show announcer warns against the dangers of sun burn or dehydration, there will always be people who don’t listen, so make sure water is available.

You can never have enough safety observers, so make everyone on your committee a safety observer. Put yourself in the shoes of your spectator when looking for potential safety hazards, and don’t forget to look at the world through the eyes of the kids. They have a way of finding problems quicker than adults.

A lot of shows worry about whether they have enough first aid tents, enough water for everyone, and have taken enough steps to protect spectators. One of the best management tools is a series of tabletop exercises to anticipate what can happen and develop an appropriate response. Think of what people are going to do that you don’t expect. As Susan Amey put it, “If it looks wrong, it probably is.”

Finally, when your show is over, conduct a debrief and focus part of the time on safety issues so corrections can be made the following year.

Bonus: Seven Safety Habits of Highly Effective Air Shows

  • Make sure that all of your volunteers understand that they are encouraged and empowered to help identify and eliminate safety hazards.
  • Ensure that all tents, generators, air conditioning units and other heavy equipment have been tied down securely enough to withstand violent winds…even if you don’t anticipate violent winds.
  • Eliminate, fence off or clearly identify all possible tripping hazards, including tent stakes, electrical cords, tie down ropes and gopher holes.
  • Minimize the number of golf carts used by your show. Enforce a strict “18 and over” age limitation on golf cart drivers. And require anybody using a golf cart to receive a safety brief and sign an agreement that requires them to operate the vehicle according to strict limitations.
  • Require that anybody involved with moving or positioning aircraft has the proper training and/or experience to ensure that it is done safely and properly.
  • Ensure that spectators are not permitted in an area with props turning unless that area is cleared of spectators prior to engines starting.
  • Plan and conduct a comprehensive safety debrief at the conclusion of your show to identify safety hazards and recommend changes to eliminate them at your next show.

Sidebar #2: Case History: Cleveland National Air Show

During most of the last 15 years, management of the Cleveland National Air Show has kept very close records of spectators that request first aid treatment. Their records paint an interesting portrait of the types and frequency of issues that air show event organizers can expect to face.

On average, Cleveland finds that one-quarter of one percent of all spectators request first aid assistance of some sort. In an average year at the Cleveland show, less than one-one hundredth of all attendees experience medical or first aid problems that require transport to a local hospital. So, as an example, with a crowd of 50,000, it has been Cleveland’s experience that approximately 125 people will pay a visit to one of the show’s first aid tents. And with the same crowd of 50,000, fewer than five will be transported to a local hospital. Although there is some variance from year to year, the averages have been remarkably consistent throughout the time that the Cleveland event organizers have tracked the information.

Cleveland also tracks the principal symptom of each person that visits one of their first aid tents. The most frequent problems are headaches, minor cuts and sunburn.  As you might expect, sunburn complaints increase on sunny weekends.

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.