Warbird Safety in the Post-Reno 2011 Era


I was not there. But I felt the reverberations of that horrible impact from a thousand miles away. I feel it still. Jimmy Leeward’s accident at the 2011 Reno Air Races was the first time in over 50 years that a spectator had been killed at an air show or air race in the United States.

The accident will no doubt have long-term repercussions, but no one can say exactly what they might be. In time, the authorities and accident investigators will come up with a definitive cause and a thorough summary of the events of that day. My purpose in writing this article is not to second-guess the National Transportation Safety Board or to play amateur investigator. Although I did some accident investigation in the military, that was not my primary career field. So I want to discuss some things I do know about: flying airplanes, warbirds, air shows, the media, and sociology. They end up being very related disciplines, especially when a tragic event such as this happens.

Warbirds and air shows in general have a surprising public image problem…at least it’s surprising to us. You and I, as pilots, aircraft owners, mechanics, warbird aficionados, race fans, aviation photographers, or airplane lovers, understand what warbirds are all about. We get it. We attend air shows and fly in them. We know what’s involved when we see a nimble biplane happily cartwheeling its way across the sky. We can detect the nuances of an individual performer’s aerobatic routine from day to day. We know how hard it is to maintain a precise, multi-ship formation of lumbering bombers, or perform a complicated rejoin from a high-aspect angle. We know what Gs feel like and what kind of physical stamina it takes to counter them. We know what immense sacrifice, expense, and hard work are required to field a WWII fighter or trainer as a competitive racer at Reno. We know how little financial incentive there is to do so. We sweat and bleed and labor to restore historic airplanes and bring them back to life. We devote our lives to maintaining and flying vintage warbirds and helping the public understand the important roles they played in world history.

But we are a tiny minority in the world, and we often forget this. We are so immersed in what we do, and our circle of friends and associates is so small, that we don’t always realize how the rest of the world sees us. When something high-visibility happens — especially something that catches the eye of the TV media — we get to find out how little the public knows, and how terribly they misunderstand what we do. All you have to do is read a comment thread on any of the larger media outlets’ websites after an air show accident, and you begin to feel a sense of despair. How will these people ever understand? Why do they think we’re just a bunch of reckless idiots with more money than sense?

Of course, we try to fight the phenomenon of public ignorance every chance we get. Operators of vintage aircraft often display their aircraft at airport open houses and air shows. We give cockpit tours. We host veterans groups. We hold public hangar dances. We perform flyovers at public events and parades. We fly our airplanes in air shows. We write books. We publish beautiful, artistic photographs. We give talks and school presentations. We give interviews to the press.

And it’s not enough. It never is. We can educate and inspire the public until we’re blue in the face, but the next time a vintage aircraft plunges to the ground in a dramatic fireball, the talking heads on TV will undo our work with fifteen seconds of breathless hyperbole and shaky cell phone video. To understand why this is, we first must understand the prime directive of the press: to get ratings, period. A network must endeavor to gain as many viewers as possible, for that is the single metric that determines their success. Not clarity. Not sensitivity. Not accuracy. Ratings.

The media’s specific problems are easy to diagnose:

  • They have no accountability, because there are few serious repercussions if they screw up their reporting of dramatic events. There is no loss to their bottom line if they mess up the facts or misinterpret the events, because in twelve hours, they will have cycled to the next big story, and everyone will have forgotten how badly that particular story was presented.
  • They employ people whose knowledge of the world is “one inch deep, and 100 miles wide.” There are no aviation specialists simply sitting around television news studios, waiting in the wings to comment intelligently on a news-worthy aviation event. (I know that you have said to yourself, while watching the news, “Why couldn’t they have interviewed ME?”) News readers are handed stories to read, sometimes moments before their broadcasts. This news copy is written by people under extraordinary time constraints. They get their information from eyewitnesses, stringers or part-timers, on-scene reporters (who are often some of the most inexperienced ones), the internet, and even other media outlets. With only minutes to prepare, the simple facts get mangled. Names are wrong. Aircraft types are wrong. Circumstances are wrong or misunderstood. Bullet points are written without an understanding of what really happened. But it doesn’t matter to them; the video footage is dramatic. Perhaps there is fire and smoke. There is a wrecked flying machine on the ground. There are traumatized people to look at and interview. That is what brings in the viewers, not the facts or the context behind the events. It’s no wonder we watch the TV and seethe with frustration.
  • By the time the true experts are located and interviewed (often hours or days later), the majority of TV viewers have already tuned out, their opinions of those “dangerous air shows” and “crazy stunt pilots” having already been reaffirmed. They have seen what they wanted to see: 30 seconds of drama and horror. After repeated exposure, viewers are essentially “taught” by the media that danger lurks in the sky, that airplanes are tragedies waiting to happen, and that lunatics are flying over their heads in ancient airplanes. The media does not indoctrinate people in this way intentionally; they merely allow it to happen because they do not have time to care about it. They must move on to the next big story, whether it’s a political scandal, a murder, or a hurricane.

This cycle repeats itself on a continuous basis, throughout a viewer’s life. By the time the average child is a young adult, the only thing they know about “small airplanes” is that they crash, with tragic results. This opinion is solidified and strengthened through the influence of movies. Hollywood has even less incentive to present aviation in a realistic light, since their story lines are pure fiction to start with. It’s no wonder that the rate of new pilot trainees in the USA and elsewhere is down. With a marketing department like the TV media on the job, we don’t have a chance at overcoming the bad news with good news.

Or do we?

We could give up. We could retire our airplanes to museums and quietly close our hangar doors. We could decide that the only safe way to “fly” is by sitting in front of a computer flight simulator.

But that’s not the natural inclination of any passionate aviation soul. While we still have the means and the freedoms to fly vintage (or even non-vintage) airplanes, it is my fervent hope that airplane owners will now redouble their efforts to reach out and connect with the public, by whatever safe means they can do so. Museums must solicit new members. Aviation-related organizations must figure out new ways to motivate their members and get new ones…especially young ones. We must try to educate the public at every opportunity.

And, most of all, we must operate our airplanes in an increasingly safe and, dare I say, thoughtful way. Here are some examples of what I’m talking about:

  • Get really involved. Instead of simply flying your warbird to an air show static display and leaving the airplane unattended all day (and leaving for home the moment the airfield opens), maybe you could stick around and answer questions for a while. Give tours, if possible. Let people sit in the airplane. Tell them about the history of the airplane and its role in our military, if applicable. Make informative signs for display next to your airplane. Connect with the people who don’t know what they’re looking at, and explain it to them. Swallow your personal ego and make an effort to educate and inspire those you meet.
  • Give rides. When I was eight years old, I took a ride in both a Cherokee 140 and a Bell 47 helicopter on the same day. We had not been in the air for 30 seconds and I already knew what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Giving rides is perhaps the best way to turn people on to the majesty of flight, but make the experience a special one. Again, be thoughtful in the way you introduce your passenger to flying. Make it a gift they will cherish for life, not an ordeal they survive. The keywords are “low-stress, smooth, gentle, fun, and safe.” Steep turns, Gs, and rolls are fun for you, but they can turn a non-pilot into an airplane hater in a split-second.
  • Operate your airplane as if it’s the last one of its type on earth. I often see pilots with vast experience and admirable flying resumes jump into their airplanes without the benefit of a preflight inspection, and using no checklists. They start up and fly away as if they were simply driving their car up to the corner market. Flying is a more serious endeavor than that, regardless of the flight time in one’s logbook. Train constantly. Practice engine-out patterns and other emergency procedures regularly. Get thorough flight reviews from qualified instructors every year. Challenge yourself to fly to ATP standards, even if you’re not an ATP-rated pilot. Practice professionalism in everything you do. Crank your pilot skills up a notch; get new ratings and learn new things constantly. Attend seminars. Use checklists religiously.
  • Proper maintenance is not optional. If you cannot afford to restore and maintain an airplane properly, you need to sell it to someone who can. The vintage aircraft community, collectively, is counting on you to do this. Failure affects everyone.
  • Do not fly formation if you are not extensively trained by a qualified instructor. Formation flying is not an endeavor to take lightly. It is deadly serious, and you simply cannot teach yourself how to do it safely. In the USA, contact the Formation And Safety Training (FAST) organization, or one of its signatory organizations, such as NATA, RPA, CJAA, T-34s, Stearman Flight, etc., and take their training. Once you are checked out, stay current.
  • Get good training in the first place. Want a good, quick checkout in a high-performance warbird? It cannot be done. You cannot get a good checkout quickly. The jet warbird community, in particular, is plagued by a number of instructors who rush their students through rating courses in inexplicably-short periods of time…sometimes as short as two flights, plus a check ride. In my experience, the graduates of these courses know next to nothing about the airplanes they fly, and their confidence and proficiency levels show it. Some of these people say they only want the ratings for vanity purposes…so they can “add a line to their airman’s certificate.” This practice is questionable at best. (If a person has no intent or interest in regularly flying the airplane for which they are seeking a rating, then why do it? Is it an ego thing? Why not just take a demo flight instead?) My concern stems from the fact that some of these people actually do go on to regularly fly the aircraft, and many of these “one-day wonders” are often ill-equipped, to say the least. With airplanes, your motto ought to be: “Do it right, or don’t do it at all.”
  • Leave the air show flying to the trained air show performers. Just because your airplane is capable of high-performance maneuvers does not give you the right to perform them, especially low to the ground near unsuspecting members of the public. If you think your buddies will like you better because you are an aerial show-off, you need new friends. When I see someone flagrantly “shining their ass,” I will usually pull the pilot aside — respectfully and privately, of course — and discuss why I think their actions are a threat to us all. I encourage you to do the same. You’re not being a bad guy or a jerk; in the big picture, you are saving lives and protecting our warbird/vintage aircraft community. Always remember that there are those who can limit our flying freedoms with the stroke of a pen. I don’t want to give them the opportunity. Do you?
  • For God’s sake, don’t encourage someone to show off. There’s an old fighter pilot saying: “You cannot break the record for low flying. You can only tie it.” Which reminds me of another old fighter pilot saying: “You can’t impress people if you’re dead.” If you have chided another pilot for being too tame, you are wrong. (I have personally been called a derogatory name because I did not perform an aileron roll after pulling up at the end of the runway following a low approach. I smiled and nodded at the person, and decided that my decision was one of the best I’d ever made.) Childish influence and peer pressure have led more than one pilot to say, “I’ll show those guys!” and someday perform a maneuver for which he is not qualified. Never dare a pilot to do something. Pilot egos can be inflamed far too easily.

Regardless of any measures we take, accidents will happen. This is aviation, after all. So let’s talk about how we can gradually change the way the media reports aviation stories.

Get to know the media representatives in your area. I fly at an airport where there is a lot of recreational, warbird, and sport aviation activity. Every year, we actually invite our local TV personalities to a couple of our fly-ins and give them rides in our airplanes. (Gentle, straight-and-level rides, I might add.) We have developed a great relationship with them over the years, and I think it shows in the respectful, factual way they report on aviation events in our area. The more reporters who know, firsthand, what they are talking about, the better.

Here’s another idea: Encourage journalists to become pilots! They can produce human-interest TV segments about their own flight training. How perfect is that? And you can mentor them as they progress through their training.

Correct them. If nobody tells the media they made a mistake, they won’t know they made one. Call your local TV or radio station when they make significant mistakes. (Look up each of the studio numbers and put them in your phone’s address book so you can call right away when you hear something that needs to be corrected.) Ask to speak to the producer or the news department. Politely state that there was an error in the report, and ask for an on-air correction.

If you see errors in newspapers, magazines or web reports, write an email to the writer and the editor, coherently explaining what was wrong with the report and requesting a printed correction. If we do this enough, perhaps media standards will rise. At the very least, perhaps they will learn a thing or two about aviation. Getting the basic facts right should be the minimum level of performance.

Become a journalist yourself! Write articles for your local newspapers, or become an aviation subject-matter expert or consultant for a local TV network. Make yourself their “go-to” person when they need an on-air interview. Maybe you can become the John Nance of your local station.

Whether you know it yet or not, the warbird community is now under greater scrutiny than at any time in our lifetimes. It is imperative that we be proactive and professional in dealing with this fact. We must conduct ourselves with care, take every reasonable precaution, and not tolerate those in our ranks who undermine our efforts. You can do your part by vowing to always operate your airplane in a safe manner, maintain it well, and speak positively about aviation every chance you get. The future of warbirds in in our own hands.

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The International Council of Air Shows (ICAS) is a trade association dedicated to building and sustaining a vibrant air show industry to support its membership. To achieve this goal, ICAS demands its members operate their air show business at only the highest levels of safety, professionalism, and integrity.