During the last several years and despite a sharp spike in 2011, the average number of air show accidents each year has been dropping. In the 17-season period from 1991 to 2007, the North American air show industry suffered an average of 3.9 fatal accidents per year. For the four-year period from 2004 to 2007, our business had an average of 4.25 fatal accidents per year. In the four-year period from 2008 to 2011, even with five fatalities in 2011, the average number of fatal accidents has been 1.5 per year. But, as the new season begins in earnest, ICAS wanted to provide you with some air show accident statistics that allow you to see a slightly bigger picture. The trend is down during the last four years and that’s a very good thing, but it’s still useful for all of us to be familiar with some of the macro trends during the last decade and a half.
In the 15 years since 1997, the U.S./Canadian air show community has experienced 67 air show accidents. Of those 67 accidents…
- 51 (85.0%) have included fatalities (16/15% were non-fatal);
- 45 (67.2%) occurred at air shows (22/32.8% happened during practice sessions);
- 54 (80.6%) involved civilian aircraft (13/19.4% involved military aircraft); and
- 52 (77.7%) involved aircraft that were performing aerobatics at the time of the accident (15/22.3% were NOT performing aerobatics at the time of the accident).
There were 61 different pilots involved in 52 accidents – fatal and non-fatal — that occurred while the aircraft were performing aerobatics. Of those 61 pilots, 45 were civilians (16 were military personnel). Of that group of civilians, at the time of their accident, six held an 800-foot Statement of Aerobatic Competency (SAC) card; six held a 500-foot SAC card; twelve held a 250-foot SAC card; and 21 held a surface-level SAC Card. Of the 21 who held a surface card, seven had held that card for less than three years.
Looking just at fatal civilian accidents that occurred while the aircraft was performing aerobatics, five of the pilots held an 800-foot SAC card; six held a 500-foot SAC card; eleven held a 250 card, and 17 held a surface card. Of the 17 fatal accidents involving civilian pilots with surface level SAC cards, seven of the fatalities involved pilots who had held their surface card for less than three years. Of the ten who had held surface cards for more than three years, six had been killed in three mid-air collisions: Randy Drake and Sonny Lovelace in April, 1998; Montaine Mallet and Daniel Heligoin in May, 2000; and Jimmy Franklin and Bobby Younkin in July, 2005.
To give these statistics some context, there are currently 15 pilots with 800-foot SAC cards out of a total of 314 SAC card holders. These numbers vary from year to year, and the comparison is not precisely relevant, but it is useful to observe that five fatal accidents among 800-foot card holders represents 12.8 percent of all fatal aerobatic accidents during that 15 year period and 800-foot SAC pilots represent 4.8 percent of the total number of current SAC card holders. The six fatal accidents among 500-foot SAC card holders represents 15.4 percent of all fatal aerobatic accidents during the last 15 years while 500-foot card holders represent 23.6 percent of all SAC card holders. Although the eleven accidents among 250-foot card holders represents 28.2 percent of all fatal aerobatic accidents in the last 15 years, current 250-foot card holders are 18.5 percent of all SAC card holders. And the 17 fatal accidents among surface card holders represent 43.6 percent of all fatal aerobatic accidents from 1997 through 2011, but surface level card holders represent 53.2 percent of all current SAC card holders.
Although the precise cause of an accident — particularly a practice accident — is not always possible to determine, there are several recurring types of accidents. During the 15-year period since 1997, mid-air collisions were the most common cause of air show fatalities (bearing in mind, of course, that a single mid-air accident typically resulted in two deaths), followed by low-level gyroscopic maneuvers that went awry, and mechanical failures of different sorts. Accidents that occurred immediately following a series of snap rolls on a down line, accidents involving Split S or reverse half Cuban maneuvers, and accidents blamed on insufficient speed at the top of a loop or vertical maneuver were the next most common causes of accidents.
The accidents discussed in this article do not include cross country accidents or air race accidents.