Insufficient Margins: The Air Show Industry’s Most Common and Most Avoidable Killer


In June of 1997, Jack Rosamond was killed while performing a reverse half Cuban eight in an F-86 Sabre at Air Show Colorado in Bloomfield, Colorado when he impacted the ground in a nose-low attitude.  

In May of 1998, Miles Merritt was killed while performing a tumbling maneuver in his Sukhoi Su-29 at an air show in Manassas, Virginia; he finished the maneuver without enough altitude to recover and “pancaked” into the ground.  

Air Force Major Brison Phillips was performing a repositioning Split S maneuver in an F-16 at an air show in Kingsville, Texas in March of 2000 when he hit the ground and was killed on impact.   

Jim LeRoy was performing multiple snap rolls on a downline at the Dayton Air Show in July, 2007 when his aircraft impacted the ground in a flat attitude; he was killed on impact.  

Bryan Jensen was flying at an air show in Kansas City in the summer of 2011 when he failed to recover from a tumbling maneuver in his Pitts Model 12 biplane. He was killed when the aircraft hit the ground in a nose down attitude.  

Rookie and veteran. Propeller and jet. Military and civilian. Failure to build sufficient margins into individual maneuvers has been the most common contributing factor in fatal air show accidents for the entire 100-year history of air shows. We have listed five here. If space allowed, we could list another 55. 

And the opposite is true. The most professional air show pilots…the performers that everybody agrees are least likely to be involved in an accident are those that have built margins into every element of their air show performances.  

And those margins do not lessen the entertainment value of the pilots’ performances AT ALL. In fact, other than a very small number of his fellow performers, nobody at the air show will even know that the pilot has built these margins into his sequence. 

The concept is as simple as it is effective. Build some slop into the design of your sequence. Give yourself some extra altitude or additional speed or available G in every maneuver in your sequence so that, if things don’t go precisely as you practiced, you’ll have some margin for error.  

A pilot – even a great pilot – who does not build these margins into his sequence will eventually find that he needs them. And built-in margins will address a multitude of mistakes by an inexperienced pilot or a pilot who briefly loses focus or a pilot who has not practiced as much as he would like or a pilot that experiences some kind of unanticipated in-cockpit emergency that might otherwise have proven fatal. 

For the air show performer working to identify hazards and mitigate risk, this is a no-brainer. With some very small modifications to your maneuver sequence and a bit more discipline during your performance, you can significantly reduce the risk of flying low level aerobatics in the air show environment.

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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.