It’s long been a truism in the air show community that risk increases with the number of participants involved in any given air show act. Generally, an act with a single solo performer has less risk than a team of two. And a team of two has less risk than a team of four.
Recently, using simple analysis of air show accidents during the last 20 years, ICAS has documented that effect and put a percentage to it. And it is not limited to formation teams. Statistics suggest that any type of additional participant(s) increases risk. All other things being equal, a solo performer has less risk than that same solo performer participating in a “race” against a jet truck. And two warbird pilots performing race track-type circuits in the aerobatic box have less risk than four warbird pilots flying in the same type of race track-type circuits.
A random sample of 50 North American air shows (big and small, civilian and military, U.S. and Canadian) tells us that 26% of scheduled acts this year will involve more than a single, solo performer. But accidents (fatal and non-fatal, air shows and air show practice, but not cross-country trips or air racing) involving acts with more than a single, solo performer make up 44% of all accidents and 47% of fatal accidents since 1997. Put another way, accidents involving more than a single, solo performer occur 80% more frequently than we would expect if solo acts and non-solo acts experienced fatal accidents at the same rate.
An accident-by-accident assessment reveals that these non-solo accidents are not limited to mid-air collisions between aircraft flying formation together. Indeed, any act in which a pilot is asked to divert his/her attention from the immediate focus of flying low level aerobatics in the air show environment by himself/herself seems to increase risk. In addition to traditional formation aerobatics, these other types of multi-component air show acts have had accidents and/or incidents during the last two decades: wingwalking; multi-warbird racetrack-type flying; multiple aircraft landing or taking off from the same runway at the same time; car-to-plane transfers; mock dogfights; squirrel cage-type acts; plane-to-helicopter transfers; and jet truck vs. airplane mock races.
Multiple participants were not often identified as a causal factor. And, using the information we have available to us, it’s difficult to prove that multiple participants were even a contributing factor, but the statistics suggest that there is some correlation. And it makes sense, particularly if the multiple-participant activity is not something that the participants have practiced frequently.
Does this mean that the air show industry should eliminate or sharply reduce acts where multiple participants are involved? No. These are among our industry’s most interesting and popular performances and thousands of these types of acts are flown every year without incident.
However, it is helpful for all involved to understand that hazards associated with these kinds of acts are higher, more numerous (as a percentage) and more difficult to control. This additional risk can be mitigated with practice, meticulous planning, thorough briefing, and continual awareness that, all other things being equal, additional variables generate additional hazards. But performers should be wary of increasing risk casually or without a thoughtful assessment of tactics for mitigating that risk. And event organizers should be equally careful about asking performers to do something — especially something impromptu or unplanned — that might be more dangerous than is immediately apparent.