The Comprehensive Air Show Emergency Response Plan: 28 Key Ingredients


The air show industry has established numerous programs and courses to help avoid air show accidents. The relatively low number of air show accidents each year suggests that these programs, and a broad-based, industry-wide commitment to air show safety, have been effective.

But, no matter how well these initiatives work, every air show has the potential for aircraft-related accidents and incidents. In addition, for every minor or major aircraft-related incident, industry research indicates that there may be as many as 47 non-aircraft-related accidents, including golf cart accidents, parking lot incidents, problems involving wind or thunderstorms, and the unavoidable and relatively frequent “trip and fall” accidents.

Many shows have found through experience that the development of a Comprehensive Air Show Emergency Response Plan (CASERP) is the most effective method of dealing with virtually any type of accident or incident. A strong CASERP provides clear direction on how to apply the show’s available resources to respond to any one of these incidents or accidents. In some cases, a well-developed and properly implemented CASERP can maximize the use of resources, minimize losses, and ensure your organization’s ability to deal with a wide variety of possible problems.

Conversely, when a CASERP is not used or is poorly implemented, losses can be much higher than necessary and your show could experience strong negative public reaction.

But developing a CASERP can be a difficult and time-consuming endeavor. To simplify that process, ICAS has prepared a list of some of the more important items that should be included in most air show emergency plans.

  1. Commit your organization to putting the CASERP into writing. Anything less formal will not serve the intended purpose in the event of an incident. And, further commit to ensuring the CASERP is updated on a regular basis. Too often, the hard work and clear thinking that originally went into a strong emergency plan is wasted when the plan becomes a paperweight gathering dust on the top shelf of a filing cabinet.
  1. Begin the process of developing your CASERP by looking at your airport’s emergency plan. Many of the issues that ought to be addressed in your plan are already covered in the airport’s emergency plan. So, draw on the expertise and experience of the people who helped generate the airport’s plan. Some experts suggest using the substance and format of the airport’s plan as the starting point for yours, when possible, adding air show-specific contingencies and direction that would not normally be included in the airport’s plan.
  1. Your plan should include answers to the very toughest questions that you and your colleagues can ask yourselves. Imagine and plan for otherwise unimaginable scenarios. Remember that this is not an exercise in tempting fate. It’s a contingency plan that may ultimately be judged on how thoroughly and effectively you challenge your organization to consider the widest variety of emergency scenarios.
  1. Be sure that your plan clearly identifies the roles of all major and minor players in the event of an accident. The CASERP should clarify the specific roles that police officers, crash/fire/rescue (CFR) personnel, physicians, nurses, paramedics, air bosses, announcers and other key personnel should play in the event of an accident. Like countless other things in emergency response planning, if this is done ahead of time, it becomes one less job to do in the chaos following an accident.
  1. Clearly identify the person or people in charge in the event of an accident. Most shows select a single person to manage implementation of their emergency plan. This is the “emergency response CEO,” the individual responsible for making decisions and allocating resources. In the event of an emergency, this will be the person running the response, the one to whom others look for leadership and direction.
  1. The plan should also designate a press spokesperson and the manner in which the show interfaces with the press in the event of an accident. So that the press does not receive conflicting or inaccurate information, most shows designate a single person for these duties and prohibit anybody else from talking to the press about any issue related to the accident. This portion of the CASERP should be particularly detailed. The post-accident environment is no place to be making policy decisions, least of all those that will impact a show’s interaction with the press.
  1. The CASERP should paint a clear picture of the incident/accident chain of command. It’s no coincidence that the military is so deeply committed to its chain of command. In the heat of battle – real or figurative – a well-established chain of command is especially effective at facilitating decisions.
  1. Your CASERP should not be limited to addressing events that happen during the air show waiver. Major accidents can happen as early as the arrival of the first static aircraft or as late as the departure of the last spectator. Your plan should also reflect the fact that many of the most common air show accidents and incidents occur as spectators are arriving at and leaving from the show each day.
  1. Your plan should acknowledge that it is significantly more likely that an accident or incident will occur behind the crowd line rather than in front of it. Though they are often dramatic, aircraft accidents at air shows are relatively infrequent. Your emergency response personnel are much more likely to be asked to assist with multiple minor injuries caused by an unexpected thunderstorm or an expectant mother who goes into labor or somebody who gets hit by a golf cart. As critical as it is that the CASERP address aircraft accidents, it must also address the mundane and much more common types of incidents and accidents that happen when a large number of people are gathered for an outdoor festival.
  1. In the event of an accident, some portion of your resources must be committed to keeping the crowd away from the accident scene. Does your plan address crowd control? Typically, shows use police officers or other uniformed personnel. In addition, your CASERP should include specific direction to your air show announcer on what to say and when to say it. Most shows ask the announcer to confirm that there has been an accident and assure the audience that professionals are dealing with it…all in a professional and calm tone of voice. Some shows ask all performers to go to an autograph tent so that spectators can be directed to that area. These are all decisions and direction that should be provided to the announcer ahead of time.
  1. Provide clear direction that keeps law enforcement from becoming an obstruction or distraction. In several cases during the last 40 years, law enforcement has inadvertently become part of the problem by getting in the way or being present at the accident scene in an unhelpful manner. Make sure your CASERP makes it clear that accident response is primarily the responsibility of CFR personnel and that it specifically outlines when and how law enforcement should be involved.
  1. Crash/fire/rescue vehicles and personnel should be positioned and in a sufficient state of readiness so that they can respond quickly to incidents on either side of the crowd line. Soon-to-be-released FAA guidance will require that CFR personnel be positioned and prepared to be planeside conducting an extraction of the pilot or extinguishing flames within 60 seconds of an accident. This can only be accomplished if careful consideration is given to the placement and preparedness of those personnel. Your plan should specify precisely where fire trucks, first aid tents and other emergency response personnel and services are located.
  1. Crash/fire/rescue personnel should be involved in every pilot briefing. At least one person from every CFR crew should know how to open the canopies of every pilot performing in the show. Additional emergency extraction information (fuel shut-off, master switch, lift points, etc.) should be provided to each CFR team/vehicle that might respond in the event of an incident. If the firefighter who got briefed on Friday is not there on Saturday, his replacement ought to be briefed.
  1. The safety and emergency response plans for accidents involving non-traditional air show performers should also be specified in your CASERP. From jet vehicles and monster trucks to climbing walls, midway rides and flight simulators, air shows are including more and more non-aircraft related performers and attractions. With each addition comes new emergency response challenges, some of which were not a concern with previous acts and attractions.
  1. There are a number of areas for potential fires at an air show; your CASERP should address all of them. Brush fires caused by over-heated catalytic converters of automobiles in the parking areas? Grease fires in the food preparation area of concession stands? Small pyro-generated fires that develop into large pyro-generated fires? None of these scenarios are hypothetical. All of them have happened at North American air shows during the last 20 years. Do you have the proper and sufficient quantities of equipment, extinguishing agents and vehicular access to deal with all of these scenarios? Are your CFR crews familiar with the idiosyncrasies of certain types of aircraft-related fires? For instance, do your CFR personnel recognize that they should not attempt to put out a stack fire on an aircraft engine that is still turning? All of these issues should be addressed in your emergency response plan.
  1. Your organization’s response to kidnappings, bomb scares and terrorist incidents should all be covered in your CASERP. In the event of a suspected kidnapping, for example, do you have the capability to prevent spectators from leaving your site? Local law enforcement officials can assist in the development of this portion of your CASERP.
  1. Details on how your organization will respond to an aircraft accident should be covered in the CASERP. You should address accidents both within and outside the aerobatic box, in front of the crowd and in the crowd, on airport property and off airport property, non-fatal and fatal, single fatalities and multiple fatalities, with and without property damage, with and without additional loss of life on the ground. Certain military aircraft have very dangerous hazardous chemicals on board. In the event of an accident, are your CFR personnel briefed on how to handle – or not handle – these hazardous materials?
  1. Make plans for the cancellation of your show. Under what circumstances will you definitely continue your show following an accident or incident? Don’t wait until after the accident to set those criteria; decide now while you can address the issue unemotionally. How will you let your audience know that the show has been cancelled? Cars were parked over several hours. Can your parking lot and access roads handle a mass exodus of your entire crowd within a much shorter period of time? What will be the show’s policy on refunds?
  1. The CASERP should also address a wide variety of weather contingencies. How will your organization respond to lightning ground strikes? In thunderstorm-prone areas of the South, organizers sometimes include specific direction in their CASERPs on what they will tell their audiences if storms move through the area. (For instance, “Go back to your cars and wait to hear the all-clear message on such and such AM radio station.”) Your CASERP should also discuss how to move aircraft in the event of thunderstorms or tornadoes. The owners of that priceless B-17 will not want their aircraft in harm’s way in the event of an imminent hail storm.
  1. Do you have enough doctors? Enough paramedics and nurses? One subject matter expert suggests that an air show should have one doctor for every 30,000 spectators. He suggests two paramedics or ALS nurses for every 10,000 spectators.
  1. Work with officials in your state to get a Disaster Mobile Assistance Team (D-MAT) committed to your show. Once committed, ensure that the D-MAT team becomes an integral part of your plan. D-MAT teams come complete with emergency room physicians, nurses and limited emergency room capabilities. Most states now have D-MAT teams and they will often agree to participate in your show at no cost to you to meet their own practice/exercise obligations.
  1. Your CASERP should provide specific direction on the type and amount of emergency supplies that should be available at your show: trauma kits, burn kits, pharmaceuticals, etc. In some cases, local medical supply companies will donate these materials in exchange for sponsorship recognition.
  1. People who require emergency services ought to be able to find them. Your CASERP should include direction on how aid stations are identified by spectators who need assistance: red crosses, over-sized balloons, large banners…whatever it takes.
  1. And, your emergency personnel should be able to quickly find people in need. Your plan should include a system for quickly identifying each part of the spectator area. Experts suggest that the entire ramp be divided into sectors and a map identifying each sector be distributed to all emergency personnel. This map doesn’t have to be any more complicated than overlaying a grid on an aerial photograph of the ramp area. When seconds count, it’s a lot easier to direct somebody to sector L-4 than to explain that the person in need of assistance is just behind the second french fry stand just south of the C-5 static, but not quite as far as the flight school booth.
  1. Your plan should also specify how many ambulances and/or helicopters should be available to transport patients to nearby hospitals or trauma centers. These numbers should reflect both expected and worstcase scenarios. If you can’t have the vehicles on site, at least specify where they will be drawn from in the case of a major accident.
  1. Plans for ensuring effective, dependable communications in the event of an accident should be a critical part of your CASERP. In the event of a major accident, cell networks will become busy as every person in the audience with a cell phone calls a friend or relative to tell them what they just witnessed. At that point, you won’t want your emergency response communications system to depend on cell phone line availability.
  1. Your show should set aside at least one afternoon each year to run a table top exercise in which different accident scenarios are considered, discussed and resolved. A typical table top exercise might explore two accident scenarios: a simple, typical type of low-level emergency, and a less likely, but high impact incident or accident. When they have completed these exercises, your whole team will be more knowledgeable and more comfortable with your emergency plan, and more likely to respond effectively in the event of an actual accident, no matter how much or little it resembles the accident that you discussed in your table top exercise.
  1. In addition to your table top exercise, your show should plan an emergency response drill on rehearsal day. Emergency response personnel should know that a drill will be conducted at some point in the rehearsal show, but not precisely when or where. Ideally, these drills will confirm that your plan can be executed properly and quickly in the event of a real emergency. More typically, the drills highlight areas of weakness that, because you ran the drill, can be corrected and improved prior to an actual emergency.

This is only a partial list of the topics and issues that should be addressed by your show’s Comprehensive Air Show Emergency Response Plan. The details of the document that you develop for your show will depend on your show site, airport facilities, the input of your airport manager and a dozen other considerations. Whatever the final product of your work, though, recognize that your CASERP represents the first and, potentially, most important step in dealing with a genuine emergency if and when it arises.

What to Do When the Media Starts Asking Post-Accident Questions

Like it or not, an accident at your air show is news. And, following an accident, you can expect to hear from news professionals. In most cases, how you work with those news professionals will have more impact on coverage of the accident than the accident itself.

Generally, ICAS encourages you to direct media inquiries on air show safety regulations and the history of air show safety directly to ICAS headquarters.

If that does not work in your specific circumstances, here are a few possible answers to some of the most likely post-accident questions. Your answers will depend on the specific circumstances of your accident, but it’s important to consider possible scenarios ahead of time…and that includes your likely answers to the press’s inquiries.

Q.        Why are there so many accidents at air shows?

        A.        Any fatal accident is a tragedy and this


      1. is no exception, but the fact is that air show accidents are relatively infrequent. Because they are often dramatic and are nearly always captured on videotape, the accidents receive widespread publicity. But, in fact, there are typically just three or four air show accidents per year in the United States and Canada.
      1. Q.

       Isn’t it just a matter of time before somebody from the audience is involved in an air show accident?

        1. A.        No. Because of the rules and regulations in place in the United States and Canada, it is highly unlikely that spectators will ever be involved in an air show aircraft accident. Since current regulations were put into effect in 1951, there has never been a spectator fatality in an air show aircraft accident in North America. That’s a safety record that is the envy of the entire motor sports industry
        1. Q.

           Wasn’t there an accident in Europe a few years back involving spectators?

          1. A.        The regulatory and safety environment in which air shows are held in the United States and Canada is completely different than Europe or any other part of the world. Because the rules in North America are so much stricter, that type of accident simply could not happen in the United States or Canada.
          1. Q.

      Wasn’t there an accident at an air race in the U.S. a few years ago?

            1. A.        Air races are conducted under a completely different set of rules and guidance as compared to air shows. And the nature of the flying at air races is fundamentally different than the flying at air shows. There has not been a spectator fatality at a North American air show in more than 65 years.
            1. Q.

               What safeguards are in place to protect spectators?

              1. A.        Spectator safety at air shows depend


            1. on four elements of a very effective safety program.

          First, every pilot performing aerobatics at a U.S. or Canadian air show must be evaluated each year by an experienced, certified aerobatics evaluator.

          Second, air show performers — both civilian and military — are prohibited from performing aerobatic maneuvers that direct the energy of their aircraft toward the area in which spectators are sitting.

          Third, the industry and regulatory authorities strictly enforce minimum set-back distances that were developed to ensure that, in the event of an accident, pieces of the aircraft will not end up in the spectator area.

          Fourth and finally, there is a three-dimensional, invisible aerobatic box in which all aerobatics must be flown. Regulations prohibit anybody but necessary personnel from being in that box. If there is a road located within that box, for example, the road must be closed during the air show. If an office building is within the box, then the building must be vacated during the show.

          Q.        Shouldn’t somebody do something to stop these air show pilots from killing themselves?

          A.        Accidents happen in car racing. Accidents happen in thoroughbred horse racing. Accidents happen in high school football games. And accidents happen in the air show business. There are safeguards in place to ensure that air show pilots are qualified and experienced, but, despite these rules and the close attention paid to safety issues, accidents sometimes happen. The pilots who perform at air shows understand the inherent risks of air show flying. They do everything they can to minimize that danger.

          Q.        Why did the crash/fire/rescue personnel take so long to respond?

          A.        (The answer to this question will, of course, depend on whether or not the CFR personnel did take a long time to respond, but here’s one answer that assumes they responded promptly.) In an accident situation like the one we had today, it’s not unusual for people to perceive the response time as being longer than it actually was. But, based on our initial investigation, it appears that the emergency response was timely and professional.

          Q.        Was there anything that show organizers could have done differently to avoid this accident?

          A.        (The answer to this question will also vary based on the specific circumstances of the accident, but, assuming that the system played no part in the accident, here’s one possible response.) Each year, with or without an accident, we review our safety procedures and our emergency response plan and make adjustments, additions and changes. And, following this accident, we will go through that process again. But, based on what we know right now, we wouldn’t change a thing in our safety or emergency response plans. Our systems and our people appear to have performed exactly as they were supposed to perform.

          Q.        Why did show organizers decide to continue the show? Or why did show organizers decide to cancel the rest of the show?

          A.        Show management met immediately following the accident and, as part of a pre-arranged process, we discussed the relative advantages and disadvantages of continuing the show. After close consultation with regulatory officials and the performers, we made a decision to go ahead with (or cancel) the remainder of the show. Individual decisions on whether or not to perform were left with the individual pilots, along with the show management’s assurances that we recognized this as a highly personal and emotional decision that each performer should make on his or her own.

          Q.        How many air show accidents are there each year?

          A.        As you might expect, this varies considerably. Each year, there are approximately 300 air shows in the United States and Canada. Experts estimate that, at those 300 shows, air show pilots fly 8,000-10,000 individual performances. Of those, a very, very small number experience any type of problem. In some years, the industry has had one or two accidents. In other years, there might be three, four or five. In the last ten years, the North American air show industry has had only one year in which we had more than five accidents.

          Q.        What government organization is responsible for air show regulation?

          A.        The Federal Aviation Administration (or Transport Canada) develops and enforces air show regulations in the United States (or Canada). The FAA (or Transport Canada) had representatives on-site at the show today.

          Q.        Will you hold the show again next year?

          A.        It’s too early to answer that question. Show management will be meeting on a number of issues during the coming days and weeks. Among the issues we will discuss will be the future of the show.

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          John Cudahy
          John Cudahy, ICAS President. | John Cudahy first joined ICAS as the organization's president in June of 1997. He has worked his entire 36-year professional career in association management, including more than two decades as the chief executive officer of ICAS. A graduate of the University of Virginia, Cudahy holds a private pilot certificate and is married with two adult children.