Don’t Do Nuthin’ Dumb: Risk Identification and Mitigation in the Air Show Environment


As any lawyer will tell you, the only way to produce a totally safe air show is not to produce one at all. Fortunately for air show fans, we tend to ignore such sage advice and do the next best thing. We take steps to identify, minimize and mitigate the risks so fans can have a great experience without exposing themselves to undue harm.

Airport ramps, by design, are not expected to accommodate large volumes of people. They are designed to move airplanes around safely. Mix in a bunch of people who have little or no experience at airports and a situation is created that is rife with potential for all sorts of mayhem.

There are no reliable statistics that tell us how we are doing in protecting our fans because shows seldom track injuries. Air shows typically have first-aid centers that are busy with the things one would expect…bumps, bruises, sprains and abrasions from slips, trips and falls. And if the weather is hot, dehydration is a problem…despite the best efforts of every air show announcer reminding fans to drink plenty of fluids.

Insurance underwriter Susan Amey says the majority of recent insurance payouts have been related to slips, trips and falls….. and golf carts. “There sometimes seems to be a lack of attention paid to the safe operation of golf carts. A number of shows are comfortable letting untrained people operate them and we’ve had instances of carts hitting people or running into equipment,” she said.

While most injuries associated with shows are minor, Amey advises first-aid providers to keep an accurate log of each person coming in for aid, the type of care given, and a signed acknowledgment of the treatment. “This is increasingly important because an insurance claim can come in several months after a show and there is often no record of what happened. An attorney can call on behalf of a client and no one connected to the show knows anything about it. This puts shows at a real disadvantage,” she said.

And injuries aren’t restricted to fans. Amey noted that there has been a recent spike in volunteer injuries. “We’ve seen instances where someone pulls out a pocket knife to cut a rope and ends up cutting himself or the person he is working with. Other problems include sprains from stepping in holes, falling off golf carts, and similar injuries resulting from simply not paying attention,” she said.

Additionally, she encourages shows to verify that all contractors are licensed and meet all local and state requirements. This includes everyone from the pyro contractor to the carnival rides. “Be sure to check with police and fire departments well in advance to understand their requirements. And get a copy of a current certificate of insurance from everyone you are doing business with and look for liability coverage that would include their people, their equipment and their vehicles,” she said.

Developing a solid safety culture among volunteers can be a significant challenge. At the Oregon International Air Show, Executive Director Bill Braack says every one of their volunteers is empowered to stop an unsafe activity anywhere during the show.

“We brief our volunteers to know that everyone is a safety official from top to bottom. If they see something unsafe, we expect them to speak up,” he said. The show has a formal safety structure that supports the volunteers, starting with a vice president whose only responsibility is safety. The vice president is backed by a committee of volunteers who bring considerable outside experience with them. “Their sole focus is to look for hazards that can harm our guests and our volunteers. They go to work well ahead of the show to identify and mitigate hazards and are on the field all weekend,” he said.

The show uses a comprehensive safety manual that is handed out to every volunteer. When a volunteer signs on to work on the show, he or she signs a statement acknowledging they have received and read the manual. “We have four training sessions with our volunteers prior to the show to go over the manual. Every volunteer is required to attend whether they have experience with the show or not,” Braack said.

While four sessions may seem redundant, Braack notes that many volunteers have no airport or aviation experience, so the safety sessions address everything from equipment operation to environmental issues. “We want them to understand that we are mixing 65,000 people with airplanes and other unfamiliar equipment and hardware.”

Learning from their mistakes is a key element of their safety culture. “A recent forklift issue taught us that we need training for anyone operating a forklift,” Braack said. Now, anyone authorized to operate a forklift is sent to a training school at the air show’s expense.

Every year, Braack’s team does a new airfield risk assessment because circumstances at the airport change from year to year. “Our airport is a dynamic facility with a number of business operations that change what they do and where they do it. Each year, we have to take those changes into account to ensure a safe show,” Braack said.

Central to the Oregon safety program are daily debriefs after each day’s show. “We don’t spend our time patting ourselves on the back at these debriefs. There is time for that later. We focus on what we need to improve before the start of the next day’s show, then go do it,” he said. The debriefs include board members, emergency responders, law enforcement, the air boss and narrator.

Aviation event planner and manager Mike McCabe agrees with the concept of what he calls a “safety czar.” His firm produces both large and medium shows across the country each year. He says the buck can’t stop with one person at the top. “The show’s entire leadership team should walk the show site together before the show. This should include committee chairs, as well as the airport manager, so everyone understands the big picture. There are tiedowns, light carts, wiring, culverts and a lot of other potential hazards that everyone needs to understand and be prepared to deal with,” he says.

Most risks will become immediately apparent and can be resolved with a healthy dose of common sense, but McCabe cautions not to just look for the obvious. “A close inspection is essential because you don’t want your fans to discover a hazard on their own. The last thing you want is for someone to accidentally tear down the glide slope antenna,” he said.

For McCabe, staying in control of vendors is vital to safety. “You want tight control of where your vendors go, and what they are selling, so their wares don’t become a nuisance or a hazard. You need specific criteria for space utilization, open cooking and the like. You shouldn’t allow balloons or kites that can get away. People sometimes do dumb things, so you have to remain vigilant,” he said.

McCabe advocates contractual language – with vendors and anyone else doing business with the air show – that will reserve the show’s right to make changes due to safety when warranted. “Shows should ask vendors for a full and complete description ahead of time of what they want to do at your show. This isn’t rocket science. It’s risk mitigation. Whether it’s a small country show or a major event, the issues are common,” he said.

Using only experienced and trained marshalers to move airplanes around is essential, according to McCabe. “Most shows have a large volunteer corps, and volunteers often see marshaling as a plum assignment. Everyone thinks they can do it and we clearly need to cultivate the next generation of volunteers. But they must be trained, and anyone new to the task should work with experienced people before being promoted to the next level,” he said.

Growing in importance among shows is the emphasis on security, which, McCabe says, goes hand in hand with safety. Shows should provide volunteers with visible credentials that are color coded so they will know that only authorized people will be allowed into certain areas. “Not every volunteer needs access to every area,” he said.

Fuel and smoke oil are recognized safety issues, not only in the proper handling of the material, but in reducing stress on the pilot. “I had a show where they used the prior year’s quantities when ordering, only to hire performers who required far more than was available. On its face, that doesn’t seem like a safety problem, but it sent the organizers scrambling at the last minute, and left pilots wondering if they would get what they needed to fly. Pilots should be spared this added stress before they fly,” McCabe said.

Air boss Jim Gibson stressed the necessity of allowing sufficient time for pilots to prepare for their performances. “Shows need to schedule enough time between the safety briefing and the first performance so pilots have time to get their game face on, think about what they are going to do, and focus their attention on the task at hand,” he said.

Gibson added that time should be allotted for pilots to meet with the Crash, Fire and Rescue (CFR) people to discuss emergency extraction procedures and any other matters linked to the pilot’s safety. “This consumes a lot of time; but it must be done every day since rescue crews often change over the weekend and the crews a pilot briefs on Saturday may not be the ones who are there on Sunday.”

Common at many air shows these days is an unscheduled emergency drill to test the readiness of CFR teams. Such drills are usually conducted on rehearsal day so they don’t disrupt the flow of a show, but Gibson warns never to use a performer airplane for such drills. He recounts a show where they used a golf cart driven by the show director and the CFR people took the drill seriously. They opened up with their water, hosing down not only the cart, but the director as well. “That could just as easily have been a performer airplane and I’m not willing to take that risk. Removing the airplane from such drills removes one more thing that can go wrong and disrupt the show,” he said.

Air boss Ralph Royce adheres to several hard and fast principles when it comes to doing his job safely. First and foremost, if a pilot isn’t briefed, the pilot doesn’t fly. “Briefings are the underpinning of safe air shows and that makes it a top priority. And lack of a safety briefing puts pilots outside the parameters of the waiver,” he says.

But Royce believes briefings should extend beyond the waiver time. “Shows offer a variety of sponsor and media rides and rarely are there briefings to cover these rides. Riders ought to be briefed on what will occur, and on how to get out if there is a problem. The aircraft owners should establish minimum altitudes if they intend to do aerobatics, and show organizers need to know what the pilots intend to do and where they go,” he said.
One safety initiative that is fast becoming an invaluable air show staple is the mandate for pilots to provide emergency extraction documents to a show prior to flying. Royce is pleased to see more and more pilots providing this information, but he says compliance is far from 100 percent. “It is the responsibility of the pilot to submit the information and the show’s responsibility to require it. But, if all the shows make it a contractual requirement, they will have all the inspection data they need,” he said.

Conveniently accessible food, water and portable restroom facilities for pilots while they wait their turn to perform are essential to safety. “I’ve seen some shows that don’t understand that sticking private aviators under a sun shade far from everything they need is a safety issue,” he said.

One of Royce’s pet peeves is photographers who venture beyond the crowd line without his permission. “Photographers do not have rights to be forward of the crowd line without permission of the air boss. It’s that simple,” he said. Royce has been to shows where someone without authority gives permission to a photographer to venture beyond the crowd line because the photographer wants to get a better picture. “The next thing I know, the photographer has ventured into the restricted area and I have to call a halt to the show until I can get him back where he belongs.” Royce says it can be done safely, but the person must have air boss permission, and must be accompanied by someone with a radio so they can be called back quickly.

Anyone who has attended one of Royce’s safety briefings knows well his closing admonition. “Don’t do nuthin’ dumb!” He says flying air shows is all about common sense. “I don’t want someone flying a show who says, ‘Hold my beer.’ What we do is risky enough without adding something dumb to the mix.”

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Mike Berriochoa
Mike Berriochoa is an air show announcer, former member of the ICAS Board of Directors, longtime communications professional and award-winning broadcast journalized based in Pasco, Washington.