A series of tragic airshow accidents over the last few weeks which have left nearly ten dead has drawn great attention to the matter of airshow safety, with a surprising number of people suggesting that all airshows should be held over water or that the events should be banned altogether. With the future of some of Europe’s largest airshows under threat (Airpower Zeltweg and RAF Waddington, for example), this seems like the perfect opportunity to reflect on just how important airshows really are.
First and foremost, airshows are entertaining. That may not seem like a particularly good reason to go ahead with them regardless of the risks, but most people aren’t aware just how much people love airshows. In the UK, air displays are the second-most popular outdoor event after football, and nearly one in ten Britons go to airshows each year, often to see the likes of the Red Arrows, which has become a much-loved national icon and a household name. There are over 700 airshows each year globally (one of which won the UK’s Tourism Event of the Year award 2014), with each show attracting anywhere from 10,000 to half a million spectators on each day. With that level of public support, it’s already clear that banning airshows simply isn’t an option.
As well as being entertaining, airshows are inspiring, giving an opportunity for air arms to show what they are capable of to the public and encourage young people to join. Without such a way for young people to see and interact with their country’s armed forces, it is likely that it would be much harder to recruit the next generation of servicemen and women.
One of the most important benefits of airshows, and one that is felt by everyone in the local area, is the fact that airshows make money. The money raised by people travelling to the show site, staying overnight, eating at restaurants and buying merchandise contributes huge amounts to the local economy. The Singapore Airshow contributed $250 million to the local economy in 2014, while free events such as the seafront airshow at Bournemouth contributed a massive £100 million to the local economy. Furthermore, an entire industry has been established around these events, with businesses organising logistics and making show DVDs among other things, and all of these businesses rely on airshows for their survival. Additionally, airshows are often used to sell aircraft, which provides employment and makes even more money.
It may also surprise you to know that the Red Arrows and other display teams cost around the same to run as an ordinary fast jet squadron, so no additional costs are created that need to be footed by the taxpayer.
Staying on the financial theme, airshows make money for charity. RIAT, the world’s largest military airshow, sells around 150,000 tickets for about £50 each year, the proceeds of which go to the Royal Air Force Charitable Trust. Shoreham, Throckmorton, Sywell and a host of other major events are also key contributors to charities, without which some of these charities may have to cease functioning.
A less important (but still noteworthy) aspect of airshows that many people tend to forget is that airshows are a chance to see history in action. Nothing can bring WWII to life better than a formation of Spitfires, and there is no better way to honour our fallen heroes. These displays are a tribute to them, and a chance to keep old memories alive.
Something else that seems to have been misinterpreted these last few days and has been turned against the airshow industry is the fact that airshows are safe. A recent string of accidents seems to have overshadowed the fact that, statistically, you’re many times more likely to be killed driving a car than going to an airshow. Excluding the events of earlier this week, there have only been around 18 fatalities at airshows since 2011, despite the fact that there are 700 airshows per year, some of which are up to one week long with seven or eight-hour daily flying displays. Around half of those fatalities were in the US, where airshow rules are very relaxed, but only three were in the UK, thanks to very tight regulations (possibly the tightest in the world aside from Germany).
It should also be remembered in this day and age, that there is virtually no such thing as a “amateurish” or “inexperienced” airshow pilot. All airshow pilots are highly qualified and are usually licensed to fly a pre-defined, officially approved routine which may not be modified, or are allowed to carry out a selection of pre-defined manoeuvres, but are allowed to chose the order in which they are flown.
In the UK and in some other western European countries, crowd overflights are strictly controlled and are limited to a handful of teams. In the UK, only the Red Arrows and the Blades carry out crowd overflights, and they only occur once at the start of the display with all the aircraft flying straight and level to ensure audience safety. Furthermore, there are strict speed limits, aircraft may not fly close to the crowd (the minimum distance from the crowd varies depending on the speed) and aircraft may not perform high-speed turns towards the crowd except in certain conditions.
While it is inevitable that some roads and houses will always fall under airshow venues, especially in densely-populated countries like the UK, a strict set of rules that are constantly updated to meet new requirements are in force to protect against accidents, and as far as the local community is concerned, airshows are some of the safest and most beneficial events that it is possible to host.
Adam Landau is a Singapore-based student and aviation journalist from the UK. He is also the founder and editor of This is Flight.