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Aerobatics Are High Point of Air Shows


A stunt plane spun out of control at an air show in Upland in early 2000. The pilot died after the plane spiraled to the ground and burst into flames.

Later that year, a military plane performing a landing maneuver at the Sounds of Freedom air show crashed to the ground 15 miles north of Philadelphia, killing two.

And on Saturday afternoon, a low-flying QF-4 Phantom II jet crashed just west of the Point Mugu Navy base, far from spectators. Both crew members were killed.

These air shows, and scores of others across the country, carry an aura of both excitement and danger, as exhilarated spectators cheer on pilots performing ground-shaking, gravity-defying maneuvers. Whether it's high-tech jets or antique aircraft, aerobatics are typically the high point of a day at the air show.

Former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Jim Hall likens it to the thrill of a NASCAR race. "The people who participate in air shows are a lot like stock-car racers," Hall said. "They understand the risks. And just like NASCAR, where you are going to have spectators when you are doing unusual maneuvers and high speeds, there needs to be safeguards because it is going to be dangerous."

Hall said that during his tenure, the agency investigated crashes at several air shows, prompting renewed vigilance and enforcement of FAA regulations, including adherence to strict guidelines on audience setbacks.

John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, said that in part because of those FAA regulations, created with the air show industry more than 50 years ago, no spectator has been killed at an American air show since 1952. "There is sometimes a perception that air show accidents are more common and serious than they truly are," he said.

Over the course of a year, Cudahy said, there are more than 325 air shows and only a handful of accidents. Last year, he said, there was not a single fatal air show accident in the United States.

Air shows across the nation draw millions of spectators annually to both country airfields and sprawling military bases. A whole industry of promoters, performers, announcers and concessionaires is in place to support the popular attractions, which typically roll out from March through November.

Hall said a well-run air show is a safe event that caters to the public's fascination with flying machines. Performers, he said, must put safety over acrobatics.

"My concern has always been not to take unnecessary risks that could hurt people on the ground," he said.

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