The death of at least 11 people at the Shoreham air show raises urgently the question of safety at such events. They are increasingly popular and, as with the fatal accident at the CarFest event a few weeks ago, aerobatic displays and the appearance of storied planes from times past are now something to be expected at all types of events. Indeed, no major royal or national celebration in central London seems complete these days without a fly-past by the Spitfire-Hurricane-Lancaster trio.
The obvious attraction is that they are glorious pieces of machinery, not least the pioneering examples of design that, in many respects, were the last hurrah for a truly independent British aerospace industry in the early part of the Cold War, of which the Hawker Hunter that came down at Shoreham was a prime example.
The obvious problem is that they are all very old – about 60 years old in the case of the Hunter – difficult to maintain and, necessarily travelling in from their own times, much less reliable and failsafe than modern planes (though these, too, have their share of accidents). When they are required to perform difficult manoeuvres and fly at altitudes far lower than they were meant to, this adds to the strain on their systems and airframes. This weakens them and shortens their already long lives. Thus the sole surviving operational Vulcan bomber of the 1950s, designed to deliver an atomic bomb and nuclear conflagration thousands of miles away in Russia flying way above the clouds, has found itself among thoe classic planes destined to do service around British aerodromes as thousands thrill to the sight of them. And, although these planes are supposed to fly away from crowds, in the parts of the country where the shows take place they are never that far away from towns, villages and roads.
A ban on older display planes seems unthinkable, given the public’s affection for them and, to be realistic about things, the commercial boost they offer show organisers. The VE and VJ Day commemorations would have been that much less memorable had there been no contribution from the RAF, though tellingly for VJ Day, a Spitfire and a Swordfish – the oldest surviving biplane – weren’t able to make it due to technical problems. That seems to have been a wise “safety first” approach, and one that all air shows no doubt follow.
Shoreham is only the latest, albeit the worst, in a series of air show accidents that have occurred in recent years. The safety reviews pledged by the aviation regulator cannot come too soon.