Next time you go to an air show, take a look at the fine print on the ticket. Besides the usual stuff about acts of God and "Promoter not responsible if the frontman doesn't show due to injecting Drano into his balls," there's something else. It says they're really, really not to blame if some fiery wreckage falls from the sky and turns your entire family into a small pile of smoldering embers.
The Wings Over Houston Airshow -- a tradition at Ellington Field going back to its days as an active air force base -- has never had such a tragedy as happened at the Reno Air Races last month. And as far as we know, has never even come close. However, you never know when the Hand of God might knock his fork off the table.
So lacking any fiery airshow holocaust footage from local sources, we dug up -- we hesitate to call them "favorites" -- but some of the worst from around the world, including some that had relatively tiny death tolls, but were just plain unforgivable for one reason or another:
Considered the worst airshow disaster ever. The two-seat Sukhoi Su-27 fighter (roughly equivalent to the U.S. F-15 Eagle) was performing a routine airshow maneuver when something went wrong. It's suspected that the crew misjudged their altitude.
They claimed the map of the airshow performing area, which is given to all air crews flying at these events, was not accurate and thus did not show where the crowd actually was. This determines what direction the pilots will fly during maneuvers so as to stay clear of spectators in case of a crash.
Whatever really happened in the cockpit, the plane hit the ground, exploded and cartwheeled into the spectator area. Either 77 or 84 people were killed outright, depending on your source; 100 were seriously injured with mostly burns and broken bones, and another 450 were less seriously injured.
The Ukrainian justice system doesn't screw around: In 2005, a UAF court martial sentenced pilot Volodymyr Toponar to 14 years in the slammer, and his co-pilot, Yuriy Yegorov, who wasn't even in control of the airplane, to eight years. Three other officers from the Ukrainian Air Force's "Ukrainian Falcons" demonstration team got jail time. In addition, the crew was ordered to pay several million dollars in damages to the families of the victims.
This one did not happen at an airshow. It happened during a rehearsal for a show the next day at Fairchild AFB in Washington State. The investigation in the aftermath of the crash of Czar 52 -- call sign of a B-52H bomber the size of a Walmart superstore -- exposed for all to see the U.S. Air Force's tolerance and even promotion of hubris, cowardice, incompetence, failures of command at high levels, and just the most frightening bunch of people ever to be put in charge of a base stocked with nuclear weapons and the machines designed to deliver them.
The pilot, Lt. Col. Arthur "Bud" Holland, had such a reputation for being a cowboy, so out of control, that one squadron commander from the 94th Bomb Wing instructed his crews that they didn't have to fly with Holland if they felt unsafe. And lots of people felt unsafe in Holland's airplane. He once flew so low coming off the bomb range he nearly knocked a camera crew off a small ridge. That's pretty damned low in a 200-ton B-52H. Another time he instructed a navigator to crawl back to the bomb bay (through a hatch called the "Hell Hole") and straddle the beams while videotaping the bombs leaving the airplane. Not because of any operational need for such a tape, but because Holland thought it would be cool.
In other words, this guy, who had somehow made it to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and was appointed the wing's Chief of Standardization and Evaluation (the Air Force equivalent of an airline's chief pilot), listened to no one, was a strutting, arrogant loose cannon, and, some even say, a borderline psychotic. Oh, almost forgot: One time, Holland flew his B-52 over the field where his daughter's softball team was playing and put the aircraft into what is known as a "dead man's spiral." It's dangerous enough in a tiny Cessna. To deliberately do it in a B-52 is, well, psychotic.
So Holland sets out at 7:30 a.m. the morning before the big Fairchild AFB air show, and just to keep an eye on him, his crew consisted of Lt. Col. Mark McGeehan, two other lieutenant colonels and a full colonel who happened to be the deputy wing commander. We won't go into the science of over-banking the airplane at low airspeeds and altitude, or any of that other junk. All that matters is that Holland made a student-pilot mistake and killed himself and everyone on board.
The story of Holland, Czar 52, and what turned out to be a scorching indictment of the entire U.S. Air Force's promotion, command and staffing policies, has been the subject of several books and countless articles. If you want to get scared about who's minded the nukes, Google the story of Czar 52.
Apparently, a lot of people wanted to see what Holland was going to pull the day he killed everybody in Czar 52, because the final flight was taped from a lot of angles.
4. "Ice Cream Parlor Crash," Sacramento, CA - Sept. 24, 1972 This one was bad on several levels. First, there were the 22 people who died, including the young members of a little league football team. (One eight-year-old lost nine members of his family, including both his parents, three siblings and two grandparents.)
The crash happened when the pilot of a privately owned F-86 Sabre Jet, departing the Golden West Sport Aviation Show, failed to get airborne on takeoff, plowed through the chain-link fence at the airport perimeter, crossed a road, crushed a parked car and continued through the front of the Farrell's Ice Cream Parlor in a strip mall. The Sabre Jet finally came to a stop inside the parlor.
The pilot, Richard Bingham, who it was later clear had more money than brains or flying time, climbed out of the wrecked airplane with cuts and a broken arm saying, according to witnesses, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry...get the people out!" (Too late: The NTSB report described the scene as "a slaughterhouse. It was horrible").
However, the NTSB had a pretty good explanation: Due to his inexperience in the jet, Bingham over-rotated on takeoff, which in English means he pulled back on the stick too hard too soon. It causes the airplane to raise the nose too high and often results in a crash and death of the pilot. In this case, the airplane (a more powerful Canadian version of the ubiquitous American design known up there as the "Sabre Mk. V") settled back to the ground and Bingham took off on his wild ride across the road. It was not explained why Bingham didn't simply chop the throttle and jump on the brakes.
Another effect the crash had on aviation was to prevent warbird collectors, museums and private restorers from acquiring jets for years after this tragedy. To this day the U.S. military will not sell tactical jets to civilians. Instead of just making certain that those who could afford these toys, or the museums who flew them, were competent to fly them, the FAA simply went on haphazardly certifying people to fly equally lethal WW II-vintage propeller planes.
Also, it was never satisfactorily explained why the ice cream parlor and the shopping center that contained it got a building permit just yards from the end of a busy runway that accommodated business jets on a regular basis. Sounds a lot like the kind of thing that might happen in Houston.
We included this one precisely because, disaster that it was in monetary terms, not one person was injured, let alone killed. Why waste space on this? Because it puts the lie to something those of us who were raised on anti-Soviet propaganda simply assumed to be true -- that the Soviet system, and their culture, placed no value on the individual life.
So why is it that anybody who knows anything about the aerospace industry is aware that the Russians, bar none, make the best, the safest, most consistently life-saving ejection seats in the world, and have for decades? In fact, they've spent billions upon billions of rubles researching and building devices whose sole purpose is to save the individual life. Not even the Brits, with their fabled Martin-Baker seats, or the much-vaunted US ACES II and NACES series of bang seats, can match what the Russians make.
In this video from the Royal International Air Tattoo at RAF Fairford, a pair of MiG-29s collide at a closing speed of probably 600-700 mph. The pilot of either jet had less than a second to react, pull the handle and blast himself free like a human cannonball, and with only a few hundred feet above the ground for the parachute to open.
And what do we see? Within seconds of hitting the ground -- standing up! -- our intrepid aviator Boris calmly lights up a smoke with his flaming aircraft in ruins on the ground behind him. The only thing that could have made this cooler would have been if he'd lit his cigarette off a shard of burning airplane.
And no, we don't know why the Brits call an airshow a "tattoo."
It's not official yet, but we're pretty certain that the trim tab -- a little rectangular, flap-like device -- "departed the airplane," which was going more than 400 mph at the time. Losing your trim tab is never convenient, but at those speeds and in a turn it's, well, usually fatal to the pilot. Not so often to a few dozen people.
Personally, we don't like so-called Unlimited Air Racing. It's an excuse for rich men to match peckers in front of a huge paying audience.
We don't care if they want to go out and kill themselves that way. No, our problem with it is this: Who knows how many historically significant Mustangs, Corsairs, P-38 Lightnings and F8F Bearcats, to name a few types, have been chopped up beyond recognition to make them go a little faster?
Make no mistake, too, that these planes are so heavily modified that they can't ever be restored, in most cases, to their original WW II appearance.
I know this sounds callous since families are still grieving over the people who died horribly after going out for what was to be an exciting afternoon of watching the air races. But we can't really add anything that hasn't already been said about that.
It's a cliché in the aviation business that safety regulations are always written in blood. Unfortunately, in air racing, neither the sanctioning bodies of the races, nor the FAA, bother to write even the simplest and easiest to employ safety regs in ink or blood.
Most air forces and navies of any size have at least one aerial demonstration team. In the U.S., it's the USAF's Thunderbirds and the Navy's Blue Angels. Even the U.S. Army has helicopter and parachuting demo teams. It's a dangerous business, and it goes without saying that only the best of the best need apply.
And, in the U.S., the UK (with the RAF's Red Arrows team), France and most other countries, these teams rehearse tirelessly so that their shows are as safe as they are exciting, or as safe as you can be while at the same time being so damned exciting. There are major tradeoffs between the two concepts.
In aviation circles, there are certain teams who are known to lean quite a bit more toward excitement than safety. The Italian Frecce Tricolori team was one of those; the Canadian Snowbirds team had that reputation for a long time, though we're not sure it's still true. The French team has had a similar rep. But what the hell, man, do these, shall we say, slightly more daring teams put on a show! When the Canadians do their famous "bomb burst" or "palm tree" maneuver, it never fails to raise goose bumps, even without the required Scorpions music playing over the PA.
But this is about the Italian team. And the horror they created occurred at the U.S. base at Ramstein, Germany, during the annual airshow, called Flugtag '88 (roughly, "Flyday '88"). This was and is done at U.S. and NATO bases in Europe to keep up good relations with the locals. The star attraction for the 1988 Ramstein show was the Frecce Tricolori, who never left a crowd disappointed. Terrified maybe, but never let down.
The Frecce Tricolori (a reference to the Italian flag) was a relatively big team, using ten Aermacchi MB-339 PAN light ground attack or trainer jets (the two U.S. teams use no more than six powerful jets, while the Brits and Canadians nine fairly small jets). The FT were in the process of pulling off their famous Cardioide or "pierced heart" maneuver.
In this routine, two formations create a heart shape in front of the audience and parallel to the runway. Just before the climax, in which a solo plane passes through the heart at high speed -- toward the crowd -- the two groups of planes forming the heart passed each other parallel to the runway. At this point, the aircraft began to collide. As in "The Charge of the Light Brigade," someone had blundered, and into the Valley of Death rode the three-hundred (thousand) spectators.
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Nowadays, precisely because of what happened during this maneuver, there is no airshow on the planet, as far as we know, that allows any performing aircraft to fly toward the crowd.
The final toll was 67 dead spectators and three dead pilots. Also, 346 spectators were seriously burned or otherwise injured when thousands of gallons of flaming jet fuel and airplane parts rolled over the crowd like a volcanic eruption.
In aviation circles, there are national air-demonstration people who rank this incident -- in terms of deaths and serious injuries -- as only the second-worst airshow disaster in history. But there are many aviation types -- including us -- who put this one at the top, primarily because of the nightmarish injuries suffered by those in that vague category lumped together as "injured." That implies that they got better. But how much better are you when your body has been left 90 percent scarred from third-degree burns?
This one, like every one of these, did not have to happen.