The tragic accident at the Wings Over Dallas Airshow has been widely reported and videos are all over the internet. The accident was particularly disturbing from a personal standpoint because I learned about it while driving home from another airshow, Warbirds Over Monroe, near my home in North Carolina
Wings Over Dallas is an annual affair at Dallas Executive Airport. This airport is the home of the Commemorative Air Force, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving, displaying and flying historical aircraft at airshows in the U.S. and Canada.
In the early afternoon of November 12, a Bell P-63F Kingcobra fighter plane collided with a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress bomber. Tragically, all six people onboard the aircraft (one on the P-63 and five on the B-17) died, and both of the rare WWII era planes were destroyed. No one on the ground was injured.
The accident occurred during a flying parade involving a line of bombers and fighter escorts. The Kingcobra was on the bomber’s left in a descending left turn when it struck the fuselage of the Flying Fortress behind the wings. The fighter was flying significantly faster than the bomber. It sliced the larger airplane in two and disintegrated. The wing and cockpit section of the B-17G plummeted to earth and exploded in a fireball. The bulk of the wreckage landed on airport property, although some came down on a nearby highway.
In case anyone has not seen the accident, here’s a two-minute video showing it from multiple angle. It is disturbing. Feel free to skip it.
Airshows are fun and educational. They offer thrilling aerobatic performances, aerial flybys and displays of historic and experimental aircraft that most people could only see in a museum or a movie. Inevitably, the incident in Dallas raises questions about airshow safety.
Airshow Safety Precautions and Statistics
All flying involves risk. The level of risk increases when aircraft are operating at low altitude, are in close proximity to other aircraft or people, or are performing aerobatic routines. The age and mechanical condition of the aircraft and the physical and mental condition of pilots present other potential hazards.
Risk can be managed to varying degrees. In the United States, airshows and airshow pilots, aircraft and venues are covered by numerous civilian and military regulations as well as standards and procedures developed by airshow organizations that are designed to minimize the likelihood of accidents.
A November 15, 2022 article in TheAviationist explains some of the regulatory environment governing airshows:
“It’s hard to imagine an industry more regulated than the airshow industry. To start with, airshow operations are governed by massive volumes of both civilian and, depending on the aircraft performing, military flight regulations. Pilots flying in airshows must have a long list of advanced flight certifications that, depending on their aircraft and demonstration routine, may include advanced aerobatic certifications and certifications for formation flying. Additionally, these certifications must be renewed at specified intervals, usually annually, to maintain currency.
In addition to pilot certifications for airshow performers, the venues for airshows are heavily regulated and strictly controlled. These controls are every bit as critical as demonstration pilot training and certification. For a venue to host a flight demonstration, they must hold and be in compliance with the massive Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (FAA Form 7711-1) for Airshow Ground Operations Plans issued by the Federal Aviation Administration. Additional requirements for military base airshows exist that include safety and security planning.
Beyond these ground regulations for an airshow venue, a massive, separate and additional set of rules, specifications and restrictions exist for the airspace above an airshow venue. These rules and restrictions are not only limited to obvious concerns such as air traffic control, they extend to things airshow spectators never consider such as wildlife interaction to avoid hazards like bird strike, and the environmental impact of aircraft noise, exhaust, fuel and waste handling.
Airshow performances are carefully choreographed. Flying notes:
“Airshows and aerial displays like the one planned for Wings Over Dallas require meticulous planning and extensive pre-briefings that culminate in a pre-show briefing typically two to four hours in length.
Separation of aircraft is provided both by altitude—for example, having the bombers at one altitude and fighters and liasion aircraft at another—and laterally using ground references such as taxiways or highways near the airport. Some pilots are instructed to fly over certain landmarks while other pilots in different aircraft are instructed not to traverse those areas. This ensures the orbits of the aircraft do not cross.”
According to John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows (ICAS), since 1988 airshows in the United States and Canada have recorded an average of 3.5 fatalities per year. The figure includes performers and spectators. The number of airshows in the U.S. and Canada averages between 325 – 350 each year according to ICAS statistics. The good news is the average number of fatalities is falling.
The worst airshow accidents worldwide have involved military jets. In 1988 a midair collision involving Italy’s Frecce Tricolori Air Force display team at Ramstein Airbase in Germany, resulted in 70 fatalities (67 on the ground, 3 in the aircraft). An airshow accident in July 2002 at Sknyliv Airfield outside Lviv, Ukraine, killed 77 spectators and injured 500 when a Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jet performing low-level aerobatics crashed into the crowd. That is the worst airshow accident in history.
As far as I can tell, the deadliest airshow accident in the U.S. happened in 1972 at the Golden West Sport Aviation Show in Sacramento, CA. A Canadair Sabre Mk. 5 fighter jet crashed on takeoff. It hit an ice cream parlor next to the airport where 22 people died.
The cause(s) of this accident are unknown at present. I won’t speculate at this point because there isn’t enough information and I know very little about airshow operations. One thing is certain. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation began almost immediately.
Even though the videos of the accident are very upsetting, NTSB investigators will watch them over and over to glean as much information as possible about the actions of both aircraft leading up to the collision. In addition the NTSB will analyze radar returns, recordings of the air show common frequency, and the aircraft wreckage. The wreckage has been carefully preserved and moved to a warehouse. Investigators will examine it to determine if a mechanical failure of some type could have contributed to the accident.
One thing that might hamper the investigation is aircraft that perform in airshows are not required to have cockpit voice recorders (CVRs) or flight data recorders (FDRs) like commercial airliners. The Dallas B-17, though, was equipped with ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance–Broadcast) equipment. ADS-B broadcasts in real time information about the airplane’s location, altitude, vertical speed and ground speed. The Dallas P-63 was not equipped with ADS-B.
In the Curious Case of China Eastern Flight MU 5735 in March 2022 a 737-800 airliner plunged to the ground from 30,000 ft. in two minutes. ADS-B data allowed investigators to precisely reconstruct the final flight path of the aircraft before the CVR and FDR had been recovered and analyzed. ADS-B information for the B-17 will also be helpful in this investigation.
The NTSB will likely have a preliminary report on the accident in four to six weeks. The final report can take a year to 18 months.
I debated writing and publishing this post. It is not intended to scare anyone or to criticize airshows or those who incur effort, expense and risk to entertain and educate us. On the other hand, it is good that people have some understanding of the risks involved with airshows and the efforts to keep everyone safe.
Even though they are rare, accidents happen. All aspects of this tragedy will be examined. We will learn from it and create a safer experience for participants and spectators.
One recommendation I would support is requiring that all airshow aircraft have ADS-B. Aircraft equipped with that system not only broadcast their location, speed and direction, the cockpit ADS-B display shows that information for all other aircraft in the area that also have the same equipment. If all airshow aircraft were ADS-B equipped, aircraft that are deviating from their assigned paths might be detected more easily. That could help to avoid collisions.
I’m looking forward to seeing my local airshow, Warbirds Over Monroe, in future years. Condolences to the families of those who perished in the Dallas airshow and the airshow community.