Thursday, September 22, 2011

VIRGINIA BEACH: Stunt pilots tout safety record ahead of Oceana Air Show


Bob Carlton squeezed into the cockpit of his tiny glider – a fragile-looking, 450-pound craft he outfitted with a jet engine. He was all smiles when describing how he’ll fall out of the sky at the Oceana Air Show this weekend, flip, roll and stop hearts by skimming just 10 feet off the ground at 150 mph.

Mention “the deadly weekend” and his hackles rise. It doesn’t matter that Carlton didn’t personally know either of the veteran pilots who crashed within 24 hours of each other last weekend. Air jockeys may be an independent bunch, but they’re united by a love for aerobatic flying, an experience that would terrify most of us.

“We’re proud of our safety record,” said Carlton, a 51-year-old rocket scientist from New Mexico who’s been doing air shows since 1993. “But when there’s an accident, the Jerry Springers come out of the woodwork. It’s disrespectful.”

Still, it’s one thing for a pilot to go down in flames; it’s another when spectators get killed. Medical examiners are still sorting out the body parts in Nevada, where an air race last Friday left 11 dead in Reno and dozens injured.

In the face of such carnage, the air show industry and its performers are worried that fans will stay away. They’re anxious to draw a distinction between shows like Oceana’s and races like Reno’s.

Air show regulations put more distance between aircraft and audience – at least 500 feet – and direct a plane’s “aerobatic energy” away from the crowd.

“You cannot point your plane at the crowd while performing an aerobatic maneuver,” said John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows in Leesburg, Va.

All stunts must take place within what Cudahy described as an invisible box measuring 2 miles long, 15,000 feet high and 3,000 feet wide: “Nobody else can be under or inside that box during a performance.”

Those precautions were put in place after a disaster in 1951, when 20 people – including 13 children – were killed at a show in Colorado. One spectator died the following year, but none have been killed at a North American show since, a safety record that extends to the 300-plus shows held every year in the United States and Canada, which draw up to 12 million fans.

In other countries, where the action roars closer to the crowds, casualties occur more often: 38 people were injured and one killed at a show in Germany last year. In 2002, 77 people died and 100 were injured in the Ukraine.

“In Europe, the set-back distances are not as great,” Cudahy said. “When the Europeans come here, they laugh at how far away our jets are. They say, ‘You guys are a bunch of sissies.’ And I say, ‘Yeah? Well, we’ve never killed spectators.’ ”

Not so with the performers. Years pass with no fatalities, but last weekend brought 2011’s death toll to three pilots and two wing-walkers.

“They try to mitigate the risks,” Cudahy said, “but accidents will happen.”

The Oceana show, one of the biggest in the country, has just one dark spot on its 58-year history. A pilot with a skywriting team died during a practice session in 2007.

“The Oceana crash is a tragic but excellent way to make my point,” Cudahy said. “The pilot crashed inside that aerobatic box. No one else was killed.”

The same goes for Saturday’s crash at an air show in West Virginia:

“The pilot impacted the ground more than 1,000 feet from the audience,” Cudahy said.

At the Reno air race – the only one of its kind in the world – pilots are locked in a high-speed, wing-tip-to-wing-tip scramble for a finish line. Stretches of the oval course carry planes much closer to the audience.

Bill Leff, a precision flier from Ohio and one of Oceana’s headliners, was in the racing pits at the Reno show, about 100 yards from the crash.

“The odd thing was, there were only seconds of exposure where it could have happened,” Leff said. “There were miles of the course where it would have been away from people. It was a fluke.”

Investigators still aren’t sure what caused pilot Jimmy Leeward to lose control.

“I’m an eyewitness,” Leff said, “and I cannot tell you what went wrong. I can speculate, but that wouldn’t be fair to Jimmy.”

The pilots are sensitive to reputation. The days of “circus acts” and seat-of-the-pants “barnstorming” are long gone.

“Air shows are flown by professional people, not stunt pilots,” Leff said. “Everything is programmed, choreographed and practiced to the nth degree.”

As for its death-defying image: “That’s the illusion of it,” Leff said. “It’s not like NASCAR, where you’re bumping each other, trying to make the other guy lose control. We demonstrate precision flying in an entertaining way that gives the illusion that what we do is dangerous, but it’s really not. That’s why there’s such a big headline when someone gets killed. It’s rare.”

After 14 years with the air show council, Cudahy said he’s still awed by the skill of aerobatic pilots. True, it’s hard to top military pilots, who land jets on pitching aircraft carriers in the dark of night.

“But people who have done that look at air-show pilots and say, ‘What we do is tough, but what they do is every bit as tough.’ To see an airplane spin tail-over-propeller is unnatural. It’s amazing that they can control those forces.”

Leff, who specializes in low-attitude maneuvers, including his signature roll on take-off, has been flying air shows for 35 years. He says it’s all a matter of what a person gets used to:

“You couldn’t get me on a roller coaster for anything.”

Colleagues killed in fiery crashes won’t cause Leff or Carlton to give up the cockpit.

“No more than you’d give up driving if your friend died in a car wreck,” said Carlton.

Besides, “The person who died in that plane crash doesn’t want you to stop flying,” Leff said, “because they loved it.”

Oceana’s commanding officer, Capt. Jim Webb, said the recent accidents won’t bring changes to the local show, which starts this evening, runs through Sunday and is expected to attract 300,000 spectators.

“There will always be people who’ll make the decision not to come,” Webb said, “but by and large, the American public loves watching a good air show.”

Last weekend’s casualties were “a real tough thing for everybody in the industry,” Cudahy said. But its members will do what they always do when their professsion turns deadly:

“They’ll honor the memory of a friend by paying close attention to what happened, so they don’t repeat it themselves.”

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