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An Air Race Is Not an Air Show

Spectators are at very low risk at an air show

By J. Mac McClellan, Director of Publications, EAA 747337

AirVenture crowd
Spectators on the flightline at AirVenture look up at an aerobatic performance.

Race course
Diagram showing the Reno Air Races course outlines for the various race classes. Larger view

September 19, 2011 - It has been six decades since a spectator at an air show in the United States has been killed or injured in an accident. And that is no accident. The FAA and air show industry have worked together to create standards that protect spectators even though air show performers accept a certain level of risk to fly their performances.

An air race, however, is very different from an air show and the risk to spectators at an air race cannot be reduced to the same level as an air show. There are hundreds of air shows each year with excellent safety standards to protect the public, but air races are very rare with only one major event held each year.

The fundamental safety requirement for pilots flying in an air show is that they are forbidden from flying toward the crowd. The FAA establishes a “show line” that is parallel to the area where spectators are allowed, and all performers must remain over and fly parallel to the show line at a safe distance away from the crowd.

The reason pilots must fly their air show maneuvers parallel to the spectators is that if anything goes wrong the inertia of the airplane will not carry it toward the crowd. Unfortunately, there have been accidents at air shows in the U.S., but the rules have kept the airplane traveling parallel to the crowd and the crashes have not injured spectators.

An air race, on the other hand, requires airplanes to circle a course just as cars do when racing on a track. That means at least one turn - typically turning to fly down the home stretch - requires a racing airplane to fly toward the spectators as it enters the turn. If something goes wrong and control is lost as a racing airplane is making that turn, the inertia of the airplane can carry it into the spectator area.

There is no realistic way to avoid the risk of an air racing airplane flying toward the crowd for at least a brief part of each lap around the course. But in an air show, the performing pilot never flies directly at the crowd at high speeds, so a mechanical failure or loss of control will not carry the air show airplane into the spectators.

The tragic accident at the Reno Air Races on September 16 that claimed the lives of at least nine spectators made all too real the risk in air racing. On the same weekend a vintage military trainer crashed during an air show, resulting in a huge fireball, and the pilot was killed. Because the accident happened during an air show, not an air race, the airplane crashed along the show line over the runway and the spectators were not in danger.

Air show rules and procedures in the U.S. have a very long history of providing protection for spectators and do not need to be changed as a result of the air racing accident. The disaster at the Reno Air Races requires the FAA and all who participate in air racing to examine how to control risk to spectator safety during an air race. But it is very important to understand that the risks of spectator injury at an air show are already well managed and a proven record of spectator safety at air shows is firmly established.

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