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The Airshow Pass: Having Fun Without Getting Killed

Through your windscreen, the runway rolls into view ... growing by the instant, with your extreme approach.Through your windscreen, the runway rolls into view ... growing by the instant, with your extreme approach. Your airspeed indicator spirals upward and, in seconds, you race along a few feet above the pavement, a smile on your face and the look of amazement from your passengers. The end of the runway rushes to meet you as you haul back on the controls. Rolling into a steep bank, you complete what I call the “airshow pass” -- a classic high-speed flyby and steep turning pull-up flown by dozens of pilots each day during the summer fly-in season.

SENTIMENTS
The crowds love the airshow pass too. They can vicariously feel the rush of speed, sensed through the rumble of your engine, the whine of your propeller, and the flash of your passing. The pull-up and bank maneuver spotlights the capabilities of your airplane, and spectators wish they too could master your craft.

Yes, the airshow pass is a staple of fly-ins everywhere and it is perfectly safe -- most of the time.

STATISTICS
Unfortunately, the airshow pass leads to over 2% of *all* General Aviation (GA) accidents. Sure, two airshow pass accidents for every one hundred GA accidents is fairly small -- until you consider the miniscule amount of time spent flying this maneuver. According to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), there are an average of 51 accidents attributed to botched attempts at the airshow pass each year. That’s practically one each week. Now consider that very little of this type of flying occurs during the cold months (when attracting an audience is less likely) and you realize that it's actually a fairly common occurrence during the flying season. What goes awry so frequently? More on directly: What can you do to reduce your chances of repeating accident history?

CAUSES
Oddly enough, every one of the high-speed airshow pass accidents resulted from a loss of airspeed, a stall, and, commonly, a spin. The NTSB lists three categories of accidents associated with this maneuver:

  • Attempted low pass and pull-up, loss of control, stall/spin
  • Inadequate airspeed, stall during low pass
  • Steep turn at low altitude, stall, loss of control
*The total number of accidents is almost equally divided among these three categories.

CATEGORIES
Over 90% of the airshow pass accidents involved single-engine, fixed gear airplanes. However, that doesn’t mean retractable-gear and multiengine airplanes are immune to the stall/spin on pull-up, despite their typically greater power and cleaner aerodynamics. In fact, more twin-engine airplanes are involved in airshow pass mishaps historically than single-engine retracts.

The record shows that Skyhawks, Archers, Barons and 310s are just as likely to crash due to the airshow pass as showplanes (including antiques and experimentals).

Only about 14% of the total airplanes involved in this type of mishap are normally considered to be aerobatic -- such as Pitts, Stearmans, or P-51s. I imagine that 14% is actually representative of the aerobatic aircraft population at most air shows. Translation: No pilot, and no airplane type is immune.

THE BODY COUNT...
The level of damage is astounding:

  • 99.5% of the airshow pass accidents resulted in “substantial damage” or destruction of the airplane.
  • 47% of these mishaps proved fatal and in these cases, a great number of innocent passengers and spectators died as well.
...AND NOT ADDING TO IT
What can you do to avoid falling victim to the airshow pass? It might be unrealistic for me to advise you to stop thrilling yourself, your passengers and your spectators by advocating abstinence from the low pass and pull-up. Instead, I’ll advise that you train and practice to recognize and recover from incipient stalls, and therefore to avoid the threat. Toward that end:
  1. Take an introductory aerobatics course to learn what works, and what doesn’t.
  2. Practice recovery from stalls in various airplane configurations. Do this at a safe altitude, preferably with an instructor who is well versed in your airplane’s stall characteristics. Try a few chandelles to sample the transition from climb to minimum controllable airspeed in a turn.
  3. Simulate the airshow pass at a safe altitude by diving at a designated altitude, roaring along level for a while, then pulling up into a climbing turn. Note the airspeeds, pitch, attitudes and angles of bank that look spectacular, yet keep you far from the edge of a stall. Pay special attention to the altimeter -- at altitude, missing your mark by 30 feet is relatively benign. The ground is not so forgiving...
  4. Change the parameters (reduce airspeed, pull up more steeply, or bank more sharply) one at a time until each action alone causes the beginnings of a stall. Recover, then record the precise values that put you on the edge of a stall. Then start varying two of the three parameters, to learn how control inputs interact and how your airplane reacts.
  5. Practice recoveries from incipient stalls. Then, once you’ve mastered positive control of all parameters independently and in pairs, try going to the edge of the stall envelope by varying all three.
After completing steps one through five, you should be able to safely fly the maneuver by knowing exactly what values of airspeed, pitch attitude and/or bank angle keep you inside the airplane’s performance envelope.

WARNING: Military and aerobatic pilots know the dangers of “rolling g-forces.” An airplane stressed for a particular g-load may not be able to withstand that stress if the load is applied during a roll. Remember, roll, then pull, or pull, then roll. Don’t “load up” the airplane at the same time you’re rolling into or out of a turn.

BOTTOM LINE
Diving at the runway, flying along low at high speed, and climbing above the crowd provides a rush of adrenaline for you and those who watch. Done right, it’s a fine display of airmanship and an airplane’s grace and agility. Unfortunately, the airshow pass destroys a number of airplanes and kills a lot of people each year. If you must try the maneuver, make sure you’ve logged the training and practice that will make you and those around you safe. Otherwise, leave the airshow pass to the professionals.

Note: Statistics come from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation’s General Aviation Accident Analysis, 1982-1988, available through www.aopa.org.

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About This Author:
Tom Turner is a widely published author and regular forum speaker at EAA's Oshkosh/Airventure and American Bonanza Society. Tom holds an M.S. in Aviation Safety with an emphasis on pilot training methods and human factors. He has worked as lead instructor at FlightSafety International, developed and conducted flight test profiles for modified aircraft and authored three books including: Cockpit Resource Management: The Private Pilot's Guide and Instrument Flying Handbook (both from McGraw-Hill). His flight experience currently spans 3000 hours with approximately 1800 logged as an instructor. Tom's certificate currently shows ATP MEL with Commercial/Instrument privileges in SEL airplanes.
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