Are UK air shows now under threat?

The post-Shoreham battle between the CAA and the UK airshow community has taken a more serious turn with both sides accusing the other of undermining safety. Is the future of Britain's air shows now in danger? TIM ROBINSON provides comment.

The debate over increased air show fees and safety regulation of air displays became more entrenched last week, with a serious split developing between the UK aviation regulator, the CAA, and pilots and organisers.

The latest twist in this saga saw a joint statement released on 4 March by the British Air Displays Association and the Honorary Company of Air Pilots which called the CAA's CEO, Andrew Haines' public statements on alleged reluctance by the UK air display community to embrace new safety rules, a 'blatant piece of politicking by a public body' and a 'reprehensible statement'.

Even more damningly, the joint BADA/HCAP statement also alleges that Haines was in position during cost-cutting in the CAA and was also involved in (the pre-Shoreham days) of trying to offload responsibility for safety at UK airshows to the BADA.

This unprecedented response by two highly respected aviation groups and airing of internal politics shows now how deep the divide now is, despite a public consultation period and the annual symposium of the BADA which was expected to provide compromise between the CAA's proposals and the wishes of the community to take its position into account.

The post-Shoreham environment

Seeing thrilling aerobatics is part of the appeal of air shows - but what about the public outside the boundaries of the air show?  

The CAA's proposed fee increases and tightening of air show safety regulations obviously come in the wake of last year's Shoreham tragedy which killed 11 bystanders and injured 16 when a Hawker Hunter impacted a busy road during its display routine. That accident, which is still being investigated by the AAIB, is a watershed event in UK air displays, much like the Farnborough DH110 crash in 1952. However, it has two major differences to that tragedy which itself brought in new rules that, for 63 years, have protected air display spectators from accidents. First, is that the wider legal and social environment since 1952 have changed. Legal liabilities, 'duty of care' and other health and safety issues means that mass deaths can now not be as casually brushed-off as in the early 1950s, where test pilots risked their lives daily and when, in 1956, the RAF was losing more than one aircraft a day due to accidents.

Second, is that unlike the Farnborough crash (or even the Reno disaster in 2014 where a P-51 hit the crowd, killing the pilot, ten spectators and injuring 69), the Shoreham crash involved people outside the air display minding their own business. There is thus a legal difference between the informed and accepted risks of the pilot, air show spectators who pay to get in to see the display and nearby passers-by who might be injured or killed in an accident.

Like Haddon-Cave did for military aviation and ownership of risk, Shoreham is a turning point for UK air shows – and things will never be the same.


Following the Shoreham crash, the CAA placed restrictions on aerobatics by vintage jet aircraft.

Most would agree that the CAA's initial response to the Shoreham crash, by banning high energy manoeuvres over land by vintage jets, a sensible and necessary step in protecting the public, while the full facts about the accident were being investigated by the AAIB.

However, this year, the CAA's proposed increase in air display fees for all with a 100% increase and a new post-event charge, came as a big shock to the air display community, particularly those that had budgeted already for 2016 events. While all sections of the community welcomed the moves to enhance safety oversight and regulation, there were some dissenting voices over whether the new regulations would prevent another Shoreham-style accident.

For smaller air shows, free seaside displays and for owner-operator display pilots who just about break even and who do it not to get rich, but for the love of aviation, these unanticipated extra charges have the potential to wreck carefully budgeted shows. While Shoreham itself will not be organising a display this year, it has also been joined by cancellations from Manchester, Llandudno and Sywell, with others reportedly under risk. The fear for many, is that if some shows are cancelled this year, they may not return in 2017. 

A month’s public consultation period from the CAA sought to get responses from the public and expert bodies. The Royal Aeronautical Society, for example, contributed its learned opinion and warned that while it supported efforts to improve safety, the new rules could have a negative impact on promoting aviation and aerospace and reaching young people.

Yet no sooner than the consultation had closed, it seemed as though the CAA dug in its heels, rejecting calls for a 'phased' approach to introduce its new charges and threatening that a number of air shows would not go ahead.

In a statement on 3 March it said: "Opposition to these changes has been voiced within the industry, with some in the air show community suggesting that the changes go too far or are not necessary. The CAA firmly believes that these changes are essential to ensure air shows are even safer for the millions of people who attend them each year. Unless the new requirements are met, the regulator will be unable to permit the shows to take place." A final report into air display safety is set to be published in the coming weeks.

The 'Committee to Abolish Aviation'?

The CAA has loosened regulations regarding non-pilots flying in historic aircraft.

Critics then, have panned the CAA's intransigence and response to the concerns of the air display community. Some argue that the new regulations will, indeed, add nothing to safety, while others argue that with the UK, being a small, densely packed island, the million-to-one chance of Shoreham being regulated for, could easily apply to other airfields or even airports. In 2010 a British Airways Boeing 777 narrowly avoiding belly-flopping into Heathrow suburbs, which conceivably would have caused far more damage and death than a Hawker Hunter. Would the CAA, in that instance, have ignored protests from powerful airlines, airports and local councils if it had proposed new rules about clearing runway thresholds?

Others point out that if air show ticket prices do increase, then the law of unintended consequences may mean that more people will attempt to watch the action from 'outside' the show boundaries where organisers cannot secure or police areas and thus actually decrease safety. Inside a show display boundary, air display routines are carefully planned, so that should the worst happen, any accident will be away from the crowd line and spectators.

Others accuse the CAA of being disingenuous with its proposed fee increases which they contend, lump paying for enhanced safety supervision and oversight in with reducing its wider deficit. The air display community is also concerned that these fee increases have been introduced ahead of the final AAIB accident report into Shoreham which may have extra implications or costs for organisers or pilots.

Yet those who criticise the CAA as the 'Committee to Abolish Aviation' may be missing the point and being highly unfair. In recent years it has proved to be a flexible and forward-looking regulator and focused on serving the aviation community well. Three examples will suffice to show how flexible and accommodating it can be. In CAP 722, it pioneered (ahead of the US and many in Europe) rules for civil drone operations, which is now enabling an explosion in the commercial UAV industry. Second, it has opened up the opportunity for 'warbird' flights to non-pilots - kickstarting a new niche industry sector to 'fly a Spitfire' or other types. Finally, last year, after a decade, it has launched new rules for experimental GA aircraft designed to cut red tape and unleash innovation in the British light aircraft sector. These then, are not the actions of a body that is 'anti-aviation' or interested in curtailing 'fun'. So why is it acting this way?

A simple explanation could be political pressure from above. As noted earlier Shoreham has been a game-changer in many ways. Protecting display pilots from killing themselves is one thing, protecting air show crowds who pay money to see exciting aerobatic manoeuvres is another, but protecting the general public nearby while a display is going on is a whole different matter. The CAA itself may be under huge pressure that it has been too 'hands-off' in the past and is racing to deflect further criticism.

STEM or safety?

Air shows are calculated to be the most popular outdoor public events in the UK after football - giving the public (and especially young people/children) the opportunity to see aircraft up close. 

Yet if the CAA's stubbornness is driven by political pressure (and perhaps a valid issue that it has been undercharging previously) along with worries over liability, there may be a chink of hope there. In particular, as noted earlier, the UK Government is seriously concerned that there will not be enough engineers and scientists in the future. Vast resources are currently being thrown at this problem, such as Big Bang Fairs, outreach with Tim Peake and other private and public STEM initiatives. Yet here we have one Government body, under the Department for Transport, which is seemingly oblivious that if smaller airshows do begin to die off, then this will also rob the UK of a valuable way of reaching thousands (if not millions) of young people and potentially inspiring them about flight, engineering and science. Squeezing the air show community for pennies today could lead to millions of pounds being lost from the UK aerospace industry tomorrow if it cannot find workers with the passion and skills.

Despite the strong emotions on both sides, it is hoped that an accommodation can be worked out and cooler heads prevail – while still meeting the new demands for increased safety and oversight in the post-Shoreham environment. Not merely for today's pilots, air display organisers and enthusiasts hoping to see air shows this year, but for those young people of tomorrow who, having been taken to their local air show for the first time, get bitten by the aviation bug.

8 March 2016