I’ve deliberately withheld this post about the Shoreham air disaster on August 22 until now, largely as a matter of taste. But two huge questions must be satisfactorily answered by the inquiry.
Actually, there are three questions, but the second may never be satisfactorily answered.
1. Why was the aircraft overladen (with fuel) for this aerobatic display?
It is now known (it’s been officially reported) that the main fuel tanks were completely refilled immediately prior to the air display, i.e. that the plane was carrying far in excess than that which was required for the display. It’s not yet clear whether the subsidiary fuel tanks on the wings were also filled. Several aviation experts have wondered why a Hunter that was intended for aerobatics was ever carrying those extra, empty? tanks in the first place.
The fact that the plane was very heavily laden is demonstrated by this video footage showing that it made an exceptionally long take off (some experts have said that it was nearly twice as long as one would normally expect for a Hunter taking off on an aerobatic display, and others have said that it finally became airborne just 3 or 4 metres short of the end of the runway.) Many aircraft buffs watching at the time commented that it looked very odd.
2. Why on earth did the aircraft* enter this loop manoeuvre when it was just 200 feet above the ground?
*In the interests of objectivity and neutrality I’m deliberately using the term ‘the aircraft’ here as a collective noun meaning ‘aircraft and/or pilot’.
As a rock climber of over 45 years experience I judged the aircraft to be flying at somewhere between 150 and 250 feet immediately before the disastrous manoeuvre. It has now been confirmed by the preliminary investigation that it was indeed flying at 200 feet. Shortly after the crash, a reporter asked one of the show’s organisers why it had been flying at less than 300 feet, and he answered rather tetchily that it was definitely flying at over 300 feet. He seemed to have forgotten completely that aerobatics in a jet aircraft should take place a minimum of 500 feet vertically and 300 feet horizontally from the spectators.
We all wish the pilot well, but we also hope that he recovers sufficiently to be able to answer this question.
3. Why was the aircraft flying towards the spectators and on a flight path that took it directly over a very busy major road when it attempted the manoeuvre?
Although the aircraft appeared to be flying towards the spectators, it was in fact flying obliquely to them, and it may be that it was aligned with the second, north-east/south-west runway and this had been agreed by the organisers. But, if so, this begs a further question, because this particular flight path meant that the manoeuvre was performed directly over the very busy A27. We have to ask whether this is an acceptable practice.
The normal procedure at air displays is for all aerobatics to take place above a runway that’s aligned parallel to the spectators, and directly above the centre-line of the runway (which is at least 300 feet in front of the spectators). A good example is Duxford, which has a huge amount of space around it, being surrounded by farmland, with the main road a long way behind, and parallel to, the spectators.
The reason why this maneouvre at Shoreham was not done above the main east-west runway may be that it did not provide sufficient safety margins, being hemmed in by the densely populated East Worthing on the one side and Shoreham on the other. It has been widely reported that the Red Arrows have been asked on a number of occasions to perform at Shoreham but have always refused on the grounds that it is too dangerous.
Certainly there is now the question of the suitability of Shoreham for extreme aerobatic displays of this kind with jet aircraft, with dangerous manoeuvres taking place directly above a very busy main road.
Both questions 1 and 3 must be answered, and not shirked in any way.