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Monday, July 17, 2006

More on the air show disaster

Here's a fascinating document (MS Word format) to consider in connection with the carnage at the Hillsboro air show over the weekend. It purports to be a public safety manual compiled by the City of Hillsboro in connection with last September's show.

Some of it's a little unsettling. Toward the back (page 35 and following), there are suggested canned answers to be given to media questions regarding any accident. Even before the accident happens, already they've got the canned responses! Here they are:

Anticipated "Top 10" Questions by the Media

Q1 Has the Oregon International Airshow - Hillsboro ever had a fatality?

A1 The Oregon International Airshow - Hillsboro has never had a fatality, either involving a pilot, or a spectator.

We have been conducting this airshow since 1988: the first 15 years were as a Portland Rose Festival Event, and this is the second year as the Oregon International Airshow - Hillsboro.

Q2 Why are there so many accidents at airshows?

A2 Any fatal accident is a tragedy, and this accident is no exception; but the fact is that airshow accidents are relatively infrequent. Because they are often dramatic and are nearly always captured on videotape, the accidents receive widespread publicity. But, in fact, there are typically three or four airshow accidents per year in the United States and Canada.

Q3 Isn't it just a matter of time before somebody from the audience is involved in an airshow accident?

A3 No. Because of the rules and regulations in place in the United States, it is highly unlikely that spectators will ever be involved in an airshow aircraft accident. Since current regulations were put into effect in 1952, there has never been a spectator fatality in an airshow aircraft accident. That's a safety record that is the envy of the entire motorsports industry.

Q4 What safeguards are in place to protect spectators?

A4 Spectator safety at airshows depends on four elements of a very effective safety program:

First, every pilot performing aerobatics at a U.S. or Canadian airshow must be evaluated each year by a certified aerobatics evaluator.

Second, airshow performers - both civilian and military - are prohibited from performing maneuvers that direct the energy of their aircraft toward the area in which spectators are sitting.

Third, the industry and regulatory authorities strictly enforce minimum set-back distances that were developed to ensure that, in the event of an accident, piece of the aircraft cannot end up in the spectator area.

And fourth, there is an invisible aerobatic box in which all aerobatics must be flown. Regulations prohibit anybody but necessary personnel from being in that box. If the box falls on top of a road, then the road must be closed during the airshow. If an office building is within the box, then the building must be vacated during the show.

Q5 Shouldn't somebody do something to stop these airshow pilots from killing themselves?

A5 There are a number of safeguards in place to ensure that airshow pilots are qualified and experienced, but, despite these rules and the close attention paid to safety issues, accidents sometimes happen. Accidents happen in car racing. Accidents happen in thoroughbred horse racing. Accidents happen in high school football games. And accidents happen in the airshow business. The pilots who perform at airshows understand the inherent risks of airshow flying. They do everything they can to minimize that danger.

Q6 Why did the crash/fire/rescue personnel take so long to respond?

A6 In an accident situation like the one we had today, it's not unusual for people to perceive the response time as being longer than actually was. But, based on our initial investigation, it appears that the emergency response was timely and professional.

Q7 Was there anything that show organizers could have done differently to avoid this accident?

A7 Each year, with or without an accident, we review our safety plan and our emergency response plan and make adjustments, additions and changes. And, following this accident, we will go through that process again. But, based on what we know right now, we wouldn't change a thing in our safety or emergency response plans. Our systems and our people appear to have performed exactly as they were supposed to perform.

Q8 Why did show organizers decide to continue the show? Or why did show organizers decide to cancel the rest of the show?

A8 Show management met immediately following the accident and, as part of a pre-arranged process, we discussed the relative advantages and disadvantages of continuing the show. After close consultation with regulatory officials and the performers, we made a decision to go ahead with (or cancel) the remainder of the show. Individual decisions on whether or not to perform were left with the individual pilots, along with the show management's assurances that we recognized this as a highly personal and emotional decision.

Q9 How many airshow accidents are there each year, we just heard about the one in the Ukraine not that long ago?

A9 As you would expect, this varies considerably. In some years, the industry has one or two accidents. In other years, it might have three, four or five.

Q10 What government organization is responsible for airshow regulation?

A10 The Federal Aviation Administration develops and enforces airshow regulations in the United States. The FAA has representatives on-site at the show today.

And one extra:

Q11 Will you hold the show again next year?

A11 It's too early to answer that question. Show management will be meeting on a number of issues during the coming days and weeks. Among the issues we will discuss will be the future of the show.

The necessary materials for the Airshow Office Conference Room, should an incident occur:

Phones (4)
Laptops (3)
All Media Lists
Airshow Map
Airshow letterhead (for all press releases)

In the event of an incident, all news releases shall drop the names of sponsors involved and refer to "this weekend's airshow at the Hillsboro Airport."

Also check out page 32, describing "Scenario D" - "A plane goes down off site and hits a nearby house." Chilling.

This was taken from the site of an outfit called the International Council of Air Shows, Inc., a promoter of these spectacles.

Comments (1)

Hmmm.... a lot of that is the background fluff you'd expect to find in a crisis prep kit. But answers for questions 6 and 8 are written as in the past tense, as if the facts were already known - but of course, they're not.

Somebody got overzealous in their prep work. Usually, a crisis kit like this should list common or expected questions - but not answers to things for which "you had to be there"...

Posted by: Kari Chisholm at July 17, 2006 05:31 PM

To me this document clearly belies the "horrible, shocking tragedy that no one could anticipate" line of mallarkey people are giving out today. It's never been a question of if, but rather when.

Posted by: Jack Bog at July 17, 2006 05:36 PM

Question #8 offers two possible answers, which would of course depend on what had actually happened.

But Kari's right about #6. Presumably the prep kit is written on the assumption that whoever is using it should the need arise would be selective about which canned responses are actually appropriate to the specific situation.

What's so "chilling" about the contingency plan for "Scenario D"? The entire document looks to me like a thorough plan to deal with any conceivable disturbance in the event (they have plans for sniper attacks?) I say bravo to the organizers for being prepared.

You are right, Jack, about the malarky regarding "nobody could have anticipated..." That's just a bunch of B.S. As this document clearly demonstrates, the organizers DID anticipate the (remote) chance that something like this could happen, and they had a plan in place to deal with it.

Posted by: David Wright at July 17, 2006 05:43 PM

I like no. 7, too: "Our systems and our people appear to have performed exactly as they were supposed to perform." What sleaze.

Posted by: Jack Bog at July 17, 2006 05:44 PM

I like the fact that they thought about the sponsors. You gotta protect the sponsors' branding.

Nobody would want to go to GI Joes stores if you kept refering to the horrific GI Joes Race car crash where so and so (insert famous driver's name) got killed. Maybe the sponsorship contract has a built in clause for that stuff. Lawyers might just be that prepared, you think?

Posted by: Harry at July 17, 2006 05:58 PM

Here are this year's lucky sponsors. Lots of media outlets there -- think their coverage will be fair?

Posted by: Jack Bog at July 17, 2006 06:03 PM

If we are going to ban airshows based on the intrinsic risk, we ought to ban swimming in lakes and rivers. Swimming in pools is much safer, kind of like flying the commercial airlines.

Swimming in lakes or rivers is far more likely to result in death than attending an airshow. Worse yet, the same DANGEROUS swimming hole is frequently the site of repeated drownings year after year.


Posted by: Mister T at July 17, 2006 06:17 PM

I'm more bothered by the swarms of helicopters that were buzzing the accident site all freaking day. (And for that matter, my office.)

Posted by: Shelley at July 17, 2006 06:29 PM

Y'all do realize that the plane that crashed wasn't doing anything for the airshow right? It wasn't doing acrobatics, wasn't doing loopy-loops, wasn't in a race or anything... it had taken off from the airport and the pilot was on his way home.

Please explain to me how this is any different than any of the other private, experimental, and/or vintage airplanes which use Hillsboro, Portland, Pearson, and other local airports on a daily basis.

Posted by: Aaron B. Hockley at July 17, 2006 06:46 PM

Aaron is right. The crash was essentially unrelated to the air show, other than the interesting fact that the plane that crashed had coincidentally been an exhibit (i.e., not a performing aircraft, but an on-the-ground exhibit) at the air show.

Other than that, yeppers, planes do crash, and it is predictable that, given enough time, sooner or later one will crash that is performing in the air show.

Posted by: Rusty at July 17, 2006 07:40 PM

Maybe they should turn Multnomah County's disaster planning over to these guys.

Posted by: Ronald M at July 17, 2006 07:44 PM

it is predictable that, given enough time, sooner or later one will crash that is performing in the air show.

Particularly when it's an antique jalopy being piloted by a 73-year-old who's already taken one person's house out in his stellar aviation career.

Posted by: Jack Bog at July 17, 2006 07:50 PM


This was a 73 year old coot at the stick of military jet built in 1959, during the early Elvis years. A multi-engine jet can fly after one engine flames out. A single engine jet that has a flame out is a small tank with stubby little wings. Having this situation over a dense residential neighborhood is never a good idea. This was not a Cessna 150 with a decent glide ratio.


Posted by: JFree at July 17, 2006 07:59 PM

I'm much more worried about all the 70 year olds driving around in their 1980's Cadillacs after three Manhattans.

I'm surprised nobody mentioned the obvious irony: this guy made his living suing those who were "responsible" for airplane crashes. Their website says they also handle Vioxx claims.

Karma is a bitch.

Posted by: Mister T at July 17, 2006 08:59 PM

I know from many a practice exercise that Air Force public affairs folks have a somewhat similar set of canned answers for the typical questions the media is expected to ask. That helps avoid some of the dumb mistakes that can occur when one is reacting on the fly...so to speak.

Posted by: Gordie at July 17, 2006 09:29 PM

Give me a break... this guy wasn't a part of the airshow? He was there for the show, as a 'static display'. Presumably, his participation should be the least dangerous, no?

And how can anyone defend the crazy-ass idea to hold this in a residential area?? Per their press-spin kit:

"Q9 How many airshow accidents are there each year, we just heard about the one in the Ukraine not that long ago?

A9 As you would expect, this varies considerably. In some years, the industry has one or two accidents. In other years, it might have three, four or five."

So... their defense is "we have ample insurance, the business risk is worth it"?

Posted by: TKrueg at July 17, 2006 10:41 PM

every public safety employee takes the safety of everyone involved very seriously. To suggest that the City doesn't care about accidents


I love it when I'm attacked for things I never said.

Posted by: Jack Bog at July 17, 2006 11:00 PM

To me this document clearly belies the "horrible, shocking tragedy that no one could anticipate" line of mallarkey people are giving out today. It's never been a question of if, but rather when.

That's always the standard spin when something like this happens. Kind of like the Bush/Cheney/Rice/Rove spin that "no one could ever have imagined terrorists using planes to crash into prominent buildings!". Yeah, nobody except Tom Clancy whose Debt of Honor had that as a primary plot element. The book, of course, was a #1 NYT bestseller.

Posted by: Kari Chisholm at July 17, 2006 11:01 PM

a couple of thoughts:

What if the plane hadn't crashed in Hillsboro, but in Salem, or Eugene, on the way home. Still destroying homes. Would the air show be an issue in the conversation?

The argument that the air show is held in a residential area doesn't wash. The airport has been there longer than the cookie cutter housing developments that now surround it. Blame development on that, not the air show.

Posted by: dieselboi at July 18, 2006 01:20 PM

The airport is not the issue. Normal planes fly in and out all the time - normal planes which were constructed at some point since the dawn of color TV.

It's the airshow that's the issue - stunt people flying loop-di-loops near residential areas, and airborne jalopies (which normally would have been grounded longer than Nancy Davis' acting career) being coaxed off the ground for one last flight.

Posted by: Hinckley at July 18, 2006 09:41 PM

[Posted as indicated; restored later.]

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