Air shows are intended to provide a fun time for the entire family. Unfortunately, disasters have occurred over the years. From minor injuries to major loss of life, air shows create safety risks for spectators and aviators. These are the worst air shows in the history of aviation.
The early air shows of the 1920s often featured long-distance air races. The races lasted days and covered thousands of miles. Aerobatic stunts were gradually introduced and increased the popularity of the events. Aerobatics also increased the potential hazards of air shows.
There have been hundreds of accidents at air shows over the past century. Most accidents result in injury or death to the airplane crew. However, some of the worst air show disasters resulted in the deaths of spectators.
Aerobatics refers to the flying maneuvers performed by airplanes during air shows. The five basic aerobatic maneuvers include:
Aerobatics often involve flying in unusual altitudes, such as low to the ground. Performing these moves increases the risk that the pilot may lose control of the plane, which is the most common reason behind the following 12 worst air show disasters:
1. Sknyliv Air Show Disaster in Ukraine
The Sknyliv Air Show was held on July 27th, 2002 near Lviv, Ukraine. A Sukhoi Su-27 piloted by a member of the Ukrainian Air Force crashed during an aerobatic stunt. 77 people were killed and 543 were injured, making it the deadliest air show accident in history.
10,000 spectators attended the event. The plane was performing a rolling maneuver at a low altitude when it struck the ground. The crew ejected from the plane as it skidded toward stationary aircraft. The plane hit several other planes and began cartwheeling into the crowd of spectators. As the plane cartwheeled, it exploded. Both pilots survived, but 77 spectators were killed, including 28 children. The pilots and several officials were jailed and fined for the disaster.
2. Ramstein Air Show Disaster in Germany
The Ramstein Air Show Disaster is the second-worst air show disaster in history. It occurred on August 28th, 1988 during an air show at the United States Ramstein Air Base in West Germany. Three airplanes from the Italian Air Force display team collided and crashed to the ground. The planes hit the runway and created a fireball that tumbled into the spectators. Additional debris hit an emergency medical evacuation helicopter.
Three pilots and 67 spectators died from the crash. An additional 356 spectators suffered severe injuries and hundreds more sustained minor injuries. Close to 500 people had to seek hospital treatment due to the event.
3. Golden West Sport Aviation Show Disaster
During the Golden West Sport Aviation Show, 22 people were killed when a plane failed to take off from a runway. The event was held in Sacramento, California on September 24th, 1972. A pilot flying a Canadair Sabre Mk. 5 did not gain enough altitude and flew through a chain-link fence near the end of the runway.
The plane was traveling at speeds of 240 km/h when it crossed the road behind the runway and hit an ice cream parlor. The plane exploded, killing 22 people and injuring 28, including members of a Little League football team who were celebrating at the ice cream parlor. The pilot suffered a broken arm and leg.
4. 2011 National Championship Air Races Disaster
At the 2011 National Championship Air Races, 11 people died and 69 were injured. The event was the third-deadliest air show disaster in US history. A pilot crashed a modified North American P-51D Mustang racing aircraft.
The airplane was flying in the race and was in third place when it suddenly pitched, rolled, and nosedived. The airplane hit the ground at speeds of over 400 miles per hour. It crashed in front of the grandstands, instantly killing the pilot. Along with the pilot, seven people died at the crash site. Four additional people died later in the hospital. This was one of several accidents involving modified Mustang aircraft. However, earlier incidents did not result in spectator fatalities.
5. Ostend Airshow Disaster 1997
During the Ostend Airshow in Ostend, Belgium, spectators were injured and killed when a plane crashed near a Red Cross tent and the spectator stands. The event was held on July 26th, 1997, and included a variety of planes.
One of the teams flying during the event was the Royal Jordanian Falcons. The Falcons are part of the Jordanian Air Force. A plane piloted by Captain Omar Hani Bilal lost control during the event. The pilot was flying a Walter Extra EA300s.
The plane crashed at the end of the runway, killing the pilot and eight spectators. After the plane crashed, it burst into flames. An additional 40 people on the ground suffered various injuries due to the crash and explosion.
6. Paris Air Show Disaster
The Paris Air Show in 1973 was the sight of a disaster that resulted in 14 deaths. A Russian supersonic airliner disintegrated in mid-air during a basic flight demonstration. The plane was the first production Tupolev TU-144 and was piloted by a Russian crew. A variety of factors are believed to have contributed to the disaster. An investigation blamed pilot error, mechanical failure, and interference by a French airplane that was sent to photograph the TU-144.
The pilot and all five crew members were killed when the plane disintegrated and crashed to the ground. The resulting crash killed an additional eight people on the ground.
7. Canary Islands Air Show
A pilot and four spectators died at the Canary Island Air Show on April 8th, 1984. 6000 spectators attended the event. The accident occurred at the Los Rodeos Airport, which was the site of an airplane accident seven years earlier that killed 583 people.
During the Canary Island Air Show, a member of Spain’s national air acrobatics team lost control of his aircraft. The accident occurred shortly after takeoff. The aircraft soon went into a dive and crashed into the runway. The plane caught fire and bounced 100 yards along the tarmac before crashing into a wooden barrier and the crowd of spectators. The pilot died, along with four spectators. An additional 14 people were injured.
8. Airshow at RAF Syerston in 1958
The Royal Air Force (RAF) station in Syerston, Nottinghamshire, UK was the site of an accident that killed three spectators and four members of the aircrew. A prototype Avro Vulcan Bomber crashed during a test flight.
The test flight was part of a military aviation air show. The Vulcan had four members on board. When the plane attempted to climb from the runway, the starboard wing disintegrated, resulting in the wing structure collapsing. The plane went into a dive. When the plane struck the ground, all crew members died, along with three members of a caravan that were monitoring the test flight. Three servicemen in a nearby ambulance were also injured.
9. Bartlesville Biplane Exposition
Four pilots died during the Bartlesville Biplane Exposition in 1996. The event was held on June 2nd in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and featured biplanes performing various aerobatics. Two of the biplanes clipped wings as they were attempting to land.
Witnesses told investigators that one plane began banking to prepare for the return to the airport when the second plane struck it from the rear. As the wings clipped each other, they were torn from the planes.
A large explosion occurred. Both pilots and passengers died instantly from the explosion. The dead included William Watson (71), John Halterman (51), Rodney Bogan (41), and Annette Delahay (45).
10. Indian Air Force Day Disaster
Two people died and a dozen were injured on Indian Air Force Day in New Delhi, India. The accident occurred on October 8th, 1989. Wing Commander Ramesh Bakshi of the Indian Air Force was piloting a Mirage 2000 when he crashed. He was attempting to perform a maneuver called the “Downward Charlie.” The maneuver involves a series of downward rolls before pulling out the wings at a low altitude.
As the pilot performed the maneuver, he crashed into the ground. 12 spectators were injured from the subsequent fire and explosions. One spectator and the pilot died as the result of their injuries.
11. Redding Airshow Accident
One person died and several were injured when a plane crashed at the Redding Airshow in California on June 22nd, 1991. Gordy Drysdale (43), of Stockton, was piloting a T-34 and failed to complete a low altitude roll near the spectators. The crash occurred during clear weather in the middle of the afternoon. The pilot was the fourth member of a four-member aerobatic team. He crashed while performing a stunt called an end-tail roll.
Two spectators were injured as a result of the crash. One person suffered back injuries while a woman sustained several fractures. Investigators did not determine the cause of the crash.
12. Seattle World’s Fair Accident
The Seattle World’s Fair was not an air show but featured a flyover by an F-102 fighter as part of the opening ceremonies. The event was held between April 21st and October 21st, 1962 in Seattle, Washington, in the area that is now called Seattle Center.
As preparation for the fair, the city erected the iconic Space Needle and a monorail, along with several sports venues. The fair cost over $7.5 million to produce and was a major event. During the opening ceremonies, the F-102 fighter flew overhead as planned. However, it suffered a flameout at about 1500 feet. The pilot safely ejected over a residential neighborhood, but the plane crashed into a residence, killing Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Smith.