Should the USAF ban flying displays by large aircraft?

Photo: US Air Force

ABC News aviation consultant and career C-141 pilot John Nance believes so.

Breaking from a book-writing holiday in Cabo, Mexico, yesterday, Nance told me the C-17 crash video and full report by the accident investigation board show the US Air Force leadership is broken.

“Here we go again,” Nance said. “This is going to put aerial demonstrations for large airplanes under scrutiny. I think they need to stop.”

The C-17 crash on 28 July at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, occurred as the pilot practiced a self-planned routine for the upcoming Arctic Thunder air show, according to the USAF AIB report. In an effort to “put on a good show”, the pilot’s routine pushed the aircraft to edge of its performance envelope, including a maneuver that required a 260-deg right turn with 80-deg of bank shortly after takeoff and well below the USAF’s prescribed altitude for display profiles. On top of that, the pilot’s approved flight profile deliberately called for ignoring the C-17′s stall warning stick-shaker, which he determined by himself to be inaccurate, according to the report. (One former C-17 test pilot told me: “The stall warning system isn’t inaccurate. That’s why it’s there.”)

Moreover, the USAF’s system of checks and balances intended to stop reckless maneuvering failed to work. The C-17 pilot’s boss and peers considered him an excellent flier, requiring little supervision. It is not clear in the report if the pilot’s flight profile had been approved, but several USAF pilots and safety experts have told me that is required. The co-pilot and safety observer on the flight deck, who were also killed, may have been trained by the pilot to also ignore the stall warning system, removing the last check and balance in the USAF system.

For Nance, who also developed an aircraft safety program for the USAF, display flying by pilots of large aircraft is asking for trouble. “We do not fly near to that envelope,” Nance said. “We are trained to stay right in the middle of the envelope. This is not like a F-15 pilot. He is going to know where that edge is. He’ll fly right up to where the test pilot stopped. But that’s not transport people and that’s not bomber people.”

The C-17 crash is believed to be first loss of a large aircraft caused by a flying display routine since the 1994 crash of a Boeing B-52 at Fairchild AFB, Washington. In that example, there was the additional dimension of the pilot’s character. Lt Col Arthur “Bud” Holland was considered by his peers to be a dangerous, egomaniacal flier. When Holland was scheduled to fly, his own fellow pilots evacuated their families from base housing, fearing they could become casualties of Holland’s recklessness. No one has accused the pilot in the recent C-17 crash of being so dangerous. It appears he simply wanted to make the best airshow routine he could.

“But we have once again a massive lack of oversight,” Nance said. “They have to stop this element of pushing [the envelope] regardless of whether the spirit and intent were pure or not.”


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13 Responses to Should the USAF ban flying displays by large aircraft?

  1. FighterFan 14 December, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    Everyone brings up the Fairchild Buff crash again, but this episode bears similarity to the NASA Shuttle disasters too. As the CAIB stated, lessons aren’t always learnt the first time round.

    It would be a shame if large aircraft displays were permanently curtailed because of this; I’m sure a safe display routine that still demonstrates the C-17′s capabilities can be developed.

    Hopefully, the lessons will be learnt this time.

  2. OV-099 14 December, 2010 at 2:38 pm #

    If USAF buys the A400M they can have plenty of safe aerial demonstrations with a large aircraft since the A400M routinely performss “dramatic” flight displays thanks to the FBW envelope protection. The aircraft can even perform such maneuvers with cargo.

  3. Charley A. 14 December, 2010 at 2:47 pm #

    Canceling large aircraft displays en mass is a ridiculous overreaction to an accident caused by pilot error. What is needed is better supervision. Clearly this was lacking in this accident chain.

  4. John S. 14 December, 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    No, don’t ban flying displays by large aircraft, ban hotdog pilots who push their aircraft outside of the published flight envelope in the name of a “better show.”

    One thing in common with both the Fairchild crash and the Elmendorf crash is that low airspeed coupled with a high bank angle in aircraft that use spoilers for roll control.

    To roll a C-17 or a B-52, spoilers deploy on the inside turn wing to kill lift, rather than using purely ailerons that don’t disturb airflow over the majority of the wing surface.

  5. Tim D-T 14 December, 2010 at 3:06 pm #

    OV-099 is right. We can always depend on computers and software to do the right thing. They will never make mistakes or have issues with unexpected inputs. Let’s just take the pilots completely out of the loop and fly airshow displays autonomously unmanned . . .

  6. jetcal1 14 December, 2010 at 4:49 pm #

    You are without a doubt correct. One merely has to look at the Qantas A380 to see how well FBW and automation does. After all, the aircraft wouldn’t allow a shut down of an engine with the fuel S/O valves.

    Perhaps the A400M does these flights better simply because a prop is intrinsically better at quickly responding to throttle inputs and generating thrust on demand? Naw, must be the FBW.

  7. John 14 December, 2010 at 6:10 pm #

    The Air France Airbus A320-100 crash doing a flyby should make you wonder if replaceing the pilot is a better option.

  8. Znapel 14 December, 2010 at 8:19 pm #

    I’ll have to throw my voice in with the “don’t ban” crowd. Having been to every Arctic Thunder air show in the past 10 years or so, I’ve seen the C-17 demo many times. It’s always been a delight and will continue to be. Just keep it safe.

  9. ELP 14 December, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

    Poor airmanship is poor airmanship. And yes the Fairchild example is apt because the discussion is about poor airmanship and flying an aircraft outside of established limits. Fairchild (Darker Shades of Blue) should be required reading by all military pilots.

    Ending airshow displays with large aircraft isn’t the problem. The problem is eliminating stupid decisions in airmanship.

    Why not show the public what the aircraft does in real life? Why not have it go in the taxiway by the audience and kick out some pallets as it is slowly rolling along? And then show the ground people drive equipment out there to pick up the pallets (of course followed by a FOD check).

    Aircraft comes in, taxis by audience, kicks out a few pallets as it is rolling keeps taxing to the end of the runway and takes off again.

    Show the people what the aircraft actually does. Good grief.

  10. MrSatyre 14 December, 2010 at 10:46 pm #

    On a related note, I’ll never forget one of the first Soviet air exhibitions in the US at Andrews AFB near Washington, D.C.. They brought in an An-24 and flew it around the field almost a full 90 degrees on its side, almost entirely within the radius of the main strip. I could see everyone cringing, waiting for the wings to rip off or for it to nose down into the crowds. I’ve heard quite a few “big fish” tales from former Soviet and Russian pilots about switching off warnings and otherwise throwing the common sense book out the window, but after having seen that, I think I actually believe them.

    I don’t know if this in particular has any relevance, but there used to be a sign hanging in the hangers which stated “If it’s not wartime, you DON’T have to fly through the thunderstorm.”

    It would be a shame if more of our great pilots started to think that they were better than common sense dictates.

  11. RTLM 15 December, 2010 at 4:22 am #

    A little late to the discussion – But definitely show the large aircraft, fly them proudly. Just don’t horse them around like fighter jets.

  12. Bruce 20 December, 2010 at 10:27 am #

    And don’t forget the Tu-144 incident at Paris. A similar prang.

  13. Model Airplanes 29 December, 2010 at 3:02 am #

    If it will prevent such accidents, and save lives, then yes USAF should ban it.

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