The Two Sides of Aerobatics

I just got home a few minutes ago, exhausted after spending two long days in an intensive class studying the finer points of judging competitive aerobatics.

My employer sponsored this seminar, better know as a “judges school”, where those of us who are involved in the sport can satisfy one of the requirements for becoming an accredited IAC aerobatic judge.

I came away impressed once again with the two dozen aerobatic pilots I’ve come to know over the past year.  They’re an intelligent, well-considered group who take flying upside down seriously.  People who’ve invested — and continue to invest — their time, money, and attention in this fine sport.  People who take the risks seriously, countering them with world-class training and a dedication to following the rules.

I also came home to some bad news on the AP newswire.

ROSEVILLE, California (AP) — A single-engine plane that appeared to have been performing an aerobatic stunt lost control and crashed into a suburban home Sunday, killing at least two people and sparking a fire that gutted the house, police said.

The crash left a gaping, smoldering hole in the two-story house it directly hit and set fire to an adjacent house, damaging the garage and attic, said Roseville Fire Marshall Dennis Mathisen. One body was visible in the wreckage.

The plane — which the FAA identified as a 1996 Glasair II — appeared to be doing an aerobatic maneuver when it crashed just before 11:30 a.m., Roseville Police spokeswoman Dee Dee Gunther said.

“The pilot appeared to be coming down low for some kind of maneuver that brought him to within 500 feet of the rooftops,” she said. “And then he appeared to lose control and crashed into one of the houses.”

Rick Wurster, who lives about a half mile from the crash, saw the plane attempting to make a figure eight.

“He couldn’t pull up because he didn’t have enough altitude,” Wurster said. “I saw him do two spins and then go over the tree line. A second later, I heard two booms.”

This is the other side.  Reckless behavior exhibited by the unqualified.

I firmly believe aerobatics are a safe activity, assuming they’re performed in a safe location by a properly trained pilot.  The investigation into this one is just starting, but this Glasair crash may be another case of massive error in pilot judgement.  I say “may” because initial media reports after an accident are often inaccurate.  Even preliminary NTSB reports often contain errors.

Nevertheless, I can say with certainty that no one should be performing aerobatics over homes.  It is both unwise and highly illegal.  I’ve seen footage of the crash site, and it’s definitely a congested area.

In fact, 14 CFR 91.303 prohibits aerobatics in six places:

  • over any congested area
  • over an open air assembly of people
  • within an airport surface area
  • on an airway
  • below 1500 feet above the ground
  • when in-flight visibility is less than 3 miles

Since we’re on the topic, it’s worthwhile to define aerobatics.  For the purposes of 91.303, it refers to “an intentional maneuver involving an abrupt change in an aircraft’s attitude, an abnormal attitude, or abnormal acceleration, not necessary for normal flight.”

Now I wouldn’t put too much stock in an AP news story, but if the reported eyewitness accounts are anywhere near reality, this pilot was way out of line.  He shouldn’t have been flying at 500′ over those homes, even in straight and level flight, unless he was in the process of taking off or landing.

So how dangerous is this kind of thing?  Well, there were about 1,200 general aviation accidents last year.  According to the Air Safety Foundation, “Low-level maneuvering was the leading cause [of accidents] again this year, as it has been for the last five, holding steady at about 25 percent of fatal accidents.”  Low level maneuvering is a synonym for low level aerobatics, something 99.9% of the pilot population has absolutely no business messing with.

By the same token, Sport Aerobatics magazine reported that 2005 saw only 10 airshow or contest-related mishaps, the second lowest total in the past two decades.

Ten accidents.  Is that a lot?  I don’t know.  But I do know this:  airshows are one of the most popular events on the planet.

In the 1990s, airshows were the second most popular spectator sport in North America with over 18 million people attending more than 400 airshows annually. In 1998, airshows drew nearly twice the attendance figures of NFL football.

These airshows consist almost entirely of hard core, low level aerobatics.  A year with only 10 mishaps sounds pretty good to me, especially when compared with 300 low level maneuvering accidents among the greater general aviation community.

The inescapable conclusion is that unless one has received appropriate aerobatic and  spin training from a qualified instructor, aerobatics should be avoided.  Though I’m undoubtedly talking to a brick wall, I’ll say it again:  low level aerobatics are especially deadly.  They should only be attempted by extremely experienced, highly trained aerobats flying purpose-built equipment under tightly controlled conditions.

If pilots would stick to this simple rule, fatalities would drop by 25%, the largest single killer of aviators would be eliminated, and this beleagured avocation would avoid further damage to its public image.

Wake up, people.

  4 comments for “The Two Sides of Aerobatics

  1. John
    February 13, 2006 at 4:21 pm

    I saw a local television report on this and one eyewitness seemed very credible. He described the accident aircraft doing low passes, then an aileron, followed by another aileron roll that went bad.

    That same night there was a report on a Beech Sierra that crashed just short of the runway at Reid-Hillview Airport in San Jose. A student pilot was at the controls, with an instructor in the right seat and another instructor in the backseat. Initial reports seem to indicate the engine stopped on short final because the selected fuel tank had run dry. There reportedly was plenty of fuel in the other tank. Fuel starvation with two CFIs onboard. Sheesh.

    A third accident report of continued VFR flight into IMC would have completed the triad of the most popular ways to kill yourself in a small plane, but alas the weather was too good.

  2. Ron
    February 14, 2006 at 12:29 am

    I hadn’t heard about the RHV incident but read up on it in the Mercury News.

    I suppose that unless a fuel leak is found, the CFI will be facing at a 709 ride for allowing the plane to run that tank dry. The off airport landing I guess one could make a defense for. “If the engine fails at low altitude, troubleshooting takes a back seat to establishing Vg and finding a place to land”. But I doubt that will fly (no pun intended).

    As for the weather, it was either too good, or too bad (ie. New York!). Fear not, I’m sure an VFR-into-IMC incident will be upon us all too soon. 🙁

  3. charlie b
    February 15, 2006 at 3:18 pm


  4. Eric Landske
    March 3, 2006 at 10:06 pm

    Rapp Man !

    Keep up the good work !! Your website kicks–ass.


    Eric a.k.a. “Toolbag”

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