Let’s ditch the Chicago Air and Water Show.

There’s no groundswell of support for that position, or else it’s very well hidden. The show attracted about two million people last year, according to the city.

Alderman Burton Natarus tried a one-man assault on the show in 1988 after a devastating German air show accident, with the same result as his proposal to put diapers on Michigan Avenue carriage horses. “I worry about one of those mechanical errors happening in which hundreds of pounds of flaming metal crashes into a high-rise apartment building,” he said at the time. Now he won’t return phone calls on the topic.

Friends of the Parks isn’t concerned about extra pollution. President Erma Tranter’s only quibble is with spectators creating their own parking spaces, and she’s happy since city tow trucks started attacking such motorists. The Streeterville Organization of Active Residents lost interest when the air show moved its ground operations up to the North Avenue beach in the mid-80s.

So why junk the air show, now entering its 39th year with nary a crash? Because other air shows aren’t so lucky—and there’s no reason our luck couldn’t run out too.

Take the El Toro Air Show, held at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in California since 1950. The three-day show drew over 1.8 million people this year. El Toro proves that an unblemished history can end anytime.

The show’s troubles began in 1985 after a spotless 35-year record. A World War II AT-6 took off to perform with a group of former fighter pilots who staged mock dogfights in vintage planes. The AT-6 quickly lost power and crashed through power lines and into a base chapel, “spewing debris and flames,” according to accounts. The chapel was empty, but a certain local florist probably underwent a religious conversion that day. The florist had just delivered flowers to the chapel and left about 15 seconds before the plane entered through a wall near the altar. Fire destroyed the chapel, and the pilot and his passenger both were killed. The base chaplain stood outside the smoldering chapel and told reporters, “It’s put a bit of a cloud over the air show, and that’s a shame.”

Three years later, marine colonel Jerry Cadick flew an annual El Toro performance of F-18 jet maneuvers. Performing a loop he’d done many times before, Cadick apparently miscalculated and hurtled into the runway. The $18 million plane was a total loss. Cadick was slightly better off; he had to be entirely rebuilt. His neck was broken in three places and his entire face pushed back one inch. He received numerous hardware additions, such as metal rings for eye sockets.

In 1993, civilian pilot James Gregory also failed to finish a loop in his Korean war-era F-86 Sabre jet, which slammed into the runway and spread wreckage for about a mile. Gregory was less fortunate than Cadick. His jet exploded, and he perished.

El Toro is mainly a military air show, staged by the marines and featuring the navy’s famed Blue Angels aerial demonstration team (a star attraction at this year’s Chicago show). At the other end of the air show spectrum are civilian shows like the annual Sun ‘n Fun Fly-In at Lakeland Airport in Florida. Sun ‘n Fun is a convention of the Experimental Aircraft Association and features mainly vintage, ultralight, and experimental planes.

This year, Sun ‘n Fun saw the death of Charlie Hillard, known as one of the world’s best pilots. Hillard finished his performance, landed his World War II-era Hawker Sea Fury, and taxied down the runway at a mere 35 to 40 miles per hour. Then his plane veered to the right and flipped over. Hillard, seated in a bubble cockpit without roll bars, was crushed beneath the 10,000-pound plane. Four would-be spectators died in two crashes while flying in to watch the show. One of the planes came down in a neighborhood of Kissimmee.

Jorge Prellezo, southeastern director of the National Transportation Safety Board, told the Tampa Tribune that, given the number of takeoffs and landings at Sun ‘n Fun, “it’s a very safe event. Every time you have this number of operations you always have some problems.” That might be small comfort to anyone living near the Kissimmee crash site.

Last year Sun ‘n Fun got away with just one helicopter crash and minor injuries at the show itself. Even the show manager sounded surprised. “It was a safe show, with no one seriously injured on the ground or in the air,” he told the Tampa Tribune. “With that many people and that many planes going in so many different directions, that’s saying something.” At least two pilots died in crashes on their way home, however.

Sun ‘n Fun demonstrates that the most dangerous part of some air shows may not have an audience. Aviation enthusiasts pilot themselves to and from these events, and a surprising number kill or mortally embarrass themselves in the process. Oddly, there’s no record of these accidents taking out bystanders on the ground, though the pilots have a knack for seeking out subdivisions and busy highways.

1995. Two homebound spectators crash. One plane goes down just off the Bee Line Expressway in Florida, killing the pilot and setting off a large brushfire. The other crash-lands on Florida’s I-75, skids into a median, catches fire, and chars a hundred-foot-wide circle around the wreck. That pilot dies too. Somehow, no motorists are affected.

1994. Homebound spectator runs out of gas, hits a light pole, and plunges into a Fort Lauderdale front lawn, stopping about three feet from a bedroom wall. Fortunately, the kids who usually play in the yard aren’t home that day. And since the surrounding lawns were littered with jagged metal from the crash, it’s also lucky that the next-door neighbor had just finished cutting his grass and gone inside.

1993. Showbound spectator lands in a suburban Tampa backyard, barely missing the house, when mechanical problems force down his replica World War I German Fokker.

Last month a pilot returning home from an air show crash-landed in a downtown Portland, Oregon, parking lot. Pilot Clint Alford had bought the ultralight training plane at the show but may have neglected to give it a test spin. Its engine conked out after only three hours of flight.

Locally, Libertyville pilot Michael Garofalo and his father, Vito, were killed in 1994 while flying home from the air show in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Their 1942 Consolidated Vultee crashed into a Racine apartment building before hitting the ground between two buildings.

Oshkosh might rival Sun ‘n Fun if numbers were available. Earlier this month, former army colonel Larry Van Winkle died on his way to the Oshkosh show when his Kitfox experimental plane crashed soon after takeoff from a Mount Vernon, Illinois, airport. Last year an Oshkosh-bound Beechcraft T-34C went down in a suburban Milwaukee field 200 yards from I-94, killing the pilot and passenger. They ran out of gas. And two brothers on their way to the show died when their Beechcraft Bonanza dived into a small lake in a Florida subdivision.

Experienced air show pilots also run into trouble flying home. Last year, veteran Joliet pilot Jim Tomasino and his wife were returning from a show at Lake in the Hills Airport in McHenry County when they crashed their Pitts S2B biplane in an open field behind a house in Kane County. Both suffered burns in the ensuing fire.

Air show defenders proudly point out that this country hasn’t had a spectator fatality since the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration in 1958. And that’s true, unless you count seven-year-old John Pigford Jr., who was touring the cockpit of an S-3 Viking patrol aircraft at a 1981 air show when he sat down in the pilot’s seat and tripped the ejector mechanism. The little boy rocketed through the plane’s roof and died from a skull fracture and internal injuries.

The live-spectator argument is the premier defense for air shows, but it has two major flaws. First, despite the air show industry’s real concern for pilot safety, focusing on the fact that only performers have died presumes that the pilots’ lives aren’t relevant to the discussion. Why not? Pilots participate freely, yes—but society doesn’t consider voluntary endangerment an inalienable right in many other instances, such as driving without a seat belt or even not putting your tray back into the upright position before landing.

Second, the live-spectator argument assumes that U.S. audiences and other nearby bystanders have been safe solely because of rigorous air show regulations. That’s not so different from unilaterally crediting mutual assured destruction for the lack of a nuclear holocaust during the cold war.

To be sure, the FAA’s air show rules are valuable. Before they were imposed, tragedies like the 1951 debacle in tiny Flagler, Colorado, were all too possible.

The Flagler audience of 2,000 was looking forward to an exciting air show that September 15. Instead, a stunt plane failed to finish a barrel roll and crashed directly into the crowd, killing 20 people—14 of them children—and injuring 30 more. The pilot had missed the air show’s safety briefing advising against doing stunts over the crowd. One spectator saw his wife plowed down by the plane, and then carried his fatally injured daughter to a car to take her to the hospital. According to a nurse, “She was slashed across the chest. You could see her heart pulsating. . . . Her left leg was held on by a bit of skin.” One witness saw a dying friend impaled on a propeller blade. According to a hospital worker that day, “Splinters of metal, pieces of metal, and screws and nails were embedded in their bodies like a tornado would embed them in their bodies.”

So things are better now. We’ll give them that. But a closer look at air show accidents suggests that audience and bystander safety also owes much to luck, because even a federal agency can’t issue regulations against planes crashing during aerobatic routines. It happens every year, and an FAA spokesman acknowledges that no rule can insure that an off-course, out-of-control jet won’t someday slam into an audience or nearby populated area.

This June, a veteran test pilot for the McDonnell Douglas Corporation was practicing aerobatics in an F/A-18C Hornet for the Czech International Airfest, where McDonnell Douglas hoped to show off the plane and spur sales. Jeffrey Crutchfield, a former navy pilot, had just completed a loop called a Cuban 8 and was flying level to the ground when the jet crashed and exploded among houses in downstate Bethalto, Illinois.

The Hornet clipped power lines and trees and destroyed a detached garage before most of it ended up in the yard of resident Joe Valdes. “One of the engines landed right under a rope swing I put in a tree,” Valdes told the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. “There usually are 15 kids playing there.” Crutchfield died, staying with the plane to steer it away from houses rather than ejecting, according to witnesses and an investigator from the Naval Safety Center.

A few days later, stunt pilot Peggy Hovious performed a comedy routine at the annual Racine Airshow in Wisconsin, pretending she didn’t know how to fly her single-engine Piper Super Cub. The audience thought it a convincing part of the act when the Cub nose-dived near the runway about 600 feet from the audience. Hovious died. An autopsy found heart disease, and investigators are considering the possibility that she suffered a heart attack in midair.

Earlier in June, two vintage biplanes at a Bartlesville, Oklahoma, air show collided and crashed, killing all four occupants. One plane missed a house by about 50 yards. And less than two weeks ago, veteran stunt pilot Clarence “Clancy” Speal’s smoking “Pitts Special” biplane plummeted into the Ohio River near the Carnegie Science Center. The plane’s left wings had sheared off during a loop Speal performed at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Regatta. His body was brought up two days later.

Some other close calls:

California. Seven audience members were injured at a 1991 Redding air show, two going to intensive care. Pilot Gordy Drysdale was part of a team that flew T-34A jets in maneuvers like the Blue Angels perform. Three of the planes were performing what’s called a left aileron roll while trailing smoke at 300 feet above the ground. Drysdale’s plane hit the runway, exploded, and slid toward the audience. As the National Transportation Safety Board report put it, “The engine, engine accessories and battery separated from the airframe and tumbled beyond the crowd line”—in other words, into the crowd. The audience was properly positioned 500 feet from the show line, but that wasn’t far enough.

“I saw a woman and then a man, both who had been seated next to us, get thrown out of the seating area and onto the tarmac. I believe this is when they were hit from behind by the engine of the aircraft,” reads one witness’s statement. “By this time I could feel the heat from the flames, had no idea where the aircraft was, as all of my attention was centered on urging my wife and myself to keep on running quickly.”

Another witness reported, “As the plane cartwheeled toward the crowd I saw the engine fly loose and tumble into the spectator area. I saw it strike a man in the back and knock him down. When things settled down I saw that the protective barrier in front of the crowd was melted away.”

“I shoved my 7-year-old daughter and told her to run, grabbed up my 3-year-old son, and ran like hell in the direction of the portable toilets,” wrote another witness. “I thought I felt the heat from the explosion as I ran. None of us were hurt or struck by debris, although I saw debris close by upon returning to retrieve my belongings some 2 hours later.”

Texas. Last year, Henry “Hank” Ketchum, a retired American Airlines pilot, and a passenger were killed as Ketchum practiced for the Jefferson County Air Show. He was flying an AT-6 Texan, a World War II trainer, that nose-dived 100 feet from the runway after the engine stalled. The wreckage was less than 250 feet from a housing development. One witness described watching the plane crash about a hundred yards from her house: “There was a tremendous thud and it shook the ground.”

A year earlier, two World War II-era planes performing in a San Antonio air show clipped wings and crashed near the city’s downtown. One plane slammed into a building and exploded, while the other plunged into an embankment. Surprisingly, only the planes’ four occupants died.

New Hampshire. When a stunt plane flew into a parachutist during a 1993 air show, the plane lost a wing and crashed near a Kmart parking lot, sending debris into the lot. Blue-light shoppers were unscathed.

Nevada. The Reno National Championship Air Races hosted two fatal crashes in 1994. In the second, two planes collided in midair as a race began. One plane broke apart and landed in a residential garage owned by a commercial pilot, who fortunately was not home at the time.

North Carolina. An Air Force C-130 cargo plane pancaked on the ground in front of 5,000 civilian spectators while dropping off an armored car in a 1987 show at Fort Bragg. The plane skidded across the runway, missed the grandstand by about 50 yards, broke apart, and exploded in some pine trees. “I thought we was gonna get killed,” said an eight-year-old witness. Four crewmen died, along with a soldier on the ground.

The same maneuver was repeated the next day for a different audience, but the drop-off area was moved 400 meters farther from the grandstand. A Fort Bragg spokesman denied that the change was made for safety reasons. The drop-off area was moved, said Major Mike Nason, “not because we said, “Oh no, we got too close to the grandstand yesterday.’ It was because there was debris still on yesterday’s [drop-off area], and they need to maintain the integrity of the crash site for the investigation.”

New York. At a 1985 air show at Niagara Falls International Airport, two Blue Angels jets collided during a maneuver in which planes race toward each other, then go into a steep climb to perform loops. One pilot was killed instantly while the other ejected safely. An FAA worker in the control tower told the Associated Press that one jet crashed at the airport and the other ended up in a nearby auto junkyard.

Utah. Captain David L. “Nick” Hauck of the Air Force’s elite aerial demonstration team, the Thunderbirds, died in 1981 when his T-38 jet stalled during an air show marking the 40th anniversary of Hill Air Force Base. According to the Air Force report, Hauck made a turn to approach the runway for a “high-low pass,” in which two jets fly past each other low over a runway. Hauck’s apparently lost too much speed during the turn, and the jet stalled. Though the report affirmed that Hauck could have ejected safely, he went down with the jet in a nearby field. The T-38 cartwheeled into a hillside and exploded several hundred feet from 80,000 spectators. Witnesses believed Hauck had stayed in his plane to steer it away from the crowd. Two horses in the field were killed by debris.

Several FAA regulations are usually cited as protecting U.S. audiences from tragedy. Air show performers are required to maintain specified distances from the audience during any part of a maneuver, says John Perkins, the FAA’s aviation events coordinator for the Great Lakes region. Small planes may fly within 500 feet, while medium-size craft are restricted to 1,000 feet and jets to 1,500 feet. The Chicago Air Show audience enjoys an extra buffer, because “with the configuration of the shoreline and lake it’s probably closer to 3,000 feet,” according to Jerry Wyatt, principal operations inspector at the FAA’s DuPage Flight Standards District Office.

A buffer zone doesn’t guarantee that a crashing jet won’t go off-course and streak into the audience. “No, it’s not a guarantee,” says Perkins. “As a matter of fact, if you wanted to guarantee it, the thing is not to do it at all. So we do things that make [the maneuvers] as safe as possible.”

Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, a retired navy fighter pilot, is less optimistic. Carroll is now deputy director of the Center for Defense Information, a nonprofit Washington think tank that produces the weekly PBS program American Defense Monitor. “If the collision occurs in such a way that the plane is damaged and becomes uncontrollable but still has power and airlift, it could end up veering very sharply before it crashed,” he says. “Fifteen hundred feet is a quarter of a mile, a little more. You can look out your window and judge where that is, and if someone there is doing 550 miles per hour it wouldn’t take him long to get where you are.”

Rudy Kapustin, a retired major-accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board who now runs his own consulting firm, favors air shows but also concedes that in an accident “there’s no guarantee what’ll happen. No more than you have any control if a car goes out of control at the racetrack and flies into the grandstands. Stuff like that happens. But I think that’s one of the risks you accept. You go out in close proximity to high-performance maneuvers and you trust that no catastrophe’s going to happen, just as you walk past the Empire State Building and hope nobody drops a coffee mug out of the 86th floor. People don’t think about it, but that’s what it boils down to.”

It’s unclear whether pilots ejecting from crashing aircraft increase the threat to air show audiences. “Normally a pilot would steer the plane away from any populated area, period,” says Perkins. But after the pilot ejects, the plane can do anything? “Oh, that’s a good statement, sure,” he says.

Carroll doesn’t believe ejection increases the hazard because he doesn’t think a pilot can control a crashing jet anyway. “When you get into an ejection situation, frequently it occurs in a way that means the pilot has totally lost control of the plane. There’s no such thing as trying to steer it anyplace. His only option is to save himself,” he says. “In the jet domain, the plane can rapidly become totally uncontrollable if there’s been a midair collision, explosion in an engine, flight control fails. And these people are pulling a large number of G forces, so I don’t think you can say that the pilot is going to have much of a chance to stay with the plane and increase safety that way. And thereby turn the coin over—he doesn’t decrease safety by ejecting.”

The issue of G forces is especially important for the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, whose maneuvers create forces great enough to cause loss of consciousness. In combat, military pilots normally wear G suits, which Blue Angels spokesman Lieutenant John Kirby describes as “an air bladder system” that starts at the abdomen and extends down the legs. When plane sensors feel G forces, the suit is filled with compressed air “to squeeze muscles in the abdomen and legs to push blood back into the brain, where you need it.” The Blue Angels don’t wear G suits, says Kirby, because the pilots control the planes with a control stick between their legs, and rest their forearms on their thighs. The Blue Angels’ control sticks, says Kirby, are adjusted so that “every small movement of that stick will be relayed to the flight control system and you’ll have movement. That’s very important when you fly as close as we do, as close as 36 inches. . . . If you had an air bladder on your leg, and every time the aircraft felt Gs it kept inflating, it would make your forearm move and induce unwanted movement into the stick, and lead to unwanted movement from the aircraft.”

In addition, says Kirby, “unlike combat pilots, we know how many G forces are going to be experienced by the pilots in every maneuver. We know what it is, when it’s coming, how long the pilot’s going to feel the G forces. We can anticipate the G forces and prepare for them.” The pilots train strenuously, he says, “to increase their muscular strength particularly in the lower extremities so they can force the blood back up to the brains with their own strength.”

In an accident, however, the plane’s movements and G forces wouldn’t be predictable at all. The Thunderbirds do wear G suits, says air force air combat spokesperson Major Joe LaMarca, because “you don’t fly in the air force without one. . . . Those suits are for a reason, and that’s safety.” While Thunderbird pilots are trained so that they probably could go through demonstrations without a G suit, says LaMarca, they’re also constantly training to maintain combat proficiency. “You don’t want your pilots to get used to not wearing a G suit,” he says. “You want them to fly that plane like they were flying in combat.”

The FAA also requires air show audiences to be 500 feet from the performance, including takeoffs and landings. As the Redding, California, accident shows, that isn’t always far enough. But Redding didn’t spur any changes, says Perkins. “Because you could actually take, at 1,500 feet, the same aircraft, and depending on impact it’s still possible to get debris into the crowd. Not normally, but it can happen.”

“That particular accident, the pilot got disoriented and did a maneuver that brought him back toward the crowd that nobody planned to do,” says Rick Nadeau, president of the International Council of Air Shows, an industry group. “That’s probably the bigger factor in the business, to plan everything safely and know the distances. In 40 years now no one’s been fatally injured, so we’re comfortable with the distances. By the same token, you just can’t regulate out physical, mental, equipment lapses, failures. But you do have to take a look at the environment and say, “Is this as safe as we can make it, as safe as we can practically make it?’ And the numbers say that’s been the case. Yeah, you could put ’em a mile away and virtually guarantee that nobody’s ever going to get hurt, but that’s not a practical solution or a practical regulation for displaying aircraft to people.”

U.S. air show performers aren’t allowed to do maneuvers over the audience, but the FAA does allow them to fly over the audience to arrive at and depart from a show. That means straight, level flying at an altitude of at least 1,000 feet, says Perkins. Some performers, such as military teams, can obtain waivers to fly 500 feet above the audience. The Chicago Air and Water Show has been planned so that most performers take off from Meigs Field and don’t need to pass over the audience, says the FAA’s Jerry Wyatt. But military teams such as the Blue Angels are allowed “some repositioning maneuvers” over the city, says Wyatt, which includes their approach over the city from O’Hare Field for the performance. The Blue Angels and other military teams are granted waivers to perform at 500 feet within a five-mile radius around North Avenue Beach, says Wyatt, a zone that extends over almost 40 square miles of the city. If Meigs closes, say city officials, nonmilitary planes will also be crossing the city to and from Midway and O’Hare.

We should note that although Canadian and U.S. rules have been largely standardized over the last few years, Canada doesn’t allow even level flight over the audience, according to Wayne Benson-Harper, specialist in special flight operations at Transport Canada, Canada’s equivalent of the FAA. Benson-Harper says that military flights in Canada aren’t covered by civilian rules, but that Canada’s defense department doesn’t allow flying over the audience either. The Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, he says, are granted waivers to fly over crowds in Canada, but never at under 1,000 feet.

How much time would even 1,000 feet give an audience to flee if a passing jet should stall? “Virtually none,” says Carroll, adding, “You stall a jet at 1,000 feet, the odds are you’re not going to recover.”

It’s not an impossible scenario. At the 1993 Seattle Seafair air show, an FAA observer saw a “near incident” in which a Blue Angel F-18 approaching the audience almost stalled before recovering. The audience loved it, though the FAA observer was presumably less amused.

Level flight, says Nadeau, is “probably the best of all realms of flight. . . . You and I sit in offices under planes in that configuration every day. Yes, one could fall out of the sky tomorrow, but there’s nothing you can do to prevent a catastrophe that might happen if something goes wrong in any normal flight operation.”

Military teams like the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds are given waivers for low flying and other maneuvers because they’re the best-trained pilots imaginable. That doesn’t make them superheroes. Experienced and careful as they are, both teams have had accidents. In their histories the Blue Angels have lost 35 planes and 22 pilots since 1946, the Thunderbirds 29 planes and 19 pilots since ’53. In 1982 the Thunderbirds lost four of their 6 pilots, along with their planes, in a tragic accident during practice. There was a rumor of disbandment, but the Thunderbirds returned after missing one season and switching to a different kind of plane. Interestingly, the official Thunderbird history doesn’t mention the accident or missed performance season, simply noting, “Early in 1983, the Thunderbirds reinstituted their traditional role of demonstrating the Air Force’s frontline fighter capabilities. Transitioning to the F-16A Fighting Falcon allowed the team to demonstrate the very latest in fighter technology.” But the history does report that the 1993 season was cut short because the group’s leader had a lower back injury.

This year’s Blue Angels schedule was briefly suspended in May, when their commander, Donnie Cochran, resigned over personal concern about his flying. Last year Cochran canceled several performances so the team could resume training, and he cut short a maneuver at one air show after he lined up for it incorrectly. Cochran is to be commended for voluntarily resigning rather than risking an accident, but his experience demonstrates that even a Blue Angel isn’t infallible. “I’m one of the older fighter pilots,” he said in an interview after resigning. “That allows you to clearly think about things and not allow your ego to get in the way of what’s really important. And what’s really important is the mission of the team and not some ego standing in the way of safety or doing the right thing.”

It’s not possible to tell from air show accident statistics whether the shows and aerobatic flying are actually becoming safer. The National Transportation Safety Board’s records only go back to 1983 and don’t include military air show accidents or the numerous accidents during practices. The numbers available don’t show a clear pattern, starting at a high of 12 accidents in 1983 and ranging between two and seven accidents in the years since. Last year the NTSB recorded only two accidents, each of which killed the pilot. But that number leaves out at least one nonfatal accident that occurred at the same air show as one of the reported fatal accidents. So far this year, news accounts show four accidents during U.S. air shows resulting in six fatalities, and one accident during practice with one fatality.

Air shows are big business. According to the International Council of Air Shows, over 27 million people attended air shows last year in the U.S. and Canada, compared to about 15 million attending NFL football games. ICAS expects 450 air shows nationwide this summer.

The air show industry does appear sincerely dedicated to improving safety. Regulations undergo yearly scrutiny, sometimes leading to refinements and new rules. As Nadeau describes it, FAA regional representatives meet at the ICAS convention every year and discuss the previous air show season with the ICAS safety committee, both sides bringing up concerns and proposing improvements. Since 1991, ICAS has helped administer a program to evaluate air show pilots, providing a peer review and forwarding recommendations to the FAA for licensing pilots for air show performances.

“This is a dynamic industry, it’s an ongoing process,” says Nadeau. “If there are issues on the regulation or industry side, we bring them up right away. It’s not something we all sit down and look at every four or five years. It’s ongoing. We took the position long ago that our long-term equity in this business is public safety. If we can’t hold events where people feel they can come with the family and feel safe, they’re going to stop coming and we won’t have an industry anymore.”

Chicago officials emphasize safety as well. If unauthorized planes wander into the five-mile safety zone radius, says air show coordinator Rudy Malnati, the show stops. “Our utmost responsibility is for safety, and that’s from our boss, Mayor Daley, and James Sheehan [director of the Mayor’s Office of Special Events]. We won’t touch any acts that aren’t proven,” he says. Of course, that simply means air show acts prove themselves somewhere else first, presumably endangering more expendable audiences in smaller towns. And while proven acts are certainly preferable to novices with shiny new pilot’s licenses, experience is a poor predictor of accidents. The pilots in air show accidents are nearly always described as veterans with lengthy resumes, and inevitably turn out to be former or current major airline pilots or military fighter pilots.

This year, in a move prompted by the industry, the FAA required civilian pilots to be reapproved every two years for performing maneuvers classified as “directing energy toward the crowd,” says Edwin Robinson, the FAA’s national program manager for sport aviation. “For instance, if a person does a 360-degree turn in front of the crowd, at some point they would be directing energy toward the crowd.” Before, says Robinson, once a pilot gained FAA approval to perform such maneuvers he kept it for life. And for the first time, this year some directed-energy maneuvers have been banned completely for civilian pilots, says Robinson.

Even so, Canada keeps a tighter rein on directed-energy maneuvers, according to Benson-Harper. Such maneuvers are always required to end 1,500 feet from the audience, even if the performer is allowed a mere 500-foot buffer for the rest of the performance.

Air show enthusiasts are convinced that U.S. safety regulations make air shows safer than most everyday activities, driving being a favorite comparison. Such activities aren’t appropriate comparisons, though, since the very designation “everyday” indicates the other activities are unavoidable.

“When you do these stories, a lot of times crackpots can come out of the woodwork, the same ones who tell you not to eat fish because of mercury. You know, you can’t do anything. I think people in the business end up being realistic,” says Rudy Kapustin. “Oh sure, there’s some higher risks [than normal flying] because of the high-performance operations. The ability of the equipment and pilots is usually pushed to the limits. But that doesn’t make it unsafe. Accidents at air shows happen just like accidents happen at automobile races, because you have structural failure or somebody goes beyond their limitations. As long as people are experienced and do things by the book, I think it’s a great sport.”

“There are thousands of good shows that are put on, and people perform very well,” said Donald Engen, recently named director of the National Air and Space Museum. A retired navy vice admiral and former fighter pilot, Engen was administrator of the FAA under Ronald Reagan. “If everyone wrings their hands and points out things that go wrong, I think you’re putting the wrong slant on it. There are things that go wrong and they shouldn’t have gone wrong, but for every one that goes wrong there are many, many that go right.”

Referring to military air shows, Engen added, “I would ask those against air shows, are you against marching bands? Would you do away with marching bands? They make people want to serve [in the armed forces] in the same way.”

Reminded that marching bands rarely see injuries more serious than bad knees, and never destroy equipment worth tens of millions of dollars, Engen chuckled. “I think I see where you’re going with that,” he said. “I just take the other tack—I’m upbeat.”

All right, let’s say air shows are no different from drag races. If pilots are nuts enough to fly in them and audiences are goofy enough to watch, let them take their chances. But should taxpayers finance it?

The navy’s Blue Angels will spend $6 million this year, not counting such things as salaries and the $6,000 a day the Defense Department provides for fuel at civilian air shows. The air force’s Thunderbirds will spend $6.8 million, also not including salaries. That’s just the highest-profile air show spending, since the armed forces put on numerous shows of their own in addition to the Angels and Thunderbird schedules.

Military air shows cost taxpayers millions in accidents alone, though no one knows exactly how much. In 1988 the Los Angeles Times conducted a year-long investigation that found the armed forces had “lost more than 100 lives and more than $1 billion in sophisticated aircraft at air shows, flight demonstrations and various publicity events since 1955.” The Times investigation wasn’t exhaustive, since the armed forces had never done a comprehensive study on the topic. They still haven’t. The Defense Department says it doesn’t have the information and directs inquiries to the navy, air force, and army. The three branches can’t even find the information they supplied the Times almost ten years ago.

In 1988 incomplete navy records showed 54 people dead and 46 planes lost since 1955. Now the navy can only find information back to 1986, which shows two accidents in 1987 and one in 1988, for a total of two fatalities and three planes lost. The navy couldn’t say how much the planes had cost.

In 1988 the air force told the Times it couldn’t electronically sort records for air show accidents, and that it would take seven years to compile the information. Eventually the air force gave the Times a list of 22 accidents since 1955, most involving the Thunderbirds. The Times found two other accidents on its own for a total of 27 lost planes and 35 fatalities. The air force supposedly could have completed its seven-year search by last year, but it didn’t. Today the air force says its records only go back to 1971; they show five destroyed aircraft totaling $27,475,279 in value, with four fatalities. The air force has “no idea” where the 1988 information came from.

In 1988 the army reported 14 deaths and 35 helicopters damaged or destroyed, and its records only went back to 1972. Now the records go back to 1971 and, strangely, show 13 accidents, 13 fatalities, and 9 destroyed aircraft at a total cost of $5,571,426.

The military routinely cites recruitment, retention of personnel, and public relations as the factors justifying military air shows, particularly the Blue Angels and Thunderbird performances. The Blue Angels’ Lieutenant John Kirby defends the recruitment mission even in an era of navy downsizing. “While the total numbers the navy is trying to bring in is declining, the quality they’re trying to attract is in fact climbing,” he says. “So despite downsizing we feel our job is still critical, perhaps even more important.”

Donald Engen backs the recruitment rationale. “When young people, male and female, come to an airfield and see an air show and see a magnificent display of flying skill, that really attracts them to the service,” he says.

Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll of the Center for Defense Information disagrees. “In terms of recruiting, I’ll go along with them to a degree. You take some juvenile 15-year-old, you might impress him with something he thinks is important and meaningful,” he says. “But you’re dealing with a juvenile with aspirations that aren’t logical. They may be impressed by almost anything.”

Engen also agrees with the troop retention theory. “You build pride, see a good air show, see the Blue Angels or Thunderbirds put on a good show, and if they fly those planes they identify with them, and it makes you feel proud. That’s my air force or navy.”

Again Carroll disagrees. “Nobody stays in the service because the Blue Angels can fly upside down at 50 feet or the Thunderbirds can perform formation loops,” he says. “Retention is a function of the professionalism of the services and how much they convince the people they are performing an important mission in the service of the country. Sure they get a vicarious thrill in watching those planes, but there’s no reward to them that overrides their perception of their career—am I doing important work, being properly paid, associating with people I admire and respect, how does my family live? All those things override any thought of “I saw the Thunderbirds perform this clever stunt.”‘

After a KC-135 jet tanker crashed and exploded in 1987 while practicing low-level maneuvers for a new aerial demonstration team, the Thunderhawks, one air force official got in trouble for commenting, “Why the show? What’s the purpose of it? Nobody ever explained to me how it scares the Russians.” The crash, at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Washington, killed six crewmen and one serviceman on the ground and destroyed the $19 million plane. The Thunderhawks were disbanded before they ever performed.

The Spokane Spokesman-Review soon found that the KC-135’s flight manual prohibited any maneuvers beyond landing, taking off, and high-speed, high-altitude refueling. So it’s unlikely that there was much practical purpose to having the tanker fly less than 200 feet off the ground for air show maneuvers. Yet “training” is another excuse for air shows that’s been put forth by the military, as in the case of Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Holland.

In June 1994, Holland trashed a $64 million B-52 bomber by banking the plane too sharply, causing a stall and crash that killed all four crew members. They were practicing for an air show at Fairchild Air Force Base. (The air show, which was canceled, had been meant to cheer up base personnel after a recently discharged airman went on a shooting rampage at the base and killed four people, including a pregnant woman.) The ensuing investigation found that Holland was considered a hot dog who had broken Air Force flying regulations at least seven times in the previous three years. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer later reported that the bomber crashed within 50 feet of underground nuclear-weapons storage bunkers.

The air force insisted it would continue to participate in air shows. As air force secretary Sheila Widnall put it, “The things we do in air shows are what we normally do in training missions. That’s like asking the question, are we reexamining training missions, and of course the answer to that has to be no. That’s not to say we will not occasionally have an accident, and that does happen.”

According to Carroll, a naval aviator with 37 years of active duty who’s “flown off most of the navy’s carriers around the world,” Blue Angels and Thunderbird-type training isn’t exactly contributing to military preparedness.

“There’s no connection whatever between such demonstrations and combat missions,” he says. “This is one of the myths—they say they’re showing the American people how they conduct missions. I’m a pilot and I appreciate how well these people fly. They are flying with a precision and control which is hard to imagine, but it has nothing to do with fighting. Flying around in tight formation, low to the ground and upside down is a very clever stunt but has nothing to do with fighting. . . . As a pilot with 6,000 hours in the air, I was never called upon to fly in that manner. I performed a lot of military missions and practiced, but I never had to fly two feet away from another airplane upside down, and nobody’s ever going to conduct combat that way.”

We can blame the undisputed worst air show accident of all time on the Italians. The tragedy that occurred at the U.S. air base in Ramstein, West Germany, on August 28, 1988, killed 70 people and seriously injured 450 more. Ramstein illustrates several classic air show accident characteristics. First, a synopsis of that terrible day.

Danger signs abounded. West Germany was already reeling from a rash of NATO jet crashes during training exercises that would total 22 by year’s end. NATO jets rained down in inconvenient places—a crowded neighborhood and close to nuclear power plants. That very day, a half hour before the Ramstein debacle, spectators at a Belgian air show watched a jet crash and burn, killing the pilot. It was the second fatal Belgian air show crash in three weeks. At the Ramstein air base, protesters outside carried signs reading “Stop the air shows. We’re afraid.”

The show went smoothly until the Italian air force stunt team, the Frecce Tricolori, performed a stunt called the “arrow through the heart.” Two groups of planes created separate halves of a heart, while a solo jet flew through the center, all at 350 miles an hour. The team had performed the same stunt in the U.S., but FAA rules kept it from doing so directly over the audience. This time, the solo jet miscalculated, flew too low, and hit two other jets. Two jets crashed and burned away from the audience, while the third dived directly into the crowd. According to the Time magazine account, “As the fireball mushroomed upward, dozens of spectators suffered fatal burns. Some stood dazed and naked amid the chaos, clothes burned off and blackened skin hanging in shreds.”

Eyewitness accounts were horrifying. “We were caught in a rain of fire. There was just nowhere to run,” said one survivor. “I saw this little boy just standing there,” said a U.S. air force sergeant. “His hair was all singed, and the skin was coming off his face. Nobody was helping him. We stopped the police, and they picked him up.” A burn specialist lamented the fate of two little girls with severe facial burns. “They will never be able to remember what they looked like.”

A footnote: The pilot who replaced the dead Frecce Tricolori soloist was himself killed during practice less than four months later.

The Ramstein tragedy was exceptional, but the reactions to it were identical to those at more pedestrian air show accidents.

No matter how many crashes accumulate over the years, air show defenders insist that each new accident shouldn’t have happened. The routine was simple, they say. The plane was built to perform such maneuvers. The pilot was experienced and highly skilled. It shouldn’t have happened.

In the Ramstein case, the Frecce Tricolori commander later called the “arrow through the heart” one of the team’s easiest tricks. “The possibility of a collision with the other aircraft should be zero,” he said, though he made his remarks while flying home with the surviving team members, a strong clue that a collision was quite possible. And as a former Frecce Tricolori member noted, “In these situations a difference of a meter can upset calculations.”

Other examples are easy to come by, such as last summer’s crash of a Royal Air Force Nimrod at the Canadian International Air Show. The Nimrod was demonstrating how it avoids heat-seeking missiles with quick, steep climbs and dives. This time the Nimrod dived into Lake Ontario, disintegrating on impact about two miles from shore and killing all seven crew members. The wreckage was scattered across an area the size of six football fields.

Back at the Nimrod’s home base in Kinloss, Scotland, squadron leader John Horrocks insisted the jet’s routine hadn’t been dangerous. “We have been using the four-and-a-half-minute display for the last 20 years,” he said. “It is not a taxing sequence. It is relatively straightforward.”

Another RAF squadron leader maintained that the Nimrod was fully capable of the maneuvers. Yet in a TV interview the day before the crash, the Nimrod pilot had said, “We’ll be maneuvering this airplane pretty extremely close to its limits both in speed, stall, and center of gravity as well as the G limits . . . the actual stress on the airframe. Very close indeed.” The squadron leader claimed the pilot had simply been showing “bravado.” “When pilots are explaining what they do, at times they’re likely to exaggerate a bit. It adds a bit of mystique,” he said. “There was no way that man was overstressing his aircraft during his display. Everything that was done was well within the capabilities of the aircraft.”

And according to RAF Air Vice-Marshal Peter Squire, the crew wasn’t responsible either. “This was an experienced crew that had performed similar demonstrations at a number of air shows this year.”

Hmmm. The stunt shouldn’t have caused the crash. The plane shouldn’t have caused the crash. The crew shouldn’t have caused the crash. Perhaps there was no crash.

A fine example in this country happened in 1982, when the Thunderbirds suffered their worst accident. Four of the six Thunderbird jets crashed and burned during training in the Nevada desert outside Nellis Air Force Base. The T-38s were practicing a line-abreast loop, a backward loop flown wing to wing—six feet apart at air shows, farther during practice. The lead jet, investigators found, suffered a malfunction and failed to pull out of its dive on time. The other jets followed the leader, and subsequent accounts would describe the accident scene as “four huge black streaks like parallel skid marks across the tawny desert,” and “four burned matches laid out parallel on the desert floor.” “It was like a sheet of flaming napalm roaring across the desert,” said one witness. A photographer said that no single piece of the wreckage was bigger than a car fender.

Captain Dale Cook, one of the two surviving Thunderbirds, called the T-38 “reliable, safe to fly.” And he confirmed that the line-abreast loop maneuver isn’t considered difficult. “I’ve done that maneuver maybe 300 times,” he said. “I fail to see any one facet of it that would be dangerous.” The pilots flying that day, according to reports, had flown the line-abreast loop “hundreds” of times.

Ramstein witnesses were understandably traumatized. “It was horrible, horrible, a huge shock. It’s going to take a long time to forget this,” said a German who worked at the base. Air show enthusiasts here emphasize that U.S. audiences remain physically unscathed, watching from a distance as pilots suffer violent, fiery deaths. Besides the fact that U.S. audience safety could change with the next accident, the enthusiasts forget a rather crucial element: witnessing death is itself generally considered a traumatic experience.

Because the El Toro Air Show is a huge event, vast numbers of horrified spectators witness every crash. For instance, 500,000 people were treated to the fiery death of pilot James Gregory in 1993, when his F-86 Sabre jet hurtled into the ground rather than completing a loop. The local Red Cross held group counseling sessions and set up a hot line to help witnesses deal with the tragedy. The hot line received hundreds of calls, including some from worried parents calling about their children. “When you witness somebody die such a violent death, it’s just shocking. I can’t handle it,” said one adult participant of a counseling session.

Last year’s Nimrod crash at the Canadian International Air Show was witnessed by 100,000 to 150,000 people. Some descriptions of their reactions:

“There were screams of “Pull up, pull up!’ and then sobbing as the aircraft sank in 75 ft of murky water.” —Daily Mail

“Children stood watching with their hands over their mouths, parents gripping their shoulders, as military and police helicopters hovered over the crash site.” —Buffalo News

“The crowd reacted in horror. Mothers hid the faces of their children. Others wept. . . . Shivering witnesses wiped tears from their eyes late Saturday as they stared out at the blackened waters.” —Ottawa Citizen

Witnesses made their feelings even more plainly understood in their own words. “It makes me sick. I can’t believe it, for the men on board or their families,” said one. “I haven’t been able to stop shaking.” Another said, “I don’t feel like the entertainment value of the air show is worth dying for.” One spectator, who had brought two children: “There have been too many deaths and enough is enough. Nobody and their kids should have to sit through this again. God knows what kind of scars this will leave on their little minds.”

The Ramstein tragedy’s aftermath differed from that of most air shows in one admirable respect: they called off the show.

Granted, it may have been because treating hundreds of victims was quite time-consuming. But cancellation is almost unheard-of at air shows. Usually the next act is simply delayed briefly. Organizers spout platitudes about the show going on. The other performers unanimously decide that their dead colleague would have wanted them to go on. No one ever wonders if the dead colleague would have said, “I can’t believe I just wasted my life doing a stupid plane trick for a bunch of people I don’t even know! Go home to your family and friends, hug your children, and thank God you have another chance to live!”

The El Toro Air Show went on after its 1993 jet crash. One traumatized witness who went to a Red Cross counseling session particularly complained, “They didn’t even have a moment of silence.” Instead, the El Toro announcer told the crowd, “This is something that happens once in a while. Do not worry.” The air show waited until the afternoon’s performance was over before announcing the pilot’s death and dedicating the show to him.

Last year’s Canadian International Air Show also went on after the Nimrod crash. The accident happened on Saturday, and officials called off the search for bodies so as not to disrupt Sunday’s show. The air show president insisted that was done “in consultation with the RAF, which indicated through squadron leader Angus McPhee that it felt the air show should continue despite yesterday’s crash.” At the 1989 show, two jets from the Canadian air force’s aerial demonstration team, the Snowbirds, collided and plunged into Lake Ontario, killing one pilot. The show was suspended for 45 minutes. “It’s a tradition in the aviation business that the show must go on,” said the air show’s chairman.

At last year’s 65th annual Santa Paula Air Show in California, veteran pilot Richard Fessenden died when his experimental Berkut jet crashed just out of sight of the 6,000 spectators after failing to come out of a spin. Show officials claimed that they considered canceling the show, though of course they decided against it. According to an organizer, “We are here to put on an air show, and people are here to watch it. The man went out doing what he loved to do. It was sad, but it happened.” The show’s announcer told the crowd that the show would be dedicated to Fessenden.

So unlikely is it for an air show to be stopped after an accident that the show’s continuation can be an offhanded footnote in a press acount. At a ’94 air show at Self- ridge Air National Guard base in Michigan, a Korean war-era T-33 fighter jet brushed the ground with one wing while coming out of a roll, causing it to crash and explode. The UPI account casually remarked, “The crash temporarily stopped the air show, delaying the performance of the Air Force’s Blue Angels.” As an Air Force spokesman explained, “It’s the code of the west: The show must go on.” Though Michigan is rarely considered part of the west.

A particularly disgusting accident happened at a 1993 New Hampshire air show when, during the opening ceremonies, a parachutist was hit by a plane. The parachutist’s limp, dead body floated to the ground, forcing airport officials to race out and cover it with the parachute. The plane lost a wing and spiraled to the ground near a Kmart, killing the pilot. The show went on.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): AP Photo of plane crash in Ramstein, Germany, 1988; Orange County Register photo of firemen in El Toro, Ca, 1985; airplane fire in El Toro, Ca, 1993 by Bob Weatherford; photo of Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll by Darrow Montgomery; photo of Thunderbird’s Captain David L. “Nick” Hauck; AP photo of fire at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, 1981; AP photo Ramstein, Germany, 1988; photo of small plane wreck in Pittsburgh, August 4, 1996 by Keith Srakocic, AP.