Although this article addresses airshows in the USA in particular, the principles and philosophies involved are equally appropriate to the South African and European airshow scene. Des Barker posed the question to the European Airshow Council during their annual 2008 Convention at Hasselt, Belgium.

Airshows, where to now?

Posted on 01 August 2015 by Des Barker


There is no doubt that airshows in the USA are undergoing a metamorphosis as airshow organisers are looking for acts that will attract the crowds, after all, airshows are the second largest spectator sport after NASCAR racing. In the UK, football leads the popularity stakes and the mood swing there is to include the RAFs air power capability demonstrations while in the RSA, pyrotechnics are becoming more regular features. The fact is that is what fare paying spectators are interested in.

One only has to recall TFDCs 'Fly-In' during November 2007, which not only included air capability demonstrations, but also missile launches, bomb drops, pyrotechnics and supersonic 'bangs'. The claim that the 'Fly-In' was of international standard, was not amiss, it was up there with the best. The staid old 'clique' "more bang for the buck" has become particularly appropriate for airshows. Although military displays are traditionally more conservative, there are definitely indications of organisers 'up the ante' as they try to match those of the civilian organisers.

Most noteworthy though is that there are several civilian airshow acts aiming to transform their routines into high energy acts. Why? Well it goes about the money that airshow organisers make from their shows. It follows on that the airshow participants will receive a greater cut from the proceeds, and so down the 'food chain' most everyone scores. However, it is not that simple.

The concern is that all the excitement and adrenalin comes at a price which in some cases, impacts on safety. The question then is: at what price, safety? Who and where do we draw the line between the hype and safety? Without sounding melodramatic, we are rapidly approaching the cut-off point between the 'spectacular' requirements of the airshow organiser and the safety considerations of the display safety officer. It is this conflict that will need to be balanced between egos and financial gain or does raising this issue 'tramp on toes'?


High energy airshow flying now goes by the name of 'Extreme Flying' or 'Xtreme' and members of such stunts are 'X-Team' members. This extreme type of display is becoming more and more hazardous as the 'stunt pilots' fly highly agile sport aerobatic aircraft in combination with ultra low-level manoeuvres and in conjunction with pyrotechnics, jet trucks, helicopters and parachutists – all in the same act! This, all in an effort to 'WOW' the spectators and increase the gate takings and keep airshows as one of the top spectator sports.

High-powered trucks pumping smoke from roaring 'after-burners' have the ability to rouse spectator's 'adrenalin' not necessarily appreciate without appreciation of the flying skills. Its about SHOWMANSHIP!!

This is all well and good, but this cannot all be done in isolation without considering the effect of the entire complement of elements such as man, machine, and medium. We need to take a look at human physiology, more particularly, the mind of the display pilot and his physical condition to handle these new high energy, high pace demonstrations in which one or more aircraft operate in extremely close proximity, not only to one another, but also the ground, jet trucks, parachutists and other participants that could all be performing in the same act.

It is prudent to consider a discussion on some of the newest attempts at increasing the 'WOW' factor in the States, shows such as "Circus of Machines, The Ultimate Stunt Spectacular", "Mary's Lamb" and the "Masters of Disaster".

In a 2007 issue of "World Airshow News" they did a feature article on Mary's Lamb which had interviews with the pilots and talked about the X-team storyline. Anyway, one thing that caught the eye was the part of the article titled: "More to Come". Being planned was a brand new X-team act called "Circus of Machines, The Ultimate Stunt Spectacular". The article stated that according to Jim Leroy and Skip Stewart, if everything goes as planned, the new show would feature stunt cars, motorcycles, parachutists, jet trucks, aircraft and a helicopter, all tied into one act.

Well, that would have been something to see since those guys were definitely taking the airshow industry to a different level that had never been reached before. Crowds in the USA had been ecstatic in their appreciation of Mary's Lamb. According to Skip Stewart, Jim LeRoy had all the best performers picked out, "they are the best in the industry in each of their respective disciplines", he wrote on International Council of Airshows' (ICAS) website, Airshow Buzz. They would have made their debut in the UAE in January 2008 at Al Ain and a version of it would have been available to airshows in the USA for 2008. "Jim Le Roy was very creative and this show would most probably have been unlike anything seen at any airshow!" he said.


But as a regulator said: "Sounds very entertaining, but I wonder if an 'extreme' show can go from entertaining to just flat out dangerous. There are some in the business who feel that another collision is a real possibility, either between the aircraft or involving the ground acts. Also it will be interesting to see how many shows could afford such an act with today's limited resources".

Jim LeRoy the X-Team Team Leader responded that: "I'd like to share my view on that statement. First of all, a collision is always a possibility, whether it is with the ground or with another vehicle, and the risk factor increases with an increased number of vehicles/elements in the show; it's a simple matter of mathematics."

Taking a realistic angle, he continued: "I wish I could say it wasn't so, but as an engineer, and a realist, I'd be lying. We all try to minimize the risk by proper choreography, practice, and preparation. We try to learn from our mistakes, as well as the mistakes of others. The reality is harsh! In our business, there will always be accidents. We try our best to not let it happen, but we all know that at the end of the season, we will sit down at the ICAS convention and watch a video paying tribute to our comrades that were lost that year, and our hearts will break, again. The only solution, of course, is to keep the airplanes in the hangar, but that's not why we build airplanes, particularly airshow airplanes." He continued by saying that: "I think the X-Team charter is clear by now to everyone.

  • We want to increase the quality of entertainment at airshows.
  • We also want to expand the public awareness of airshows. Too many people know nothing about what airshows are all about. We feel that this is a path towards increasing attendance and bringing more attention to airshows and aviation in general."

"There is risk involved with anything, and when you try new things in a business such as ours, there will always be critics. We try to listen to them - sometimes there is merit and sometimes not. If there are people in the business that are truly concerned about X-Team, I would be happy to discuss their concerns with them, to include our methods and procedures".

"X-Team pilots fly very aggressively; consequently, we've all heard, you're going to kill yourself, over and over and over. You get numb to it after a while, but you have to be careful not to brush off a legitimate concern, and you have to acknowledge the risk and know that in the end, they might be right. No matter how well you prepare and practice, there are no guarantees.


Amazingly, the airshow spectator population, without a full understanding of the safety dynamics at work in such a high energy show, responded with: "Well said Jim! The X-team really amazes young kids and parents alike. Standing next to some young kids, ages 8-10 one year, and watching the X-team, all they could say was, wow! Keep doing what you do and amaze us all.

Another airshow adrenalin junkie commented: "WOW! Jim, Skip, and everyone else involved, you are definitely taking this industry to a new level. I, just as much as anyone, enjoy the normal aerobatics acts both single and multiple, but you guys are adding every single part of an airshow into one act, aerobatics, jet trucks, 'pyro' and now parachutists and ground acts! I'm looking forward to it!


Using this unfortunate accident to 'Mary's Lamb' as a case study, air shows are not what they used to be. In earlier times, air shows were the military pilots and major aerobatic teams like the Snowbirds and or Thunderbirds/Blue Angels or even the Red Arrows and all time greats like Al Pietch and Bob Hoover who presented beautiful positive G manoeuvres and to be honest, provided spectators with the opportunity to see not only the aircraft's performance, but the quality of the pilot's flying skills. Civilian participation was only a small percentage of the acts.


Step up to 2007, and air shows have changed. Aircraft have changed. There are as many or more civilian participants than military. The current sport aerobatic aircraft on the market are amazing little aircraft and their pilots will tell you "it's all timing... if the pilot tries to watch what he is doing... he's gonna lose it. Aircraft are faster, and respond with lightning speed, but alas, the stunt pilot industry, has not kept up with them".


World renowned stunt pilot, Jim 'Bulldog' LeRoy

Seasoned and world renowned stunt pilot, Jim Le Roy. a former member of the 'Masters of Disaster' team that closed down after a midair collision during an airshow in 2005, met his untimely fate at the Vectren Dayton Air Show while flying his second show for the day in a Bulldog Pitts that was part of a two-element aerobatics demonstration called Mary's Lamb. LeRoy, a Marine veteran who had a degree in aeronautical engineering, was a design engineer with GE Aircraft Engines until he became a full-time stunt pilot in 1997. He won the Art Scholl Award for showmanship in 2002 presented by the International Council of Air Shows and the Bill Barber Award for showmanship in 2003, presented by the World Airshow News.

Jim made a big splash during his first appearance at Springfield Air Rendezvous in 1998. He was a new face in a crowd of aerobatic talent which included older solid gold stars, legends, including Jimmy Franklin and Bobby Younkin. It didn't take long for them to join forces, and soon they were flying as The X-Team: Masters of Disaster.

The name for the act caused some concern among air show fans who thought the name 'dared' danger to trip them, to work its lethal fury with the team. After the loss of Franklin and Younkin at a Canadian air show in 2006, in a midair collision, LeRoy teamed with rising Pitts master, Skip Stewart, to form Mary's Lamb. The name, however, was not enough to keep further tragedy at bay.

He was also the latest fatality for experienced pilots trying to challenge the limits. LeRoy himself had recently described the challenge of pushing the risk envelope for spectators hungry to see daring flying routines. "People want to see low, wild and seemingly out of control, but at the same time, they want discipline, precision and complete control," he said in advertising the Oceana Air Show in Virginia, where he would have performed in September. "You've got to take those elements and fuse them together in just the right way."


The Montana-based LeRoy, 46, died after failing to pull out of a series of four high energy downline snap rolls (approximating 300°/sec at a 50° dive angle), impacting the ground approximately 500 feet from the crowdline. LeRoy had stopped the 'snap rolls' and levelled the wings and had commenced the pull-out when the aircraft's belly impacted the ground at a shallow grazing angle at Dayton International Airport; the aircraft slid 300 yards after impact. The ensuing fire engulfed the aircraft but was extinguished by the fire services that arrived approximately two-and a-half minutes after the accident. LeRoy had to be cut from the aircraft but passed away while en route to Miami Valley Hospital. The Coroner's office identified the blunt force trauma of the impact as the cause of death in the accident.

The crowd fell silent. The announcer asked the crowd to turn in any video that may have recorded the crash to make it available for an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board. Vectren Corp., the Indiana energy holding company that bought naming rights for the air show, expressed sorrow about LeRoy's death and noted the hazards of his profession. "Today was a very harsh reminder of just how much danger is associated with performing aerobatic manoeuvres of this nature," Vectren said in its statement.

Brett Hunter, a Waynesville pilot who offers aerobatic rides and flight instruction, said he hopes there isn't an over-reaction to the crash deaths. "I'm against any regulation or knee-jerk reaction to this kind of thing, especially government regulation of this," Hunter said. "There are aspects of human nature that want to push envelopes."


Commentary from a US display pilot at the ICAS Convention in December 2007 commented that Jim was reported as often being unreceptive to safety analysis by others. The aircraft was involved in a "squirrel cage" scenario including a jet truck and another aircraft with pyrotechnics and a lot of smoke. After a looping manoeuvre the aircraft executed multiple snap rolls on a 45° down line. The aircraft appeared to have been slower than on previous occasions and the first snap appeared to have been "buried". The down line steepened to around 70° and the height available for recovery was insufficient. The pilot had previously flown a solo aerobatic routine so was aware of the hazy conditions. It was hot and humid with a relatively high density altitude. There was no indication of any defect with the aircraft.

Another eyewitness recalled: "I too was at Dayton when this occurred and as far as I'm concerned the cause of this crash is pure and simple - it was a low show. For the un-initiated, low shows are what performers use as an alternate routine so when the weather is bad the sponsor is not left holding the bag after 100,000 people show up. The ceilings were crap most of the day, the organizers were shuffling performers to try and fit things in, and just before Jim's performance started the ceilings had lowered considerably. I think that the choreography changes that were made to accommodate the low ceiling were what caused this accident. These eyewitness accounts all put Jim's altitude at the top of his loop lower, about 100-150 ft than Skip Stewart's loop.


Jim "Bulldog" LeRoy failed to pull-out of the high energy downline rolls at Dayton's Vectren Airshow. His highly modified Pitts S2S had a 400 hp LyCon engine, tremendous power for such a small aircraft.

Contributory factors were "human" in origin - possible distraction by other elements of the act, both in the air and on the ground. Jim was flying a new aircraft with somewhat different handling characteristics which he was apparently not happy with, in particular, the stick forces were higher in roll. His shoulder was giving him some pain and discomfort for which he was taking Ibuprofen painkillers. To compensate for this he had been using both hands on the stick in manoeuvres.

The seating position in the aircraft was low giving him a reduced forward visibility which might have caused him to be unaware of the aircraft attitude. He had apparently been having problems with another team member and had spent time debugging the show profile. Additionally he had become disenchanted with the airshow business. Several folk had remarked on Jim's recent lack of motivation. Prior to the act, the customary 'walk through' SOP was not carried out. He was quite obviously having a bad day both mentally and physically.

Though the videos show lots of smoke this was not a factor due to the on crowd wind clearing it from the display line. A comment was made that the post impact fire may well have been aggravated by smoke oil release. If a crash is inevitable, it is essential to shut off the smoke oil supply.

One sad fact was that the first RIV on the scene had a crew of two who approached the burning wreckage then retreated without taking any action. It was minutes later that the main airfield RFFS arrived and rapidly extinguished the fire. It is doubtful though if it would have made much difference since the vertical speed on impact would have resulted in major damage. Jim was alive after impact and after release from the wreckage, but died later in hospital.


Airshows remain one of the biggest spectator sports worldwide and in an effort to increase airshow attendance and the need to satisfy the adrenalin requirements of spectators, more extreme acts are being introduced. But, extreme flying is also increasingly becoming hazardous as the elements involved in this high energy domain increase. Not only that, the aircraft being flown by X-treme team members are overpowered, highly agile machines and irrespective of pilot experience, human physiology has remained behind the development of the high performance sport aerobatic aircraft and although regulations governing airshows have been designed to protect spectators, those controlling display pilots have not been integrated with human factors. The prudent question is: "Is the risk to the stunt/display pilot, worth the adrenalin rush of a fare paying spectator?


Airshow safety oversight organisations such as the European Airshow Council (EAC), the International Council of Airshows and even Airshow South Africa (ASSA), should consider following the example of ICAS in calling for a CULTURE CHANGE. This culture change should extend across the entire spectrum of airshow attendees, viz display pilots, airshow organisers, display safety officers and last but by no means least, the spectators.

Following the rather dismal airshow accident rate in 2007 during which twenty-eight accidents/incidents resulted in the deaths of sixteen pilots, it has become necessary to review what airshows should look like. Furthermore, the role of human factors in display flying accidents should be reassessed and consideration should be given to considering limitations to the complexity of the acts and minimum heights of all acts – but that's another completely different argument!