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Legal ramifications following Shoreham air show disaster

(Please note, this matter is not currently being litigated in Australia)

Our thoughts are with the families of those who have perished in the aftermath of the Hawker Hunter T7 jet air crash at Shoreham on Saturday, 22 August 2015, which is now named as the worst air show disaster in the United Kingdom in living memory.

As of yesterday, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of the United Kingdom has moved to ground all vintage jet aircraft from performing high intensity aerobatic manoeuvres at civil air shows throughout the country in the wake of what could be 20 fatalities.

Despite the proactive steps of the CAA generally, and the strong aviation safety record that the United Kingdom enjoys, there has been a string of aviation accidents at air shows in the last decade  involving both vintage propeller aircraft and jet engine aircraft. The most comparable disaster to the current tragedy is the death of Red Arrows pilot Jon Egging on 20 August 2011 when his BAE Hawk T1 jet aircraft crashed into the ground during the Bournemouth Air Show.

Whilst the cause of each of these accidents varies, it is clear that greater consideration needs to be given during the planning and organisation of air shows in the United Kingdom and world-wide to the condition, history and operational limitations of each individual vintage aircraft participating in an air show whether by means of aerobatics or fly-overs, and the size and scope of the area for aerobatic manoeuvres by the organisers of air shows and aviation regulators in each country.

The use of vintage jet aircraft in any air show is always a potential risk to any pilot, spectators and bystanders due to the age, size, speed, design limitations of the time the aircraft was designed and built, and characteristics of such aircraft, particularly, their hold of volatile fuel. In respect of the Shoreham tragedy, it must be acknowledged that the aircraft itself was of a 1950s era design, and the aircraft had been in service from 1955 first as a military aircraft for the Royal Air Force, and second, in private hands.

Insurers of future civil air shows may likely take the step of mandating that the organisers and planners of such events require the owners and operators of vintage aircraft to submit the full maintenance and operational history of each aircraft for review and requesting that a Licensed Aircraft Maintenance Engineer (LAME) or equivalent to examine the aircraft prior to allowing the participation of a particular aircraft.

The size and scope of the designated area for aerobatic manoeuvres is an issue that will require further consideration by insurers and the organisers and planners of future air shows. In the wake of the Shoreham air crash, considerable controversy has arisen as to why the organisers allowed the air show to be conducted over a ‘built-up’ area and in a relatively small designated area citing the example of the refusal of the Royal Air Force display team, the Red Arrows, to conduct aerobatic manoeuvres because of concerns that there was limited room should an emergency landing need to take place.

Future air shows in the United Kingdom will now likely be conducted over a considerably larger designated area, and the altitude at which aerobatic manoeuvres are performed be considerably higher to allow greater recovery time by a pilot in the event of a stall or mechanical problem.

Whilst the cause of the air crash at Shoreham is yet to be determined, it is clear that the tragedy will have a number of ramifications on the conduct of future civil air shows to ensure the safety of pilots, spectators and bystanders.

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Written by Shine Lawyers. Last modified: August 25, 2015.

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