The Dallas air show crash: How old is too old?

On Saturday, November 12, an estimated four thousand or more spectators gathered at the Dallas Executive Airport about ten miles south of downtown to watch a Veterans Day air show put on by the Commemorative Air Force (CAF). The CAF is a volunteer organization dedicated to keeping older military aircraft flying. Their motto is "Educate, inspire, and honor." Most of their inventory of 180 planes worldwide comes from World War II, and prominently featured during the show was a B-17 Flying Fortress, one of only a handful left from WWII service as heavy bombers. Also featured were P-63 Kingcobra fighter planes.

Around 1:20pm, the B-17 had just flown low over the airport where the spectators were gathered. As shown in a number of videos posted after the event, a P-63 approached it from the rear and appeared to collide with the rear section of the bomber. Both planes fell out of the sky within seconds, and a fireball and black smoke rose from the site of the crash.

In a news conference later that afternoon, CAF CEO Hank Coates could provide few specifics out of deference to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which was scheduled to take over the investigation that evening. He said the bomber was "fully crewed" which normally means a crew of five. Adding the pilot of the P-63 means that as many as six people probably died in the crash, which occurred over an empty field. Information from the Allied Pilots Association confirmed that two of its former members had died in the crash.

In his news conference, CEO Coates emphasized that although all their pilots are volunteers, they spend many hours in training and certification efforts, and often have 20 or 30 years of experience as retired military or airline pilots. Nevertheless, something went wrong Saturday, and it will take the NTSB some time to figure it out.

Once it does, what then? Let's try to get some perspective on just how dangerous flying CAF planes is.

Statistics provided by the NTSB in an Associated Press story of the crash indicate that from 1982 to 2019, 23 people died in 21 accidents involving World-War-II-era planes. Mr. Coates indicated that the CAF flies an average of 6500 hours a year. If we assume that has been the case for the past 40 years, we can do a little math to come up with the average fatality rate per million hours flown.

An airline-safety website tells me that for commercial airlines, the current fatality rate is about 0.34 per million hours flown. General aviation (private planes) is about 50 times worse than that—say 17 per million hours. If my assumptions are correct, the fatality rate up to 2019 for the CAF is at least 95 per million hours, or about one fatality per 10,000 hours flown—more than five times that of general aviation.

Now, no type of aviation is completely safe. Any human activity, even getting out of bed, involves some risk. The question here is whether the good that the CAF does—and there is much to be said for it—is worth the risk of getting pilots killed, and the small chance of a much larger number of fatalities. If the crash had occurred a few hundred yards away from where it did, hundreds of spectators might have been killed.

Some will say that the risk, however small, is an essential part of the activity. If it wasn't at least a little dangerous, it wouldn't be nearly as much fun. I am not a pilot—the riskiest thing I do typically is ride my bike two miles on city roads every day. So far my worst accident happened when I was looking at the gears of an unfamiliar bike I was riding and ran into a trash barrel. I rolled off the bike and did an unintentional backflip. My back was sore for a day or so, but there were no other consequences. I haven't ridden that bike since, however.

I'm sure the FAA has some kind of certification processes for both the hardware the CAF flies and the pilots who fly them. We will have to wait for the NTSB's investigation to complete before knowing what caused this particular accident: pilot error, mechanical failure, or some combination thereof. But judging by their fatality rate, it's clear that mostly retired pilots flying seventy-year-old planes is not as safe as flying a 747 to London.

I am sympathetic with CAF members who spend hundreds of volunteer hours doing difficult and sometimes dangerous things to keep their old planes in the air and educate the younger generation about what machines and people flying them did during twentieth-century wars. I love the feel and look of old hardware, and if the CAF flew antique avionics as well as antique planes I'd be right in there with them (unfortunately, they have to have modern equipment in that department for safety reasons).

At the same time, there will come a day when the hazards of flying piles of fatigued aluminium gets to be simply too dangerous. We are about out of pilots who flew the planes during WWII, so those who fly them now have had to learn from their elders, and you have a small cadre of skills that has to be handed on in order for the whole CAF to keep flying. It would be sad to see all that come to an end so that the only place you could see a B-17 would be in a museum, not making a horrible racket as it actually takes off from the ground.

But in the nature of things, that day will come. Who decides when it comes? Ideally, the CAF itself, but the other parties involved—the NTSB and the FAA to name two—will have some say in the matter. I can picture the magnitude of this tragedy leading to public calls for such shows to cease, and that would be a shame. But it might happen. The prudent thing is to wait for the NTSB report, and then take stock of the whole situation. But prudence these days seems to be in short supply.

This article has been republished from the author’s blog, Engineering Ethics, with permission.


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