Air-show disasters: 5 deadliest in history

Several crashes and fatalities have recently marred air shows around the world. As with Friday's crash in the U.K., the deadliest air-show disasters have all involved spectators or other members of the public, and here are some of them.

Shoreham show in U.K. on Friday is latest of several deadly plane mishaps over the decades

A vintage airplane crashes into the edge of the grandstands at the Reno Air show on Sept. 16, 2011. Eleven people, including the pilot, were killed. (Ward Howes/Associated Press)

Several crashes and fatalities have marred air shows across the world in recent weeks — most notably in the U.K., where a fighter jet crashed into a highway on Friday, killing at least 11 during the Shoreham Airshow. 

But that grisly scene was book-ended by others.

Last week in Slovakia, seven were killed when two planes practising for a show collided midair. A U.S. army parachutist died on Aug. 16 after a show in Chicago, and the crash of a Russian helicopter gunship at a military air show outside Moscow claimed the life of a pilot on Aug 2. Back in the U.K., a pilot was killed at another show in Cheshire, just yesterday, another pilot died in a crash in Switzerland. 

When these disasters reach spectators or other members of the public, the death toll tends to climb dramatically.

The five deadliest air show crashes ever have involved members of the public. (Warning: The videos incude graphic footage). 

Pilots in prison 

The deadliest air-show accident in history killed 77 people and injured more than 500 when a fighter jet crashed into the crowd at Sknyliv airfield, near Lviv, Ukraine, on July 27, 2002.

A Russian-made Sukhoi Su-27 was coming out of a difficult rolling dive manoeuvre when its left wing clipped the ground. The jet struck a number of stationary aircraft before exploding and cartwheeling into horrified spectators. Twenty-eight children were among the dead. 

An investigating committee blamed the pilots — Volodimir Toponar and co-pilot Yuri Yegorov, who suffered only minor injuries after ejecting — for trying to perform the stunt too closely to the ground. 

Toponar, who had earlier blamed technical problems and a faulty flight plan for the accident, was sentenced to 14 years in prison and fined $1.42 million US to help pay compensation to victims. Yegorov was sentenced to eight years in prison and ordered to pay $500,000 US.

The court also sentenced the commanders of the pilots' unit to six years in prison and the unit's head of flight security to four years. 

Broken heart

Ten fighter jets from the Italian air force that were trailing green, white and red smoke were drawing a heart in the sky over the Ramstein U.S. air force base in West Germany on Aug. 28, 1988. But the Aermacchi MB-339 drawing the "arrow" that would pierce the heart collided with two others close to the ground.

The first jet struck the runway and exploded, sending flaming wreckage into the crowd. One of the other aircraft crashed into a Black Hawk helicopter on the ground. Its pilot had managed to eject but died when he struck the ground. The third jet exploded on impact. 

All three pilots were killed, as were 67 other people on the ground, including the pilot of the Black Hawk, who succumbed to his injuries weeks later in Texas army hospital. Hundreds of others were injured.

Response efforts were hampered by communication mix-ups, and because German ambulances were not immediately allowed on the U.S. base. 

Little league football players killed 

A fighter jet crashed into an ice cream parlour shortly after takeoff during the Golden West Sport Aviation Show in Sacramento, Calif. on Sept. 24, 1972.

The Canadair Sabre Mk. 5 failed to gain altitude, went through a chain link fence at the end of the runway, and was still going about 240 km/h when it crossed the road, hit Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour and exploded.

Among the 22 killed were members of a little league football team who were celebrating inside at the time. Another 28 people were injured. The pilot suffered only a broken arm and leg, and was ultimately blamed for the accident. 

'Like a scythe' 

Twenty people including 13 children and the pilot were killed when a single-engine plane went into a festival crowd on Sept. 15, 1951, near a small town on Colorado's Eastern Plains. Another 50 people were injured.

According to the Denver Post, the pilot had reportedly arrived arrived late and missed a safety briefing that prohibited flying below 152 metres. Reports differ on whether he was attempting a roll or a loop when his wing clipped the ground. 

The plane "cut through the crowd like a scythe," said the Post. 

Deadly race

Since its inception in 1964 the National Championship Air Races event has seen several deaths and crashes, the worst occurring on Sept. 16, 2011, when a heavily modified vintage fighter went into the crowd, killing 11 people including the 74-year-old pilot, and injuring 69 others. 

During the races, planes fly wing tip-to-wing tip as low as 15 metres from the ground, as competitors follow an oval path around pylons at speeds of up to 800 km/h.

Twenty-one pilots have been killed at the Reno races over the years (the latest was in 2014), but the 2011 disaster marked the first deaths among spectators. 

An investigation blamed improper modifications to the aircraft —  a P-51 Mustang, nick-named The Galloping Ghost, that was built during the Second World War. 

Stunt planes wait for Reno-Stead Airport to reopen after the cancellation of the Reno Air Races on Sept. 17, 2011, one day after a crash that killed 10 spectators and a pilot. Twenty-one pilots have been killed at the annual event over the years. (Max Whittaker/Reuters)


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