No, we can’t hold all air shows by the sea

A picture of a Hawker Hunter jet in mid-air. The plane has been painted mostly blue with red, white and blue target symbols.I heard the most extraordinary and ridiculous interview on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning. John Humphrys was interviewing John Turner from the British Air Display Association about the accident outside Shoreham, West Sussex on Saturday in which a 1950s fighter jet (a Hawker Hunter, right) crashed onto a highway, the A27, killing up to 20 people. In an interview with people around Shoreham, the last thing said was that local people wanted to make sure ‘something was done’ so that the annual air show could continue but that there were no future disasters. Humphrys started by asking him if he agreed with the sentiment that “something must be done”, and Turner responded by saying that his association had had 63 years of accident-free shows and that it was important not to speculate until proper investigations had been done.

Humphrys responded that he was not asking him to speculate, but rather if he agreed that the rules should be changed such that if another accident of this nature were to happen during a stunt, the plane would crash not onto a busy highway but into the sea. He said that air shows are important and that people love them, but they are entertainment and “don’t have to happen”, and accused Turner of not addressing his question as to why a pilot needs to be carrying out a stunt over a “built-up area” (which this was not; it was outside town). He kept repeating the point that the stunt should have taken place over the sea, especially as Shoreham is by the sea. Turner responded that “after 63 years of safe operation, this is a question of balance, I think”, that air shows are visited by millions every year, with an audience approaching that of football, and that they generated £79m last year for charities. Humphrys said that the long safety record is “in one sense” irrelevant, because when other aviation disasters happen, even after a long record of accident-free operation, the matter is investigated thoroughly and changes are made, and that it was “patently right” that if stunts happen over the sea, the number of casualties would be infinitely smaller.

Humphrys conducted all this with intermittent smirks and ‘patient reminders’ to his guest that he was not addressing the point he wanted him to address. Turner took time to respond each time, sometimes perhaps because the interview was “down the line” but also because he was perplexed at being expected to justify why air shows were not held to this stricture that nobody had ever considered before. Is Humphrys really suggesting that all air shows take place by the sea? We are not that small an island and most of our airfields are not near enough to the sea as to make this possible, and many of those do not have good rail or road links (Lydd in Kent springs to mind). Some airports that have long RAF histories (e.g. Farnborough) are used for air shows; Farnborough is a good 30 miles from the nearest sea. Even Shoreham’s airfield is not right by the sea; there is a railway line and another busy road (the A259), as well as some housing, in between. On the north side, there is the A27, a flood plain (through which runs another busy road, the A283) and one large building (Lancing College). It would arguably be less safe to have conducted that stunt on the south side of the airfield than it was on the north. And an air show does not have to be by the sea to avoid a plane crashing into a built-up area or onto a main road; it just has to be away from such hazards.

Google Map of Shoreham airfield areaAs it happens, there are new restrictions being imposed on air shows, with ‘vintage’ jets being restricted to flypasts with no stunts being performed over land, and all planes of the type involved (the Hawker Hunter) being grounded. But insisting that all such stunts happen over the sea is not only an unnecessarily draconian overraction but is classic “stable-door logic”, changing the rules to prevent a repetition of one particular disaster without considering how it might enable other types of disasters to happen in the future. The sea, especially near land, is not empty; a fighter plane crashing into the sea could come down on or near swimmers, boats or a pier, and could still cause loss of life and spill fuel; the explosion and materials projected could injure people on land. And there would be no point paying to go to an airfield to watch a flying show when you can sit on the beach and watch it for free.

But my real beef with this show was Humphrys’ manner. He sounded utterly sure that his solution was the obvious answer, and could not understand why the man who knew about air shows, having run their industry association for years, could not see that he was right. He treated his guest as an evasive politician trying to squirm off the hook when asked a difficult or potentially revealing question rather than someone dealing with an unprecedented situation, perhaps grieving, being presented with presumptuous demands to agree to an ‘obvious’ solution that had never occurred to anyone in 63 years of running air shows and being too polite to tell him that this was a ridiculous idea that would destroy the whole industry. John Humphrys may have a posher accent than BBC London’s old bully boy host Jon Gaunt, but he’s no less of a bully and in more than one case that I can think of, no less inappropriate. He should receive a stern dressing-down, but the BBC should be considering retiring him.

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