It was a tough summer and fall for flying. The 2006 airshow season got off to a rough start in April when U.S. Navy Blue Angel Lieutenant Commander Kevin Davis died in a crash while performing the final maneuver of an airshow at Beaufort, South Carolina. In July Gerald Beck was killed in the collision of two P-51 Mustangs at AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and veteran stunt pilot Jim LeRoy died after his Bulldog Pitts crashed and burst into flames at the Dayton Air Show. Earlier, former Swissair pilot Hans Georg Schmid had died when his small experimental plane crashed in Switzerland as he attempted to break a world record for solo single-engine flight en route to Oshkosh.
Then in September three pilots were killed in four days at the Reno Air Races, the first fatalities in five years at the competition. The disappearance of record-setting aviator Steve Fossett two weeks earlier after taking off in a single-engine Bellanca from a ranch some 80 miles southeast of Reno had already cast a pall over the competition. Fossett had been scheduled to present a trophy for the best-restored vintage plane at the event, but in his absence the award was presented by other aviation legends, including Fossett’s close friend and fellow record-setter Dick Rutan.
Also in September, two members of a Polish acrobatic team were killed in a horrific crash at the Radom Air Show that was captured in gruesome detail on film and video. And at the Shoreham Air Show in Sussex, England, spectators watched in horror as a Hawker Hurricane veered off course and crashed in a fireball during a Battle of Britain reenactment, killing the pilot. The Hurricane was one of only a dozen still in flying condition.
The airshow deaths, and in particular the multiple tragedies at Reno, prompted some to call for stricter safety regulations and one columnist to propose banning airshows entirely. The vintage plane crashes also revived the seemingly endless debate over whether or not rare warbirds should be allowed to fly.
Whether it’s a Sunday jaunt in a Cessna or a complicated acrobatic maneuver in an F-18, flying can be dangerous business. “Death is the handmaiden of the pilot,” wrote A. Scott Crossfield in 1960. “Sometimes it comes by accident, sometimes by an act of God.” In the legendary test pilot’s case, his statement would prove prophetic when he died last April after attempting to fly his Cessna 210A into a thunderstorm that air traffic controllers had failed to warn him about.
“I want to go in the air, not a bathtub,” Crossfield was quoted in the Washington Post as having said the day before his fatal flight. It’s a fair bet that Davis, Beck, LeRoy, Schmid and the others would agree. They were doing what they loved when they passed from this earth. We should all be so lucky.