Masthead.

There’s No Business Like Air Show Business!

A Behind-The-Curtain Look at Air Show Safety

By Tom Hoffmann, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine Editor

Who doesn’t love the sights, sounds, and even smells of a good air show? A staple in this nation’s culture for over 110 years, air shows have become as American as apple pie, pick-up trucks, and venti vanilla lattes. It doesn’t matter if you’re two or 92; airshows have a certain magical appeal to all walks of life. Even those who have never flown or been to an airport come away with a new appreciation for the wonder of flight and the vitality of aviation.

While you’re busy marveling at all of the jaw-dropping performances at an air show, it’s easy to overlook all the hard work and planning that goes on behind the curtain to keep these events amazingly entertaining yet extremely safe. With so many Mach-1 moving parts and pieces, it’s a tall order to strike that balance. The FAA has a large role in that duty, but it’s by no means a solo act. The FAA works alongside dozens of different individuals, organizations, and agencies and relies upon detailed policy and guidance materials to orchestrate a safe air show. Let’s take a peek behind the “showline” to see what goes into ensuring the safety and success of these events.

Cover.

The Leading Role

Although air shows in the United States come in all shapes and sizes — none as large or complex as EAA’s AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisc. — safety guidelines are consistently applied and scaled appropriately for every event. The FAA’s Flight Standards Service is tasked with regulatory oversight and enforcement during these and other aviation events, a responsibility it takes very seriously.

This work is carried out at the local Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) level, where a qualified safety inspector is chosen to be the Inspector in Charge (IIC) for the event. The IIC is the FAA focal point for the event sponsor and performers and will liaise with other parts of the FAA as needed. Depending on the size of the event, an IIC may lead a team of inspectors to assist with compliance and surveillance duties. Within Flight Standards, there is also a team of Aviation Event Specialists assigned to each FSDO to assist the IIC with any policy concerns for a certain event. Other areas of FAA involvement during an air show may include the Air Traffic Organization, Airports, Commercial Space, and the UAS Integration Office.

Photo of people.
FAA ASI and AirVenture 2021 Inspector-In-Charge Joe Saunders meeting with air show performers after a daily briefing.

Preshow Prep

The multi-part process for getting an air show approved starts with a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (CoW). If approved, it is issued to the event sponsor to allow participants to perform certain activities or maneuvers outside of the normal part 91 requirements but under conditions that ensure an acceptable level of safety. A good example of a commonly waived regulation at an air show would be allowing performers to “zero-out” their altimeters when on the ground to more easily gauge altitude during aerobatic maneuvers (14 CFR section 91.121). Other regulations commonly waived pertain to airspeeds, minimum safe altitudes, and aerobatic flight at less than 1,500 feet above the surface. The waivers required depend on the types of operations that will be conducted at the show.

The CoW process is accomplished via two forms, FAA Form 7711–1 and 7711–2. The latter is what an air show sponsor or organizer uses to apply for the CoW. The former is the actual certificate issued by the FAA with any special provisions the agency determines necessary to carry out the event safely. In addition to capturing the event details (date, location, regulations waived, the scope of planned operations, etc.), the CoW process also allows the IIC and the event sponsor to thoroughly evaluate risks and hash out any necessary mitigations. For example, as part of their review, an IIC will want to see if the event has sufficient fire-fighting and rescue capabilities or if the waivered maneuvers can be performed safely. More on that later.

One side note on getting a CoW issued: if the air show is held at an airport certificated under part 139, the FAA’s regional airports division must first review and approve a ground operations plan. The plan must address the part 139-related requirements impacted by the airshow and be approved by an airport safety certification inspector. Among the key areas of consideration for the ground operations plan are runway and taxiway closures, the impact on navaids, and safety precautions for any pyrotechnic devices. It’s also not uncommon to see an airport district office lend their expertise during the planning stages at some larger or complex air shows located at a non-part 139 airport. For more details and resources on coordinating a ground operations plan for an air show, see faa.gov/airports/airport_safety/airshows.

Drawing the Line, Literally

With a new air show or an IIC unfamiliar with the location, an onsite visit with the event sponsor is necessary to get a first-hand look at the grounds and validate certain aspects of the operations plan. Armed with a laser measuring device, the IIC will verify the location and distances of the showline, crowd line, and race course if applicable. For example, the IIC will check if the minimum horizontal distance required by policy exists between the showline and spectators. This depends on the type and speed of the aircraft used. The minimum distance ranges from 500 feet for category three aircraft (less than 156 knots) to 1,500 feet for category one aircraft (more than 245 knots). An event waiver will not be considered if these distances cannot be met. Note that a category one or two aircraft may still use the 500-foot showline distance provided they fly non-aerobatically and parallel to the spectator areas.

Illustration.
Air show fly zones relative to airspace, including the CAT I, II, and III showlines.

The IIC will also visit secondary spectator areas, which could be outside the airport, and decide if any type of crowd control or road closures are needed to protect the public. The same may apply to homes or buildings under the aerobatic maneuver area (aerobatic box). In some cases, it may be necessary to close or evacuate these areas during the performance. This is all part of the security plan discussed next.

Illustration.
Example of flying display area for multiple CAT III aircraft.

There’s A Plan for That

An important element of air show planning (and CoW approval) involves reviewing emergency preparedness and security at the event. The event organizer must present to the FAA an Emergency Response Plan (ERP) that establishes procedures (who does what and how) for any emergency that could affect performers, essential personnel, and spectators. The ERP must be risk-based, scaled to the scope and complexity of the event, and coordinated with local emergency response officials. The Incident Action Plan (IAP) that outlines the tactical deployment of resources for specific incidents is a required companion document to the ERP.

There is also a required Security Plan that shows how areas outside the designated spectator area(s), especially under the aerobatic box, are secure and, if needed, kept clear of non-participants. The Security Plan will need to account for how this is accomplished. It requires diagrams, descriptions, and sufficient staffing to ensure the plan’s integrity and ability to handle a breach effectively.

As the waiver approval process requires, these plans are all put to the test prior to the event via scenario-based tabletop exercises and an on-site emergency drill. “The practice drills are important to ensure that the emergency response — equipment and personnel — can rapidly react and reach a downed aircraft anywhere in the sterile aerobatic box,” says FAA aviation safety inspector and former AirVenture IIC Joe Saunders. “They also help identify if equipment has to be moved or if more equipment is needed in order to respond.” He adds that additional response resources could include boats, ATVs, fire trucks, and possibly helicopters. It goes without saying that effective and well-executed emergency plans can go a long way to improving safety for performers and spectators alike.

Effective and well-executed emergency plans can go a long way to improving air show safety for performers and spectators alike.

There’s a Tool for That

Luckily for Joe and other IICs out there, the FAA has developed some excellent tools to assist both the IICs and the event organizers with emergency planning and other critical risk assessment processes. Of note is AvERT, the Aviation Event Risk Tool, which is listed on the FAA’s National Aviation Events Program page. AvERT reflects the concepts of safety risk management and provides a structured approach toward identifying site-specific hazards and addressing the risks they pose at an airshow event. It covers everything from bird strikes to hail storms to a rocket launch mishap and provides an effective way to assess risk acceptability and develop management strategies.

Photo of aircraft in formation.

The CoW process for an aviation event is also laid out in exceptional detail in FAA Order 8900.1, Volume 3, Chapter 6, complete with flowcharts, checklists, diagrams, and sample forms. It’s a great resource for both the IIC and the event organizers to ensure everything is covered. The order outlines many of the additional efforts required for an IIC not yet mentioned, like verifying the event NOTAM and coordinating the use of controlled airspace with the local ATC facility. This establishes the procedures for transitioning the airspace from ATC to the air boss during the air show. The air boss, besides having the coolest title in aviation, is delegated authority to control air show operations. You can find more about air traffic’s role in air shows by reading the article “Thinking Outside and Inside the Box” in this issue.

The Magnificent Men and Women and Their Flying Machines

What’s an air show without pilots performing acts of derring-do in their majestic, spectacular, and sometimes outlandish aerial steeds? Probably one you’ll want to skip! To help put the “show” in air show requires due diligence on the part of the performers, the organizers, and the FAA.

Before each air show, the IIC, with help from other ASIs, will perform a check of each performer and aircraft scheduled to participate. They’ll verify the validity of airman certificates and necessary type ratings, medical certificates, formation flying cards, and/or statements of aerobatic competency (if required). Inspectors also review the participating aircraft’s paperwork (e.g., registration, airworthiness certificate, operating limitations, weight and balance, last condition/annual inspection). As part of the security plan, performers must also demonstrate and document emergency extraction procedures for their aircraft. This step is to alert emergency personnel of any special requirements like an ejection system or any onboard hazardous materials.

Photo of Vicky Benzing.
Aerobatic pilot Vicky Benzing greets her fans after an air show performance. Photo by Brian O’Brien

For aerobatic and air race pilot Vicky Benzing, preparation for an air show begins months in advance. This includes assembling a special binder with all her required pilot credentials and documents verifying that her aircraft is safe and legal. An airshow performer is also required to practice their performance within 45 days of the airshow. “That is not usually an issue for me,” explains Vicky, “since I practice regularly and will have practiced the week of an upcoming show.” In fact, Vicky practices her routine so often that she rarely has to think much about the mechanics of her flying. “That frees me up to focus on monitoring airspeeds, critical altitude gates, and maintaining my position in the aerobatic box.”

Beyond keeping her airplane and her flying skills in the best condition, Vicky also works hard to keep herself in top shape too. “I try to be in the best health possible,” she says. “I lift weights regularly to help my g-tolerance and make sure I’m well hydrated and get plenty of sleep before a show.”

It’s Show Time

If the IIC finds all parts of the waiver application process satisfactory, the air show is a go! But the work doesn’t stop there. The FAA will continue to work with the organizer as needed and provide onsite surveillance of the event. That includes conducting any necessary ramp checks of performance aircraft and attending various meetings and briefings, none more important than the daily performer briefing. “The daily briefings are vital to ensure everyone involved in the airshow understands their role and the terms of the CoW,” says Joe. “It is the place to de-conflict and resolve any confusion.”

Photo of airplane.

During the air show, the IIC will usually monitor the performances from what’s called the control point, a designated area where the air boss directs operations. That’s followed by a debrief with the FSDO and responsible parties to review what went well and what areas need improvement. “To be an effective IIC at any air show, it is vital to know the guidance, be agile to the events happening around you, and exhibit professionalism,” says Joe. He recalls his time as an IIC for AirVenture as an honor and a privilege. “I was humbled and awed by everyone’s willingness to pull in the same direction to have a safe outcome. It is truly a collaborative effort.”

Vicky couldn’t agree more, adding that the inspectors chosen to work the air shows are some of the FAA’s most friendly and helpful people. “We are all in this together to make the air shows safe and entertaining.”

Going forward, the FAA recognizes the air show and aviation event industry is evolving rapidly with a constant stream of innovative technologies. To match that innovation, the FAA continues to develop new processes and procedures to ensure safety remains consistent at any event. “Safety is a continuous improvement,” says Joe, “and it’s constantly evolving as new risks are identified.” That’s a wrap!

Photo collage.

Air Show Calendar

Magazine.
This article was originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine. https://www.faa.gov/newsroom/faa-safety-briefing-magazine
FAASTeam banner.

--

--

Voices, stories and news from the Federal Aviation Administration

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store