How Common Are Air Show Deaths?

In September 1951, during an air show in Colorado, a pilot performing an aerial stunt couldn't pull up in time and plunged into the crowd. The plane slammed into the spectators and burst into flames, killing 23 people and injuring 50 more, according to the Detroit Free Press. In the aftermath of the accident, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration put special safety precautions into place to try to prevent another such tragedy, according to CBS News. There hasn't been an air show spectator fatality in the U.S. since 1951 after the FAA instituted changes, including planes flying at least 500 feet from the spectators. If performing aerobatic maneuvers, the planes must use a "dedicated airspace" and can't fly towards the crowd, per CBS News. Because of this, watching air shows in the U.S. is pretty safe.

In 2022, there were an average of 1.4 deaths a year from air show crashes in the decade prior, two a year in the 20 years prior, and 3.5 a year from 1988 to 2022, according to the Dayton Daily News. Deaths have been steadily going down, John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows, told the newspaper. One of the biggest such accidents happened in November 2022 when two vintage war planes collided midair during the Wings Over Dallas air show, killing six people, according to WFAA.

Older war planes

One factor in air show accidents could be the age of the planes used in the events. In the fatal November 2022 crash, both planes were of World War II vintage, a Boeing B-17 bomber and a Bell P-63 Kingcobra fighter plane. The deadly crash highlighted the particular dangers of flying classic planes in choreographed events. The FAA requires a stringent list of certifications and maintenance, according to The Aviationist.

Even so, the National Transportation Safety Board found that another deadly crash of a B-17 in Connecticut in 2019 (it didn't occur during an air show) was in part due to overlooked maintenance. The family of the B-17 pilot killed in the Dallas incident filed a lawsuit against the event's organizers for allegedly failing to properly plan or coordinate the maneuvers. Being an air show pilot is a risky endeavor. In air shows crashes from 1993 to 2013, more than half ended with at least one death, according to a federal report titled "U.S. Civil Air Show Crashes, 1993 to 2013."

Air shows vs. air races

The latest deadly crash happened in Reno, Nevada on September 17, 2023, during the annual National Championship Air Races, per The New York Times. There's a difference between air shows and air races, like the deadly Reno, Nevada event. In air races, planes go up to 500 miles an hour at low altitudes around an oval track, according to the Monterey Herald.

In the 59-year history of the Reno Air Races, 22 pilots and 10 spectators have been killed, according to the Reno Gazette Journal. In 2011, the pilot of a modified P-51 Mustang lost control of his plane and slammed into the crowd, killing the pilot and 10 spectators and injuring more than 50 others. The two planes in the latest crash were done with the race and attempting to land when they collided, killing both pilots. Whether racing or performing choreographed aerobatic maneuvers, the statistics speak for themselves when it comes to deadly accidents. "The flying that these guys do is more dangerous than standard flying, but they take this risk knowingly, ” John Cuday told the Dayton Daily News.