On my wall hangs a picture. It’s not a Rembrandt or a Banksy, it’s not a beautiful landscape photograph, nor is it one of the many incredible images I’ve had taken of my aeroplane. It’s not a fine art print, or a clichéd quote. It is a crude child’s drawing. I don’t know the little girl’s name or where she lives, I don’t know who she is or what she will grow up to become. What I do know is that one of my most treasured possessions is a simple felt-tip pen doodle of a little red and white biplane that a sweet little four-year-old girl gave to me at an airshow last year. She gave me something that made me realise a startling truth – that what we do inspires people. We inspire the next generation.
My first airshow performance was flown at Welshpool in 2013 and is a life experience that will forever remain deeply etched in my memory. That day was singularly the most terrifying, exhilarating, difficult and incredible day of my flying career. The show itself was a wonderful celebration of all things aviation as well as all things local. With spectator numbers in the thousands the atmosphere was electric. I spent hours watching the smiles and laughs, listening to the ooohs and ahhhs as the best of British aviation was thrust in front of our eyes and into our hearts. That day was so special.
I watched the Vulcan bomber fly low along the display line, the sound echoing inside my bones and raising emotion I had no idea existed – a deeply set, openly proud nostalgia became as much a physical sensation as it had ever been an emotional one. On top of that I entered the unique world of display flying proper for the first ever time and was welcomed with open arms. Legends of the scene chatted freely with me, giving advice and pointers, encouragement and warning alike, making me feel at once excited, nervous and yet somehow completely at home.
The display flight itself is now a distant memory of many hundreds, if not thousands of sequences flown, but a memory I can recall any moment. The feeling was of all-encompassing focus, unlike any feeling I can ever hope to explain, alien in every sense. In that focus everything was clarity and joy. Every action and motion was instinctual, rehearsed and natural. The experience was one of total control.
On landing I was applauded the whole length of my landing roll and taxi, thousands of people waving and cheering, children on the shoulders of their parents, clapping and shouting with joy as I waved back at them. That moment was the most surreal but defining moment of my life.
In the UK we are very lucky – ours is one of the most vibrant and varied airshow scenes on Earth, enabled by what has, up until now, been a flexible and sensible regulatory approach that has granted freedom of expression whilst holding one of the very best safety records in the world.
From huge airshows inviting participation from military and air forces all over the world, showcasing the most up to date technology on the planet; to displays of some of the world’s rarest and most historic aircraft; to local fetes and rallies decorated with exciting aerobatics; to simple weddings where newly-wed couples have smoke hearts drawn in the sky, we’ve got it all!
Or at least we had it all…
The latest changes to the way the CAA regulate and administer the airshow domain has left little room for the joys and freedom we are used to. I’m not going to go into all the details here as they’re far too numerous and complex and have been extensively written and talked about by people far more qualified than I, so I shall stick to the simplest perspective for me to write from – as an individual, civilian operator of a simple, piston-engined, aerobatic display aircraft. I write as an aviator living my dream.
Note: for the full details, the official document from the CAA, CAP403, can be found here: publicapps.caa.co.uk/cap403
Last year the unthinkable happened. A freak, outlying accident at a major airshow led to people on the ground losing their lives. Leaving out the politics, the speculation, the media response and the ongoing repercussions, this was a tragedy of the greatest order. It shook us all as pilots, as enthusiasts, as human beings. The fact remains however, that we had one of the safest airshow systems in the world – yet nothing is foolproof.
Now, in the name of ‘safety’, our regulator has imposed changes that in large part are primarily a cost-recovery exercise. The CAA outrageously claim that we as the ‘display community’ are in opposition to regulatory changes proposed to improve safety. Let me state this now – we are all united in wanting to make our world as safe as we can.
Massive increases to the fees charged to airshow organisers and private operators as well as the pilots, will not provide any increase in safety. The increased fees will supposedly fund the increased administration required to manage the vast number of changes to the rules that will regulate the 2016 airshow season.
We saw a public consultation from the CAA on their newly proposed display charges that ended on the 29th of February (and which had been open for only 29 days). Sadly it left no room for discussion on the regulatory changes, merely their proposed fee increases. The key issues of the system of regulation still haven’t been open to industry discussion.
Here we are, literally stepping into the start of the 2016 airshow season stunned as our regulatory authority have decided to change the way we operate, moving the goalposts for our gaining permissions to display or to hold displays, still without giving us detail of how any of it will actually work.
Not only this, but now with no notice to invoke changes to display and sequence designs, we’ve had a new set of display line distances foisted upon us – changes that will either position our aircraft so far away from the crowds watching as to suggest it might be a good idea to invest in shares in a binocular manufacturing company (230m away from the crowd line), or require awkward speed limitations to be met in order to use what is still a very distant display line at 150m.
We have been blindfolded, spun around until we can take the confusing sensory inputs no more and left to crawl toward what miniscule chink of light leaks through (via those few stalwarts on the CAA front-line who do actually know and care about the display world). We are being made to crawl into the 2016 season squinting through the murk, burdened under the oppressive weight of increased fees, requirements and indirect costs. All this is done in the name of cost recovery and the reduction of liability for our regulator. Very little of this will improve our safety, make our lives simpler or less stressful, quite the opposite.
The Honorable Company of Air Pilots, one of the country’s most prestigious representative professional aviation organisations made this comment in their response to the consultation:
“We are deeply concerned at the regulatory changes and the associated tremendous charge increases the CAA is seeking to introduce in such a rushed manner and with little notice even before the findings of the Shoreham accident and inquests have been completed. It is not appropriate, nor usually permitted within government policy, (cf Better Regulation Framework Manual – Practical Guidance for UK Government Officials March 2015) to introduce increases of 100%-500% all at once, nor at such short notice.
Furthermore and also contrary to government policy, the regulatory and financial impact of the proposed changes do not seem to have been subject to a proper impact assessment and are in great danger of causing major financial damage to Britain’s important aviation sector and alienating those participants the CAA seeks to regulate. Without the benefit of a proper impact assessment, these changes could have unintended adverse impacts on the safety of flight and public safety in UK.”
As an example, one by-product of the increased cost of a low-flying exemption [or permission] for a display with a single aircraft/act (bread and butter work for operators and pilots like me) will be a vast increase in the already considerable pressures felt to get the performance done, often on days where most would choose to leave their aircraft safely tucked away in their hangars and go to the pub instead. There will be many of those questionable days where pilots will be wishing they could just go back to bed but, being bowed under a massively increased personal financial pressure, or an intense sense of duty to not to let down a client who has covered the extortionate fee, or continually being begged to ‘just get there’, might just take off into the low murk, wind and rain… Is this going to be safer? In reality it probably will because the majority of these small displays at steam rallies, county shows, school carnivals and village gatherings, will simply die off due to the cost for the permission being unfeasibly high (at a staggering £374 which is a 100% increase on the old fee of £187) – remember this is a fee which is unrefundable and added on top of the cost of the flying act itself.
Hugely increased fees and environmental constraints for larger shows could mean the loss of many and increased ticket fees at those that remain. Increasing ticket prices will do nothing more than discourage people from attending as spectators, safely contained in controlled and risk assessed viewing areas that are easily visible to the performing pilots…This will then likely lead to an increase in the numbers of people who choose to view airshow performances from uncontrolled areas. In many cases these could add significant distraction to the performers at the show as well as potentially placing more and more into ‘harm’s way’ should anything go wrong. Are these not the risks we should be seeking to reduce?
We have always been an aviation nation, we have always presented our triumphs and achievements to the world, to demonstrate, to sell and to inspire. We have one of the greatest and safest airshow circuits on earth, providing entertainment for all – from the keen enthusiasts who want to see powerful demonstrations of the latest in modern technology, those who enjoy seeing and feeling real history brought to life, to children who dream of flight and families who are just looking for a great day out.
Reducing the number of airshows and displays across the UK, which I fear could be the result of this seasons drastic changes, will do nothing to keep our aviation heritage alive, helping to inspire our future generations. It will do nothing to enhance and expand the minds of our youths, nothing to aid the memory of the sacrifices made by our military heroes. We should be nurturing and encouraging our wonderful, historic, dynamic airshow world to grow, not stopping it dead in its tracks. We must create the inspiration and the memorial and we must enable the organisers and the performers to create the safest and most entertaining events possible.
I for one want to add more children’s drawings to my wall.
Help us keep the scene alive by supporting our shows. Go along to your local show, buy a ticket, thank the organising teams for their efforts and love for their events, and share your support on social media. Show the CAA we all still
A version of this piece was previously published in Pilot magazine, April 2016