Crash Death, 3rd in 8 Years, Not Expected to Halt Future Shows
The fatal crash of a Korean War-vintage F-86 Sabre jet Sunday, the third in eight years at the El Toro Air Show, brought the toll to three people killed and one injured during the 43-year history of the aerial extravaganza.
The death of pilot James A. Gregory on Sunday was one of scores of deaths around the world that have come during air shows or their preparations.
But a base spokeswoman said she doubted that the accident, which occurred in front of about 500,000 spectators, would result in the show’s demise.
Capt. Betsy Sweatt, spokeswoman for El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, said that officials will review the accident, but expressed doubt that the fatal crash will lead to a decision to discontinue the air show.
“We review every show we do, whether there’s a fatality or not,” Sweatt said.
Former Marine Corps pilot Col. Jerry Cadick, who survived after his F/A-18 fighter jet slammed into the earth in 1988, believes the shows are operated at an acceptable level of risk.
“Air shows are OK and we’ll probably continue to have air shows in America,” said Cadick, who lived to fly again but suffered a medical discharge from the Marines because of his injuries. “Flying at high speed or high performance air planes has never been without hazard, and occasionally pilots crash.”
Vi Smith, author of “From Jennies to Jets, the Aviation History of Orange County,” said Sunday that she can recall no organized opposition to air shows at El Toro over the years, despite the past fatalities.
“I think the attendance speaks for itself,” said Smith, who has continued to follow aviation in the county as a historian. “To my knowledge, I’ve heard no dissenting comments.
“Through the years there have really been so very few problems,” Smith said. “Today’s event was most unfortunate. (However), I really don’t see any great concern.”
One of the largest air show disasters occurred in West Germany in 1988, when three Italian stunt jets collided and one crashed into a crowd of onlookers, killing 70 people among the thousands who had gathered to watch the aerobatics.
At the Paris Air Show, the scene of a number of serious accidents, 13 people were killed in a 1973 crash of a supersonic Soviet Tupolev 144.
At a 1982 show in West Germany, an Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter crashed, killing 39 sky divers and five Army helicopter crew members.
Even those acclaimed as the most skilled have not been immune. Four of the Air Force’s Thunderbirds pilots were killed in the Nevada desert in 1982, when they crashed as they practiced turning giant loops.
In 1985, two of the Navy’s Blue Angels collided and one pilot was killed at an air show in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Following the West German disaster in 1988, the Marine Corps considered abandoning the El Toro Air Show, which began in 1950. But officials decided to continue it, noting that the planes don’t fly over crowds or homes.
A spokesman for Rep. Norman D. Dicks (D-Wash.), a member of the Defense Appropriations Committee who has been critical of air show safety precautions, said Sunday that the El Toro show appeared to have conformed to precautions designed to prevent injury to onlookers.
“Spectators were kept away from the action in the air show,” said Dicks’ press aide, George Behan. “That was one of the reforms that took place after the air show in Germany.”
“The Air Force and Navy have been very strict in keeping the action away from the spectators,” he said of more recent military air shows.
Behan added that when properly conducted, air shows are “connected with morale and recruiting. When done correctly, they can be effective public relations tools for the armed services, if they are done with all the safety precautions.”
Air show crashes also are spectacular tragedies, inevitably viewed by thousands.
In 1988, Cadick, who commanded the fighter jet group at El Toro, miraculously survived when his F/A-18 jet crashed in full view of 300,000 people, including his wife and mother-in-law. He suffered numerous broken bones and internal injuries when he miscalculated his altitude and slammed into the runway.
A 1985 crash at the El Toro air show killed a civilian pilot and his passenger when their World War II-era plane plowed into the air base’s chapel and exploded.
The F-86, once a common sight on military air bases, is a rare plane today, 40 years after its heyday. But in 1987, another F-86 crashed and its pilot perished when the plane developed engine trouble while doing flybys for a crowd at an air show in Shafter, Calif.
In that accident, the plane crashed to earth about three-fourths of a mile from spectators at Shafter Airport. The pilot was thrown about 20 feet from the burning wreckage.
An investigation by The Times in 1988 found that the U.S. armed forces had lost more than 100 lives and more than $1 billion in sophisticated aircraft at air shows, flight demonstrations and various publicity events since 1955.
“The shows enhance esprit and enhance recruitment,” Maj. Gen. Joseph Ashy, the commander of the parent organization for the Thunderbirds aerobatic team said at the time. “It is very important to the American public.”
However, C.O. Miller, a former chief accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board and leading authority on air safety, said in 1988, “Things could be done a lot better. I think the margins are cut thin.”
Perhaps the largest public uproar over air show safety followed the 1988 West Germany disaster. Much criticism centered on precautions to protect the public, such as keeping onlookers a safe distance from the performing aircraft.
“You’re never going to legislate total safety,” Cadick said. “We always try to do it after something like this.
“It’s not a risk-free business, any more than driving a car or racing in the Indianapolis 500. There’s a certain element of risk.”
Times staff writer Eric Lichtblau contributed to this story.