The 6 Worst Air-Show Disasters: A Video Collection, Just in Time for Wings Over Houston
Next time you go to an air show, take a look at the fine print on the ticket. Besides the usual stuff about acts of God and "Promoter not responsible if the frontman doesn't show due to injecting Drano into his balls," there's something else. It says they're really, really not to blame if some fiery wreckage falls from the sky and turns your entire family into a small pile of smoldering embers.
Things can go wrong.
The Wings Over Houston Airshow -- a tradition at Ellington Field going back to its days as an active air force base -- has never had such a tragedy as happened at the Reno Air Races last month. And as far as we know, has never even come close. However, you never know when the Hand of God might knock his fork off the table.
So lacking any fiery airshow holocaust footage from local sources, we dug up -- we hesitate to call them "favorites" -- but some of the worst from around the world, including some that had relatively tiny death tolls, but were just plain unforgivable for one reason or another:
Considered the worst airshow disaster ever. The two-seat Sukhoi Su-27 fighter (roughly equivalent to the U.S. F-15 Eagle) was performing a routine airshow maneuver when something went wrong. It's suspected that the crew misjudged their altitude.
They claimed the map of the airshow performing area, which is given to all air crews flying at these events, was not accurate and thus did not show where the crowd actually was. This determines what direction the pilots will fly during maneuvers so as to stay clear of spectators in case of a crash.
Whatever really happened in the cockpit, the plane hit the ground, exploded and cartwheeled into the spectator area. Either 77 or 84 people were killed outright, depending on your source; 100 were seriously injured with mostly burns and broken bones, and another 450 were less seriously injured.
The Ukrainian justice system doesn't screw around: In 2005, a UAF court martial sentenced pilot Volodymyr Toponar to 14 years in the slammer, and his co-pilot, Yuriy Yegorov, who wasn't even in control of the airplane, to eight years. Three other officers from the Ukrainian Air Force's "Ukrainian Falcons" demonstration team got jail time. In addition, the crew was ordered to pay several million dollars in damages to the families of the victims.
This one did not happen at an airshow. It happened during a rehearsal for a show the next day at Fairchild AFB in Washington State. The investigation in the aftermath of the crash of Czar 52 -- call sign of a B-52H bomber the size of a Walmart superstore -- exposed for all to see the U.S. Air Force's tolerance and even promotion of hubris, cowardice, incompetence, failures of command at high levels, and just the most frightening bunch of people ever to be put in charge of a base stocked with nuclear weapons and the machines designed to deliver them.
The pilot, Lt. Col. Arthur "Bud" Holland, had such a reputation for being a cowboy, so out of control, that one squadron commander from the 94th Bomb Wing instructed his crews that they didn't have to fly with Holland if they felt unsafe. And lots of people felt unsafe in Holland's airplane. He once flew so low coming off the bomb range he nearly knocked a camera crew off a small ridge. That's pretty damned low in a 200-ton B-52H. Another time he instructed a navigator to crawl back to the bomb bay (through a hatch called the "Hell Hole") and straddle the beams while videotaping the bombs leaving the airplane. Not because of any operational need for such a tape, but because Holland thought it would be cool.
In other words, this guy, who had somehow made it to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and was appointed the wing's Chief of Standardization and Evaluation (the Air Force equivalent of an airline's chief pilot), listened to no one, was a strutting, arrogant loose cannon, and, some even say, a borderline psychotic. Oh, almost forgot: One time, Holland flew his B-52 over the field where his daughter's softball team was playing and put the aircraft into what is known as a "dead man's spiral." It's dangerous enough in a tiny Cessna. To deliberately do it in a B-52 is, well, psychotic.
So Holland sets out at 7:30 a.m. the morning before the big Fairchild AFB air show, and just to keep an eye on him, his crew consisted of Lt. Col. Mark McGeehan, two other lieutenant colonels and a full colonel who happened to be the deputy wing commander. We won't go into the science of over-banking the airplane at low airspeeds and altitude, or any of that other junk. All that matters is that Holland made a student-pilot mistake and killed himself and everyone on board.
The story of Holland, Czar 52, and what turned out to be a scorching indictment of the entire U.S. Air Force's promotion, command and staffing policies, has been the subject of several books and countless articles. If you want to get scared about who's minded the nukes, Google the story of Czar 52.
Apparently, a lot of people wanted to see what Holland was going to pull the day he killed everybody in Czar 52, because the final flight was taped from a lot of angles.