Analysis. History. Perspective.

Sports Then and Now

The Worst Airshow Disaster in History

Posted on July 20, 2015 by Martin Banks

Why do people go to airshows? The reasons are many.

Some people are serious airplane enthusiasts, eager to check another aircraft they’ve seen in person off of their list. Some people have an appreciation for the enormous feats of engineering on display.

Probably there are a lot of people who just don’t have anything better to do and attend airshows like they would a county fair — there’s a crowd and a spectacle, so it’s something to go see with the whole family.

But perhaps there’s another driving force behind people’s desire to attend an airshow.

It usually goes unspoken, and most people probably wouldn’t like to admit it. But when you are watching people go to war with gravity — sitting right below them as they rip over your head, temporarily defeating the ubiquitous force that — you’re not just marveling at human ingenuity. Part of you is also wondering what would happen if gravity won.

The Su-27

On July 22, 2002, spectators at an airshow in Lviv, Ukraine found out what happens when gravity wins in the absolute worst way possible. Two pilots in a Russian-made Su-27 were performing aerobatics over a crowd for the Sknyliv Airshow.

If you’re not familiar with the Su-27, this thing is pretty far from your granddaddy’s favorite barnstormer. A heavy fighter jet, the Su-27 was made to defeat the American F-14 in combat — think Top Gun — and it also was capable of coming out victorious against another American fighter, the F-15. This was just an incredible piece of machinery performing breathtaking stunts at low altitude above a crowd.

A Good Show Gone Bad

And then, something went wrong. The Su-27 completed one last descending barrel roll before leveling out, much too low. The plane was still losing altitude only a few hundred feet above the ground when the two pilots ejected, realizing they would not be able to prevent a crash. The plane clipped the tree tops before skidding along the ground, striking terrified spectators and another airplane. Finally, the Su-27 upended and cartwheeled before exploding into a giant fireball.

Watch at your own risk:

How Could It Happen?

The crash killed seventy-seven people, including twenty-eight children. The cause of the disaster was not abrupt engine failure or any other mechanical issue. Tragically, it seems nothing else caused the crash except for hubris on the part of the pilots.

An independent commission that was formed to discover the cause of the crash concluded the pilots did not follow the scheduled flight plan. Instead of doing what they were trained to do, they decided they would perform complex maneuvers they had not practiced. It doesn’t take an independent commission to know that when you’re hurtling across the sky directly above a crowd of people in a hulking aircraft laden with jet fuel, maybe it isn’t the best time to try out a new move.

Safety Since the Accident

While the pilots certainly were at fault for the crash, what made it especially bad was that it occurred right on top the crowd of spectators. While some safety considerations were already in place in other countries that ensured an aircraft wouldn’t crash into the crowd, this accident drastically changed the airshow landscape everywhere.

Today, the planes at airshows only perform their stunts in areas where they will be visible to spectators but not be a danger to them. In fact, the famous Blue Angels require that all buildings below where they perform their show are evacuated of nonessential personnel before they begin. They have the right idea.

Even though it’s only been 13 years, airplane technology has improved greatly. Just think of how much the websites, the internet, and cell phones have changed in that time and imagine an even greater increase in airplane tech. There are companies out there that specialize in things like jet engine test cells, rocket motor testing, and complex electronics for aviation. Going to an airshow is safer than it’s ever been.

The tragedy in Sknyliv was the worst in history, but due to changes in safety measures, it should never be repeated.

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