asking the right question about airshows – feedback 19-w15

Bart Henwood

Aviation Safety Officer, NASA Armstrong

Like all of you,  I thought in general the article was very thought provoking. For airshows I think the real question is what level of planning and training is necessary to make this an “acceptable” risk.  Answering that question is a hallmark of the test community. Of course once you lose an aircraft or aircrew, the immediate answer will be that was too much risk.  

I think if an organization does not have the internal structure / knowledge / discipline to review the hazards and, ultimately, the risks associated with this activity, then they need to submit themselves to an outside review from someone who does.  That is another best practice of our community.

Who in the organization does the actual flying is really a question as to how close to the operational envelope edge this demonstration will approach (and how aggressively toward) and how much uncertainty exists in and around those areas.  The greater the uncertainty and reduced controllability margins, I would lean toward a test pilot vs an operational pilot as he is trained to understand, detect and analyze the changing characteristics and determine the best path to recovery when the unexpected occurs. The closer you get to only operationally representative maneuvers that do not aggressively move towards a defined boundary in your demonstration, the use of an experienced operational pilot can be a very good option.  Though most airshows seem to favor the less operationally significant and more dazzling maneuvers, there is something to be said about demonstrating the robustness of the design to keep their intended buyer’s aircrew (and ultimately passengers) out of harm’s way. Unfortunately, some pilot’s choose to intentionally verify that fact despite the “rules”, once they believe they understand all that is happening with that maneuver – clearly an unintended consequence of airshow demonstrations, which could be part of their risk assessment.  I remember a time in flight test when we were somewhere in the flight envelope performing a maneuver that was not operationally representative, but was deemed “necessary” to verify a structural endpoint. We actually exceeded the very parameter we were attempting to approach. Had we been objective enough to realize that perhaps the limit we wanted to verify was not really worth the risk, since no one would probably ever recreate the same maneuver we performed to get to that condition. I think that is the crux of any demonstration maneuver that is not operationally representative.  If I show them something they would never consider using in the operational world is it of value to the customer? I would suggest that most aircraft acquisitions are not impulse buying. However, as demonstrated by the recent 737 MAX accident, the opposite may not be true.

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