One of Life’s Mysteries

Reading about the really awful crash at the Reno air show, I don’t understand why people attend these events. If you’re far enough away from the action to be “safe”, you’re too far to see much, and if you’re close enough to see what’s going on, then you’re too close. I’m sure I’m overestimating the chance of death and dismemberment, but clearly it’s a bit more than nil.

67 replies
  1. 1

    It was an awful accident. Two already dead and 50 or so injured, with at least 15 more not out of danger yet. And yes, there was dismemberment also.

    Very sad.

  2. 2
    El Tiburon says:

    By that logic why would anyone get in a car. Or get out of bed. If all we did in life was calculate our odds of dying it would be a pretty sad life.

  3. 3
    lawguy says:

    A terrible crash, but when was the last one? One can attempt to never get anywhere near danger, but one will still die eventually.

  4. 4
    Suffern ACE says:

    They knew what they were getting into when they bought their tickets?

  5. 5
    PeakVT says:

    Well, that goes for just about all motor sports. But my guess is that dying at a race isn’t more likely than dying at a concert by having the stage or lighting collapse.

  6. 6
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    This news story was already several hours old when I became aware of it last night, and I confess I didn’t pay much attention to details or have much reaction beyond OhMyGodThatIsAwful. But I swear that whatever TV I had on last night was reporting something like 75 dead and at least 25 injured, or maybe the other way around — anyhow, big numbers. But today they are reporting 3 deaths. Did they have wildly inflated estimates yesterday? Did I completely mishear and/ or misinterpret what I heard?

    (Not meant in any way to denigrate or diminish the horribleness of the 3 or however many people were actually killed.)

  7. 7
    Raven (formerly stuckinred) says:

    Early reports are seldom accurate.

  8. 8
    WereBear says:

    Air shows, motor sports, lion taming; all based on not supposed to.

    Most of the time, they’re right.

  9. 9
    Svensker says:

    The accident was horrific. But it was an accident and not a common one. And airshows are a lot of fun and what you said about them is all wrong. It’s like saying “why would you go to a sporting event and sit in a big stadium so far away from the action when you can sit on your couch at home and watch it much more closely on the TV?”

  10. 10
  11. 11
    gelfling545 says:

    There was an air show here last weekend as a
    “tribute to 9/11”, which struck me as a bit off. Zooming around in planes to commemorate people who were killed by planes? Lots of people went though, so I guess it’s just me.

  12. 12
    PurpleGirl says:

    @SiubhanDuinne: The early report I read broke down the types of injury groups had 25 serious/critical (meaning could die), 25 needing hospitalization but not critical, and 25 with minor injuries. It also did have the pilot as having been killed. According the NY Times this morning, Jimmy Leeward was 74 years old.

  13. 13
    Dimmic Rat says:

    Wow, victim blaming a whole crowd of innocents. You juicers just get classier and classier.

  14. 14
    SiubhanDuinne says:

    @PurpleGirl: Thanks. I expect I managed, in my sleepy and medicated late-night state, to conflate several of these numbers and come up totally wrong.

  15. 15
    Skippy-san says:

    Because the Reno Air Show is a great airshow-that’s why people go. I used to live in Nevada and went every year. Its the last of the big air races harking back to a traditon that started in the 30’s.

    No airshow is 100% safe. You do the best you can to mitgate risks-which I know for a fact that the air show folks do. The folks in that area were probably pit pass holders which gave them seats in the grandstands and in front.

    I hope they investigate the accident, take lessons learned on board and bring the air show back better than ever next year.

  16. 16
    Grumpy Code Monkey says:

    Your chances of death and dismemberment are significantly higher just driving to work. That’s pretty much the single riskiest behavior anyone can participate in.

    Air show accidents are nasty, but rare enough that they shouldn’t deter you from going to one. I’ve never been, but I’d like to, especially for a chance to see old warbirds in action.

  17. 17
    a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q) says:

    @gelfling545: I’m with you on the “commemorative” air show. My reaction was WTF – poor taste, heard of it?

  18. 18
    henqiguai says:


    I don’t understand why people attend these events.

    It’s the hardware, man! To get up close and personal, to touch the machinery; to hear the roar. To hobnob and compare and debate the awesomeness. Do you fish? Or do concerts and reminisce or rave? And what others have said who enjoy such things.

  19. 19
    RSA says:

    When I was living in Texas, I’d occasionally go with friends to see an amateur show at one of the local airfields. My job involved working with military pilots, some active and some retired, and a couple of my friends had started taking flying lessons.

    The shows were fun. You’d get to see experts doing their thing, showing what was possible and sometimes it was surprising. There was nothing really dangerous going on–no one was buzzing the crowd, and there were no planes flying in close formation. Nothing like, say, the Blue Angels. But I can see why more potentially dangerous or dangerous-looking stunts would be appealing for an audience to watch.

    (I had an interesting job then, at least some of the time. My company built terrain-following/terrain-avoidance radars that would let fighter jets fly as low as 50 feet above the ground. One rite of passage for members of the software team was to pile into a Cessna to test the systems we worked on, flying at 1,000 feet over nearby rough terrain. One of my friends never needed an airsickness bag, but he was unusual.)

  20. 20
    Raven (formerly stuckinred) says:

    @RSA: I knew a Nam era A-6 driver that flew under the Golden Gate.

  21. 21
    Raven (formerly stuckinred) says:

    @henqiguai: Fuckin A.

  22. 22
    greylocks says:

    I also don’t understand why people watch food competitions on TV, but I’m not dismissive of those who do. Not everyone likes doing the same things you do, mister.

    Also, too, blaming the victims.

    The question that needs to be asked is why we’re allowing 74-year-olds to fly planes at 500 mph a hundred feet above the ground pulling a few G’s around the turns. The reports say “mechanical failure”, but that’s just bullshit guessing. For all anyone knows, the pilot could have had a heart attack or stroke, and there’s probably not enough left of him or the aircraft to ever figure it out.

  23. 23
    PurpleGirl says:

    @greylocks: I agree with your major point of allowing a 74-year-old to fly in an air show. But I did read somewhere that the P-51 Mustang he was flying had been majorly modified and was only recently put back into service, so a mechanical failure is possible. Of course, it’s also possible that there was a mechanical failure and he had a medical problem.

    The Blue Angels are the main Air Force flying team. There are a couple of other teams also and I once saw one of those at a Memorial Day picnic in NJ. It was awesome.

  24. 24
    Villago Delenda Est says:


    It’s the old “first reports” meme…often things look terrible, so someone guestimates, and the higher the numbers are, the more excited the sensation-driven morons of “news” get.

  25. 25
    Margarita says:

    These airshows always seem like a bad idea — insanely high risk and, for me, no reward. Traffic, mob scene, sitting in the elements for hours, noise, and possible horrific death, just to see some primitive podracers. But then again, I don’t understand those who won’t hike in the backcountry because of the occasional bear-mauling or cougar attack. What seems an insane risk is actually statistically insignificant. It’s all emotion on both sides of the equation. People are curious creatures. I will never go to an airshow. Except for money. Anything for a price.

  26. 26
    pk says:

    @Dimmic Rat:
    I do not see anyone here blaming the victims. And by the way “dimmic rat”, seriously, think you’re being cute with that name. Grow the fuck up!

  27. 27
    Amanda in the South Bay says:

    James Gosling, the creator of Java, was at the airshow:

  28. 28
    maya says:

    I can understand why some would want to go and see these shows. What I can’t fathom is why people go to concerts with amps cranked up to 11tee gazzillion decibles. I have often noticed, (from afar), that as the night progresses amp levels tend to increase. The last set always must be the loudest probably because everyone is deaf, or too shitfaced to care, by then.

  29. 29
    Raven (formerly stuckinred) says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: Yea, that’s why James Gosling wrote what he did. He was 50 feet from impact. What the fuck, everything in the world is the fault of the media.

  30. 30
    jheartney says:

    Given that there were thousands at the air show (full attendance is estimated at around 200,000), even with the numbers being reported, the risk to any individual is not that high. I’d guess the chances of being killed or injured at yesterday’s event were less than 1 in 4000.

    Having said that, air show accidents are not uncommon. Search “air show accident” in YouTube and you’ll get lots of results from many different incidents.

  31. 31

    Oh come on. Statistically speaking, you’re FAR more likely to die of a mundane accident such as slipping and busting your noggin in the tub.

    Unless you’re John Cole, in which case the polarity is reversed.

    The reports say “mechanical failure”, but that’s just bullshit guessing. For all anyone knows, the pilot could have had a heart attack or stroke

    Leaving aside your attempt to substitute your bullshit guess with the mechanical failure “guess”: Pilots have to get their licenses renewed regularly, and because of the risks involved the process is a little more intense that reupping a driver’s license.

  32. 32
    Marty says:

    I’ve been to a few airshows. You can see just fine, if you don’t mind squinting up into the sky. Crashes do happen but usually the planes don’t actually fly over the crowd.

    The worst part is the heat, the sun, the lack of shade, the high price of drinks. They charge money for water. At one local airshow it was blazing hot and there was absolutely no shade — and the organizers were checking bags to make sure that people didn’t bring in their own water. For security reasons of course.

  33. 33
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Raven (formerly stuckinred):

    The media just blindly, without bothering to check, accepted Gosling’s numbers based on the fact that he’s a ‘personality’.

    Because his report is the sort of sensation our sensation driven media just loves.

  34. 34
    Roger Moore says:


    The reports say “mechanical failure”, but that’s just bullshit guessing.

    It’s may be guessing, but it’s an educated guess. They have video of the accident and it shows a stream of smoke coming from the plane just before it went out of control. That sure sounds like some kind of mechanical problem was involved, even if it wasn’t the sole determining factor in the crash.


    The Blue Angels are the main Air Force flying team.

    OB nit: The Blue Angels are the Navy’s precision flying team. The main Air Force team are the Thunderbirds.

  35. 35
    Mary Jane says:

    Why do people hike where bears or mountain lions live? Why do people surf where a riptide or shark could take them out? Some folks have a genuine love of all things aviation. My teenage son is one of them; he’ll get his pilot’s license next year. As a mother, it terrifies me but I know how skilled he is and how naturally it comes to him. I’ve taken risks in doing things I loved and won’t deny him his dream. Living out one’s years in fear of what if? is a boring life.

  36. 36
    Greyjoy says:

    I’ve been reading about the air crash for a few hours now, and from what I’ve gleaned, some reported seeing a piece fall off the tail of the Galloping Ghost (the aircraft that crashed) moments before the accident. As for the pilot, yes–he was 74 years old, but he passed his pre-flight physical with flying colors (excuse the pun, I’m not trying to be flip) and had something like 30 years of experience flying in the air show. As for the danger of all this, well–technically speaking, it’s no more dangerous (probably much less dangerous) than just going to the airport, since most plane crashes take place just after take-off or while trying to land. (Especially when you consider that one of the areas in which airlines have been cost-cutting heavily is in maintenance. But that’s another topic.) It seems like it was just horrible luck and timing that the mechanical failure, if indeed that’s what it was, occurred precisely when and where it did. Only a couple seconds later and he would’ve been out of the turn and past the grandstand entirely, as the other planes were. Truly a horrifying tragedy.

  37. 37
    Raven (formerly stuckinred) says:

    @Villago Delenda Est: You don’t even know that the “media” got the numbers from him.

  38. 38
    Mary Jane says:


    The worst part is the heat, the sun, the lack of shade, the high price of drinks. They charge money for water. At one local airshow it was blazing hot and there was absolutely no shade—and the organizers were checking bags to make sure that people didn’t bring in their own water. For security reasons of course.

    Sounds like Disneyland.

  39. 39
    trollhattan says:

    Want to note an airshow is a carefully scripted event while an air race, and Reno’s is one of just a few, is…well…racing and the odds of an incident are far higher. Up ’til now all of the many deaths at Reno had been pilots. I’ll wager this will have them either completely redesigning the event or bagging it altogether.

  40. 40
    PurpleGirl says:

    @Roger Moore: No problem. Thanks. I didn’t do a double check on whose group is named what. I just remembered that the team I saw was one of the Air Force’s secondary teams.

  41. 41
    Raven (formerly stuckinred) says:

    @Thoughtful Black Co-Citizen: Gives people some shit to whine about.

  42. 42
    srv says:

    Air racing is dangerous for the folks in the planes. This year they were going to add jets back into the mix.

    I don’t know what level of medical racers need – it should be a lot more stringent than a 3rd class medical I have, but not tied to age. It is very difficult for many in their 70’s to hold even that – basic drugs commonly used at that age disqualify many. That’s why they have a new class of aircraft (Light Sport Aircraft) that don’t require a medical.

  43. 43
    Caz says:

    If you ever go to an air show, you’ll see why people go to them – they are fun, and the planes/jets are awesome to watch in action! There’s risk in all things in life. You’re safer at an air show than driving to and from the movies. Should we stop going to the movies? The risk is extremely minimal, and the benefit is great. What don’t you understand about it? Tell me one leisure activity that doesn’t have any risks.

  44. 44
    ruemara says:

    If you don’t take risks, you’ll never get out of bed, then you’ll stifle yourself with the blanket accidentally. That being said, I’ve always wanted to see an airshow, a sports event, drive a race car, ride a horse and next year I hope to learn how to ride a bicycle. The world is fraught with danger, but the most dangerous thing is to think and you’re not stopping that yet, are you, Mix?

  45. 45
    PanAmerican says:

    Air racing by it’s nature is higher risk than aerobatic displays or fly-bys. That’s why there are tons of shows with the latter and only Reno with the racing.

    Insurance is the rub here – I’ll bet the cost of coverage for the air racing portion of the show ends it. Red Bull cancelled their racing series for similar concerns and that was single plane on a time trial course.

  46. 46
    srv says:

    Picture of the 51’s trim tab coming off:

    Racers at that speed have to fly with nose down trim, as there is an incredible amount of lift being generated by the wings. An account by another racer that had a trim tab fail years ago resulted in a high-g pitchup that initially blacked out the pilot:

  47. 47
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Mary Jane:

    At least Disneyland lets you bring your own water.

  48. 48
    Donnie says:

    I’ve been to the Indianapolis 500 several times and attended the 24 Hours of Le Mans. They are both more than a little scary. But I would no more go to an air show than I would stick my head in an oven.

  49. 49
    Mary Jane says:

    @Mnemosyne: According to the two websites I checked, you can bring your own to the Reno airshow.

  50. 50
    FlipYrWhig says:


    As for the pilot, yes—he was 74 years old, but he passed his pre-flight physical with flying colors (excuse the pun, I’m not trying to be flip)

    FYI, with “flying colors” means with a flag waving proudly.

  51. 51
    Citizen_X says:

    I am a total sucker for airshows. Never been to air races, though. I would probably go if I were in Reno.

    Oh, and I also attend loud concerts, and go hiking in areas where there are dangerous wild animals. Go figure.

  52. 52
    Tonal Crow says:

    Reading about the really awful crash at the Reno air show, I don’t understand why people attend these events. If you’re far enough away from the action to be “safe”, you’re too far to see much, and if you’re close enough to see what’s going on, then you’re too close. I’m sure I’m overestimating the chance of death and dismemberment, but clearly it’s a bit more than nil.

    Q: What do you get when Everything-Must-Be-Completely-Safe marries I’m-Too-Lazy-To-Research-It?

    A: Posts like this.

    Why not look up how many people attend airshows, and how many spectator injuries/fatalities there are, and calculate the rates, and compare them to something like automobile injuries/fatalities per mile driven? That might illuminate an interesting issue. As written, this post simply perpetuates the shoot-from-the-hip anti-intellectualism that powers the Republican jihad. What’ll be next? “It’s cold today so global warming is bunk?”

  53. 53
    Mark B. says:

    I know a few pilots in their 70s and they are all in excellent health. Not just for their ages, but in general. They view keeping in top physical shape as part of their obligation as pilots. One of them flies antique bombers at air shows and I got to ride with him in a glider once. I’d trust him with my life … And I guess I did.

  54. 54
    lawguy says:

    @jheartney: Yes, but they do not involve the audience but rather the performers for want of a better word.

  55. 55
    lawguy says:

    @srv: You can’t have a pilot’s license without a medical.

  56. 56
    srv says:


    You can’t have a pilot’s license without a medical.

    Nope, you can hold a Sport Pilot license without a medical.

    Requires either a 3rd class FAA medical certificate or a current and valid U.S. driver’s license as evidence of medical eligibility (provided the individual’s most recent application for an FAA medical certificate was not denied, revoked, suspended or withdrawn).

  57. 57
    Bill D. says:

    FYI, with “flying colors” means with a flag waving proudly.

    That’s not the only meaning or even the typical usage. Google is your friend.

  58. 58
    Schad says:

    I knew someone who was supposed to attend it yesterday, and the day before told them that I thought that the whole concept of racing in three dimensions at hundreds of miles an hour over spectators seemed demented. Haven’t heard from them, though I believe that they (very, very luckily) had to miss the Friday events to help their brother out, but were planning to attend Sat/Sun.

  59. 59
    Jager says:

    @Raven (formerly stuckinred): I know a Viet Nam era Cobra pilot who was busted by the FAA for doing simulated strafing runs in his Hughes traffic helicopter

  60. 60
    Mike in NC says:

    Been to several airshows, including two this year, and it’s true that about 90% of the time the aircraft operate well away from where the spectators are positioned. Not sure if that applies to an air race like Reno.

  61. 61
    jheartney says:

    @lawguy: Some involve audience fatalities. Most don’t.

    List of airshow accidents

    September 5, 2010 – A woman was killed when a Tiger Moth biplane crashed into spectators at an air show in southern Germany at the Airport Lauf-Lillinghof near Nuremberg. 38 people were injured in the accident, five of them seriously.

    April 26, 2008 – Kindel Air Field (Kindel, Germany) – A Zlin Z-37 Cmelak left the runway on takeoff and veered into a crowd of spectators killing one and injuring ten.

    July 27, 2002 – Sknyliv airshow disaster (Sknyliv Airfield Lviv, Ukraine) – Pilot Volodymyr Toponar and co-pilot Yuriy Yegorov of the Ukrainian Air Force demonstration team the Ukrainian Falcons ejected from their Sukhoi Su-27 after the left wing struck the ground during a low altitude roll maneuver. The aircraft then struck a parked Ilyushin Il-76 transport and cartwheeled into a crowd of spectators killing 77, including 19 children and injuring over 100.

  62. 62
    Arclite says:

    I read somewhere that if you eliminate old age and disease as a factor for death, that you’d live to be 800 on average. That’s how long (on average) you would have before dying in an accident.

  63. 63
    phil says:

    Watch “Grand Prix” (1966) and see how dangerous auto racing used to be. For the drivers and audience. A great movie anyway. Sad note – many of the real drivers who participated in the movie later died in crashes.

  64. 64
    Martin says:

    My mom had seats where the plane crashed. They weren’t there at the time, thankfully.

    My stepfather has a plane and flies. Always loved flying. My mom’s dad was the same way. You do what you love, and they loved doing this kind of stuff – either as a participant or spectator.

  65. 65
    trollhattan says:

    Death toll up to nine, per Reno PD, seven there and two in hospital.
    Given some of the eyewitness descriptions of scattered limbs it might have taken this long to sift through the debris. A horrible turn for an already bad event.

  66. 66
    Grumpy Code Monkey says:


    In another forum, the consensus appears to be that the trim tab coming loose shouldn’t have caused the crash on its own, but depending on the kind of maneuver he was attempting it was certainly a contributing factor.

    It’s sounding like this was a mechanical problem, not medical.

  67. 67
    numbskull says:

    @greylocks: Except for the fact that there were 3 NTSB inspectors who just happened to be right there witnessing it and literally dozens of some of the most competent hight-risk aviation professionals in the world on hand, many of whom saw the elevator trim tab depart…

Comments are closed.