Absence of Altitude Briefing in Dallas Air Show Crash

December 1, 2022 / Share your comments...

Instructions given to pilots flying in the Wings Over Dallas air show last month, appear to have directed the historic fighter plane on a collision course with a World War 2 bomber. Both planes plummeted to the ground, killing all six aboard both planes during the Commemorative Air Force show on November 12.

In a preliminary report on the disaster released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Thursday, the investigator notes the person responsible for managing the aircraft from the ground, a position known as “air boss” directed the fighter planes to change altitude as they approached the airport where spectators were gathered.

“There were no altitude deconflictions briefed before the flight or while the airplanes were in the air,” the report says.

When the line of faster-moving fighters was directed to overtake the bombers and descend to 500 feet, the last fighter banking left flew into the first of a line of six B-17s severing it in two just behind the big plane’s wing.

In my limited experience observing air show pre-flight briefings, the choreography was pre-planned, presented and discussed with the air boss and all other participants. For one very large show, there were two such briefings, one lasting nearly two hours. So I was surprised to read that instructions not previously discussed were being given to the pilots during the show.

This can happen, says George Cline, air boss at two large air shows; EAA Air Venture in Oshkosh and Sun ‘N Fun in Lakeland, Florida. Dynamic maneuvering may be necessary if “pilots lose sight of each other, sun can get in their eyes, somebody not keeping up or someone’s going faster,” he explained.

Cline, who is also a former air traffic controller was cautious about reading too much into the words of the investigator, telling me repeatedly, “We weren’t there and don’t know what was said.”

Still, Cline’s rule for handling air shows with many aircraft and many different types of aircraft all flying together is to be sure they always fly at “different altitudes or different traffic patterns.”

“Up at Oshkosh, we put up 125 – 130 aircraft. They’re crossing over the top of the field. They’re in formations of 30 or 15. They’re all crossing overhead. How can they do that? They’re at different altitudes,” Cline told me.

Highly experienced pilots were killed in the Dallas disaster, Craig Hutain with 34-thousand flight hours was in the P-63 fighter.

Craig Hutain with the P-63F in July

In the B-17 were two retired American Airlines captains, Terry Barker and Len Root and Ohio Civil Air Patrol Maj. Curtis J. Row. Dan Ragan a Koren War veteran and Kevin Michel a volunteer crew member and historian were also killed.

A number of analyses, including this one by Juan Browne on YouTube, suggest the low-winged P-63 probably obstructed the pilot’s view of the B-17. It is equally likely the pilots of the B-17 did not see the approach of the smaller plane coming as it was from above and behind.

The loss of two historic aircraft is also notable. Both the B-17 and the P-63 were rare and the crash reduces their number to nine and 4 respectively.

NTSB investigations typically take a year or more to complete. Like its investigation into the crash of a B-17 in 2019, the safety board is certain to look beyond the actions of the pilots and the air boss to determine what went wrong and what improvements should be made.

Be assured, though those discussions are already underway among air show coordinators and air bosses worldwide.

Previous posts on this subject

Not Designed to be Safe, Pilot Says of Plane in Air Show Collision

Fatal Collision in Dallas – The Plus & Deadly Minus of Flying Historic Aircraft


Categories: Flying Lessons

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Enter to Win

Want to receive some free swag from Christine? Sign up for the mailing list!