Spectators at a Dallas air show were horrified on Saturday when two airplanes collided over their heads at the Wings Over Dallas event, killing all aboard both airplanes. A historic military bomber, a Boeing B-17 with five people onboard was flying slowly and at a relatively low altitude to give viewers a look at the World War 2-era plane. It was overtaken from above by a smaller and much faster fighter plane that made a turning descent into it causing both to break apart and plummet to the ground.
At least two retired American Airlines pilots were among the five-member crew of the B-17 according to the Allied Pilots Association. They were identified as Terry Barker and Len Root. A third man on the flight was Ohio Civil Air Patrol Maj. Curtis J. Rowe. The other two on the B-17 and the pilot of the P-63 Bell Kingcobra fighter had not been identified by Sunday evening.
Saturday was sunny and there appeared in the videos to be half a dozen airplanes at least, flying in a widely separated formation as part of the show put on each year by the Commemorative Air Force. The mission of the CAF is to promote interest in historic warplanes and it is one of the larger owner-operators of them. But for a number of reasons, this accident is likely to renew a debate about the wisdom of flying airplanes which are also rare historical artifacts.
While no one on the ground was hurt when the two planes collided causing both to immediately fracture and ignite a fire on the ground, that outcome is luck more than anything else. Videos show just how close the accident was to onlookers while other videos show debris raining down on cars on the highway.
Dallas Mayor Erick Johnson reported that aircraft parts were also found in the parking lot of a shopping plaza and on the airport grounds. With that in mind, it is not hard to imagine a different outcome, perhaps something like what happened in 2011 in Reno. That September during the air races, a plane piloted by experienced pilot James Leeward, crashed into onlookers, killing 10. So the question of what kind of performance flying is safe over crowds is not new, as I reported for The New York Times a decade ago.
On Saturday, Commemorative Air Force boss Henry Coates told reporters the maneuvers being performed at the Wings Over Dallas show were “not dynamic”. The video, however, suggests something else, as the slow-moving B-17 is overtaken and immediately split in half by the smaller prop fighter banking and descending at the same time.
In the Reno air race crash, the failure of a control panel on Leeward’s P-51 Mustang is thought to have created gravitational forces sufficient to incapacitate him so he could not recover from the upset. In Dallas, the trajectory of the P-63 on what appears to be a direct course with the B-17 makes pilot incapacitation and or catastrophic control failure a possible scenario. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating.
Outside of the safety investigation though, is yet another question for organizations dedicated to preserving historic aircraft. In one day, two vintage airplanes are lost. Should more historic airplanes be subjected to potential loss through flight or is it wiser to display them on the ground? Both the B-17 and the P-63 destroyed in Dallas reduce an already dwindled number. According to reporting by CNN, only nine B-17s and four P-63 are still operational.
Proponents of warbird demonstration flights say that they thrill crowds, teach history and inspire young people to consider careers in aviation. But like everything else, the benefits must be weighed against the costs.
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Author of The New York Times bestseller, The Crash Detectives, I am also a journalist, public speaker and broadcaster specializing in aviation and travel.