Comment on historic aviation by the chief executive of the UK’s Light Aircraft Association
As we look further ahead into the new year, it’s also been time for official reflection on the air display season in the form of a report commissioned by the Department for Transport on flying display governance and a consultation on updates to the Civil Aviation Authority’s regulations on air display operations, known as CAP 403. Now these may sound a bit dull to some, but they could have a significant effect on the airshows we’ll see in the future.
Let’s start with the last first. The words CAP 403 sometimes instil fear into airshow organisers and pilots alike, as their rewrite following the 2015 Shoreham Airshow tragedy introduced a tranche of unpopular rules both for events and participants, which many have argued have spoiled the spectacle and, for some, the pleasure of display flying.
Certain regulations can be argued to have been logical in the circumstances. Rules regarding the pre-event evaluation of venues, display overflight areas and preventing access to unauthorised viewing locations, as well as the stricter monitoring of flying display standards, are logical. However, others have made less sense and have arguably caused the UK aviation heritage sector real harm.
It’s a sad fact that, other than a few Jet Provosts and Strikemasters, plus the occasional Gnat appearance and, until its mishap in May 2017, the Sea Vixen, there has been barely a single UKregistered British ex-military jet on the display circuit since the start of the 2016 season. The combination of the ban on flights by British-registered Hunters, finally lifted in July 2017, and restrictions banning aerobatic displays by sweptwing jets have had a serious effect on aircraft owners, who’ve seen values wiped out, and on those who (used to) maintain and fly them. A significant proportion of the UK heritage jet fleet has now been sold overseas.
Certain regulations can be argued to have been logical in the circumstances. However, others have made less sense and have arguably caused the UK aviation heritage sector harm
One bit of good news is that the latest draft of CAP 403, its 16th edition, is largely logical and sensible. There are some potentially more onerous requirements for those taking part in private air displays not advertised to the public, but there is also more pragmatic guidance in the creation of organisers’ risk assessments, recognising that appropriate measures can be accepted to allow areas of projected risk to be mitigated to a level acceptable as being ‘as low as reasonably practical’ (ALARP), a definition used elsewhere in civil aviation. This provides much-needed flexibility for display organisers.
The independent report, commissioned by the Department for Transport from consultants Helios, has looked in some depth into the management and governance of air display standards both before and after the Shoreham accident. At first sight it must make warming reading for the CAA. The report analysed not just UK airshow governance, but also compared it with similar activities in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The research finds that the UK governance process is as good as, if not better than, that among the other countries surveyed.
So far so good on the process, but what about those administering it? One of the Helios team’s actions was to commission an expert panel made up of 10 members including some of the UK air display scene’s top pilots, organisers, aviation safety specialists and flying display directors. It is clear that there was (ahem) a dichotomy between what the panel told Helios and the researchers’ final pronouncements.
In Helios’ words, “Some display industry members of the expert panel claimed the CAA lack competency because it has a lack of hands-on flying display experience…” Helios disputed this view and allocated half a page listing the apparent air display experience of the key CAA staff, concluding, “it cannot be concluded that the CAA do not have front-line flying and display experience…” What the report does not say is who these key people are and, equally crucially, how long ago is it since they last flew an aircraft, rather than a ‘mahogany bomber’ — a desk.