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The pale blue sky above a crisp November day was framed by airshow smoke, miles of it, created by over a dozen warbirds pounding out round sound which echoed to the heavens. Eagerly and with great anticipation of yet another spectacular airshow moment, one of many that fateful day, I was laser focused on the approaching B-17 Texas Raiders both before and at the moment of impact by the P-63. Beforehand, all seemed to be controlled, safe, and as expected in a formation composed of bombers and fighters doing multiple passes, right to left, then using a 90/270 turning reset, a left to right pass over and again. The cumulative result of the collective effort filled the sky with aluminum, smoke, and propeller-driven thunder, precisely what the CAF Bomber Parade had done flawlessly and safely for decades.
Just before the mid air collision, the fast movers—comprised of three P-51 Mustangs and the mishap P-63 Kingcobra—had transitioned from a four-ship echelon formation performing high passes above it all, and was executing a descending turn to put themselves in front of the bombers in single-ship passes with interval spacing. This started with what appeared to be a circular tail chase maneuver, culminating with an airshow center point pass just before the bomber flight arrived. It was power and beauty.
The bombers fast approaching were, in order, the B-17, B-24, and B-25, followed by another B-25.
What I first noticed, which foreshadowed the fateful event, was the graceful, arcing line and extreme closure rate of the P-63 moments before impact. The thought became, Wow. I wonder what his rejoin will look like, in an attempt by my pilot eye to reconcile how he was going to rejoin on the B-17, something I was clearly not expecting and knew was impossible considering the speed and geometry. In another microsecond, I expected to see him blaze past the left wing of the B-17 and onto show center.
Then it happened and it was horrific. Pieces. Mist. Flames. Black smoke reaching up to the same pale blue sky from which it all started so majestically. Slowly the round sounds above faded into the distance as the formation diverted to an alternate landing site, revealing a speechless, still, and completely silent crowd. The PA system was playing the haunting anthem from Saving Private Ryan, then it too went silent.
I watched it all unfold, seeing but not believing. My boys and I were away from the crowd at the extreme far left of show center—a unique perspective all by chance. It happened directly in front of us, such that we felt a mild—but jolting—sensation of heat from the fireball. As with all traumatic events, it took hours afterwards for me to process and reconcile: “Did I just see that and what exactly did I just see?”
It was real but it was surreal. I was shocked to see it, but I was not surprised it happened.
Airshow flying is inherently dangerous, even more so in 80-year-old former military aircraft, most especially when there are many airplanes, big and small, fast and slow, flying through the same patch of sky. Did it look dangerous? Absolutely not. It looked professional and polished. It was thrilling to see, and I was grateful to see it with my boys because this air demonstration is precisely what we hoped to see.
I wish now I could completely forget how a glorious day ended so tragically.
I have thought long and hard about it all. I am not qualified to offer an explanation on why it happened, nor am I attempting to here. What I saw through my military-trained pilot and longtime airshow enthusiast eyes leads me to speculate—admittedly prone to eyewitness bias limitations—is this: the P-63 got wide, or became spit out as the last ship in the line of fast movers, on his approach for his individual pass, causing him to be noticeably far behind his flight. That he was late and/or off his intended ground track line—or that the B-17 was early and/or off its intended ground track line—is for the experts to conclude from the evidence they uncover.
I suspect the P-63 pilot was solely focused on his lead and his wingman ahead. I suspect the P-63 pilot may have seen the B-24 (the second heavy bomber behind the B-17) and mis-identified it as the B-17 lead aircraft and pressed in for the pass, genuinely believing he had cleared the intended flight path which was not as precisely set up at the outset as he intended. That’s not unusual in aviation because no one flies a perfect maneuver. Ever.
Unexplainably, the P-63 went belly up to the bomber formation, and this is a rule never broken. But I suspect he bet his life or better stated, accepted a calculated risk, that he was absolutely certain he was clear of the oncoming Bomber Parade. There is a chance he descended inadvertently from an established deconfliction altitude and into the bomber altitude, assuming altitude separation was part of their pre-briefed procedure, and I am quite sure that safeguard has been employed for decades. But I don’t know with certainty.
One thing is obvious: forward visibility directly over the nose of any vintage airplane in a high speed, high banked turn while maintaining visual contact with three wingman, all very low to the ground, lining up on a precise show line, accomplished looking through a bird cage canopy unmodified from its original 1940s design, is a formidable challenge, the likes of which scant few pilots can routinely make the extraordinary look ordinary on any given Saturday.
Until this day.
Legendary aviation author Ernest K. Gann once penned a book, Fate is the Hunter, detailing how unseen, unanticipated and improbable events sometimes align to create tragedy. It immediately came to mind when I considered how the unfortunate fate of five souls onboard the B-17 resulted in shielding (one might attribute through divine intervention) thousands watching from harm. Had the P-63 not impacted the B-17 in such a brutal and direct angle, stopping the forward motion of both almost immediately where they fell harmlessly on the infield, the trajectory of the mortally wounded fighter—had it instead glanced off the bomber—likely would have gone straight into the crowd.
Indeed this day was bad, but it could have been far worse.
Let me be clear. I am not qualified to say, and I do not know for sure, why such a tragic fate emerged, but I do know this has never happened across decades of doing this show, which millions of people have enjoyed. That’s because the plan, procedure, and pilots of the CAF are exactly what we expect them to be: professional stewards of irreplaceable history, flown in front of a public who came to be educated, uplifted, and inspired.
For the dwindling few of the last remaining World War II veterans present on that day, it was the greatest part of the Commemorative Air Force mission—to honor the service of the Greatest Generation. It pains me beyond words that they hold memories, still vivid after eight decades, of watching their comrades die in training, in battle, and now in the case of the P-63 pilot, a direct descendant of one their extended comrades in arms, tragically meeting his fate after striking the same model aircraft his dad flew over Nazi Germany.
This tremendous irony will not be lost on anyone.
The accident I saw was the result of what the experts in the craft of accident investigation term as “a lot of little.” Every accident entails just that, and after the ink has dried on this report well over a year from now, it will read the same as all before it. There is never a smoking gun and rarely just one person alone was mistaken in what they believed so deeply was right. Perhaps this accident was set in motion years ago with some unnoticed misstep in an otherwise solid plan, and ultimately fate became the hunter.
In the aftermath, I have read much and thought much about what I saw. People are prone to say of the fallen, “They died doing what they loved.” Perhaps, and very likely true. But death at an airshow is horrific to watch, no matter how noble the purpose or how safe the display is designed to be.
The aftermath, forever impacting family and friends, is magnitudes worse.
The logical question then arises: should others be permitted to trod upon the sky in pursuit of inherently risky endeavors so that history is not forgotten and, more importantly, experienced in a direct and personal way which uplifts, inspires, and honors? I cannot speak for us all, but I can say of myself that I stand upon the shoulders of the giants before me who modeled what a life aloft, with purpose and character, looks like.
Watching airshows as a kid had a positive and far reaching impact on my life. They made me achieve in school when I did not want to, adhere to the law when I did not want to, and live purposefully so that my dreams to become a military pilot became reality. I saw a fatal airshow accident when I was a teenager learning to fly. It left a scar which constantly reminds me today, both as a professional and private pilot, that I am not immune to the undesired outcome of the slightest miscalculation, regardless of how many tens of thousands of hours are in my logbook.
I know fate is forever hunting me.
Seeing this tragedy, and experiencing it through the shared collective experience of two adult sons standing next to me, leaning upon one another in shock, sorrow, and disbelief, watching ambulances stand idly by as fire trucks futilely attempt to stop the fiery demise of the legendary Texas Raiders B-17 they first met as young children, was nothing short of horrific.
Even so, today’s outcome does not change the past, present, or future of warbird flying in my opinion. It is just another chapter in the brotherhood of aviation, and in an even greater way, our history and humanity itself.
Lord guard and guide those who fly.