Boston — Despite the devastating crash at a West German air show Sunday, air safety specialists say such feats are generally quite safe for audiences, and they do not expect the accident to affect performances in the United States. They compare the recent crash to accidents at auto races or speed boat races that kill or injure spectators.
``It's like everything else. There's an element of risk in everything,'' says Edward Wood, director of engineering at the Flight Safety Foundation of Arlington, Va.
``Air shows are a necessary part of promoting aviation,'' adds John Galipault, director of the Aviation Safety Institute in Worthington, Ohio. ``The vast majority over the years have been safe for the spectators.''
In the accident Sunday, three Italian fighter jets collided in the air and crashed at the US Air Force Base at Ramstein. One crashed into the crowd and burst into a fireball, killing at least 40 people and injuring about 360.
The accident, in which all three pilots were killed, was the world's worst air show crash involving spectators.
Italy's Frecce Tricolori (tricolor arrows) precision flying team, the group that performed at Ramstein, announced it would continue its schedule of performances in spite of the crash.
Officials in West Germany moved quickly Monday to ban stunt flying by West German warplanes. The US also canceled scheduled military air shows in Europe.
``We have absolutely no idea what went wrong,'' said John Galvin, supreme allied commander of NATO, who visited the crash site Monday.
In this country, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approves such demonstrations, and permits them only after examining such criteria as the altitude of the aircraft, their minimum distance from spectators, and the competency of the pilots.
FAA regulations require flight maneuvers to be performed at least 1,500 feet from the crowd.
``Air shows have a record of showing a high degree of safety,'' says Bob Buchorn, an FAA spokesman.
No spectator has ever been killed at an American air show.
There are two types of shows: commercial ones, such as the Paris show (at which an Airbus A-320 crashed in June, killing three on board), and military ones, such as the show at Ramstein.
The performances, whether military or commercial, serve mainly to boost public relations.
``It's pretty exciting to watch,'' says Christopher Demisch, a financial analyst of the aviation industry at First Boston Inc. in New York.
Commercial displays are designed in part to help sell aircraft, but they wield doubtful influence with airline industry executives looking to modernize their fleets.
``The people who actually make the buying decisions ... study the numbers in greater detail,'' Mr. Demisch says.
When it comes to public relations, however, Demisch sees great value in air shows - particularly for the military. He compares them to the visits of navy ships to harbors in days gone by.
``Today you can't bring out the fleet, so you have an air show,'' he says. ``I think the military continues to require reasonable good will from the broad population.''