British authorities say the death toll could rise as high as 20 in the Shoreham Air Show disaster once the wreckage of a Cold War–era jet is removed from the A27 roadway where it crashed while performing a loop on Saturday. A crane has begun lifting the remains of the plane, which could reveal more bodies of missing people feared to have been on the West Sussex road when the plane went down, sending a ball of fire and smoke into the sky in front of the air show’s horrified onlookers.
Pilot Andy Hill, a former Royal Air Force instructor who flies commercial jets for British Airways, was the sole occupant of the aircraft and survived the crash but is in critical condition. Seven on the ground are so far confirmed to have died with 14 others injured, but constable Steve Berry with the Sussex Police told the Guardian that authorities believe 11 are “highly likely” to be dead and searchers are keeping “an open mind” regarding the possibility of discovering more fatalities in the extensive field of scorched debris left by the accident.
Citing other fatal crashes in recent years at British air shows, including an incident earlier this month when a pilot was killed in a retired military “heritage” aircraft that went down during a car festival in Cheshire, some members of Parliament are calling for greater restrictions on where maneuvers can be performed during aerial displays. From the Guardian:
Easington MP Grahame Morris told the Daily Mirror air shows should be “limited to displaying over water.” Fellow Labour MP Graham Stringer, a former chairman of Manchester Airport and member of the Commons Transport Committee, said: “I think when an event like this kills 11 people–and it’s not the first time there have been fatalities at an air show–there should be a serious look at the regulations with a view to tightening them up.”
At least one aviation expert consulted by the Guardian considered it unlikely that the government would crack down on the use of flashy maneuvers during air shows, given the popularity of the attractions:
[Former RAF instructor David] Learmount said that pilots take calculated risks at air shows because that is what people want to see. “Air shows are the biggest spectator sport in this country–more people go live to air shows than go to football.
“You could ban them but pilots taking calculated risks in exciting maneuvers is what people want to see. I don’t think the Civil Aviation Authority, who authorizes the display routines, are going to change their mind. This is a gladiatorial display–that is what people go to see.”
Learmount also noted that while the Hawker Hunter dates back to the 1950s, the plane’s age might have had nothing to do with Saturday’s crash: “We have actually got footage right down to the point of impact. A wing didn’t fall off. It’s a misjudgment.”
Three of the dead have been publicly identified, with a local soccer club announcing that two 23-year-old players, Matthew Grimstone and Jacob Schilt, are believed to have died on the A27 while returning from a game and the sister of 24-year-old personal trainer Matt Jones confirming he had also been killed. Others, including two bicyclists and the driver of a wedding limosine, have yet to be named.
The Royal Air Force Association, which put on the show, posted a statement on the event’s web page offering “thoughts and condolences” for the victims and their families and thanking emergency workers for their response to the crash. The association defended its adherence to British aviation authorities’ “rigorous safety requirements,” which it described as “among the very highest in the world,” but said RAFA would not comment further until the conclusion of the investigation, which “will take some considerable time.”