Thinking of the Unthinkable

By Hugh Oldham


Re-Printed from World Airshow News November/December 2002



I “stood down” today.  Just took a day and did nothing; nothing but reflect on who I am, where I’m headed, and when I’ll get there.  Took time to reflect on the loss of six fellow aviators, six airshow performers, six friends.  As the day continued, that list grew as I remembered more.


Such introspection may not be good for honing that “winning edge” or “killer instinct” that I sometimes need in my business and professional life, but as Lee Lauderback recently reminded me “…we are not a war.”


Maybe I have been on a “war footing” in the airshow business too.  Stay with me, this gets deep, it’s not pleasant; but as Montaine’s de-briefings of my narration performance were not always pleasant, I always came away a better performer.


Many years ago, Evelyn Johnson, a 70,000+ hour CFI at Morristown TN, told me that she no longer attended airshows because she had seen too many friends die.  I did not understand.  After all, I am a former military aviator, combat veteran and macho guy - I've seen death, lived with death, caused death; I know death is a part of the game.  I have accepted the loss of fellow aviators, friends and acquaintances as a matter of course.  Sort of a cost of doing business or the Catch 22 “in an operation this size, you gotta expect losses.”


Saturday afternoon, May 27th, as I opened an email about the French Connection, Evelyn's words came flooding back into my mind.  It took me over an hour to tell Jane that Daniel and Montaine were gone.  Maybe it's because I'm becoming an old man, but I cried then and I openly cried at the memorial service in Flagler - That's right, Hugh Oldham, combat veteran, hard nosed businessman, the jump pilot who watched the medics cart off a fatality and then yelled for the next lift to suit up.


Then, comes news from Willow Grove.  I thought is a very sick promo for the MSNBC airshow safety program.  I narrated for Dye and Burgstrom at Chattanooga in April.  The hole in my heart was enlarged.


Then email again brings more sad news, John Lillberg gone. Midair collision.  I last work for him in Stewart Fl.   


Those who have flown with me, read my articles, spoken with me face to face on the subject, know that my public position on safety vs. showmanship is balanced by a very proactive stance and personal involvement in spectator safety and protection.  I have always advocated the highest standards of spectator protection and indicated that as long as the spectators were safe, the safety of the performers was a personal issue each performer addressed individually.  


I am wrong.  Performer safety impacts all of us personally and professionally.


Yes, I have spoken with some of you when I felt the envelope was being pushed too far.  Many have indicated your resentment of my unsolicited critique.  One pilot indicating that my “penguin status” makes my comments moot; another unsolicited safety comment costing me a long time show.


For too many members of this industry, the message has been clearly communicated, by this industry, that safety should be paid lip service but being a safety advocate is not to be permitted and, in fact, is detrimental to one's pocket book. 


That message is wrong.


My message, to this industry is the same Evelyn Johnson past to me so many years ago: "I've lost too many friends."


What can we and especially I do about this situation?


The President of ICAS has indicated that increased government regulation is not the answer; either is a stronger ACE program or moving the hard deck of the aerobatic box higher.  I agree.


I think our collective attitude has been more detrimental then any lack of altitude. 


That attitude must change. 


“If it is to be, its up to me.”  Sorry if I push your comfort zone.