The Honourable Company of Air Pilots incorporating Air Navigators

Air Displays: The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Perspective

Nov 28, 2017

At the end of the 2017 air display season at which, despite some particularly poor weekend weather, the number of spectators at UK air displays increased on the previous year, this is a good time to reflect on past events.  

In 1952, there was an air display accident at Farnborough when a prototype aircraft broke up in flight.  Prior to the Shoreham accident in 2015, that was the last occasion when an air display accident in UK killed members of the public.  Just as occurred following Farnborough, the accident at Shoreham in 2015 has prompted major changes to UK air display regulations.   These were aimed particularly at ensuring the safety not only of the spectators but also of people who might not be attending an airshow but simply passing by, whether on foot, car or train.  There can be no doubt that the tragedy that affected so many families has produced in a safer world for all those people.   

Although (depending on the weekend weather), some 4.5 million to 5.5 million people attend UK airshows each year, air displays are more than just a form of public entertainment and provide more than an important economic benefit to the locations where they occur.   As the Royal Aeronautical Society pointed out shortly after the Shoreham accident in 2015 (http://edition.cnn.com/2015/08/24/europe/shoreham-air-crash-ban/index.html), air displays provide an important role inspiring our young people to take an interest in aviation, science and technology.  Science technology, engineering (and mathematics - STEM) are vital skill areas on which the UK has always relied and which are essential to sustain and secure the UK's place in our increasingly technological world.

There is not just fanciful thinking.  My father took me, aged 5, to an air display.  The then Royal Airforce Aerobatic Team was comprised of back-painted Hunter fighters from No 111 Squadron, the “Black Arrows.”   I recorded the impression the air display left on me in my school notebook, writing in infant script, "When I grow up I want to be a pilot and fly big jets," illustrated by a picture of a black swept wing aircraft.   I was lucky enough to go on to study physics at university and fly with the Royal Air Force as a fighter pilot and in the UK aerospace industry as a test pilot but my personal experience is not unique.   
If you ask a selection of other pilots, civil and military, you will find that many (50%+) were inspired in the same way; the same is true for the engineers working in our aerospace industry today; if anything, the percentage of engineers whose interest was sparked off by watching an air display is even higher. They went on to study engineering and science subjects at every level of education up to, and including, university and are now are working at the leading edge of technology.  To their number we can add all the young and not so young people who, rather than following an academic path, are found on the UK's airfields, large and small, helping in their spare time, undertaking apprenticeships in aircraft maintenance and support, training apprentices and keeping the countries aircraft, large and small, in the air.  

Boeing and Airbus forecast ever-expanding fleets of new aircraft flying and increasingly large demands for pilots and maintainers to keep them flying as the current generation of skilled people retire.  Aviation is one of the exciting careers within the scientific and engineering sectors; in air displays it is also an important motivator in the skill sets that are increasingly important to any country that wants to compete in the modern world.

John Turner
Director of Aviation Affairs
28 November 2017