Shoreham Disaster – What I Saw

On Saturday 22nd August 2015, an aircraft crashed at Shoreham Airshow. This is my eyewitness account from the day.

It was a hot, bright sunny day in summer. The wind was calm and the skies were a lovely deep blue with very few clouds, perfect flying conditions. Such good weather was the reason myself and my housemate had decided only 48 hours earlier to attend the Shoreham Airshow. There were three airshows that weekend taking place on the South Coast at Bournemouth, Dawlish and Shoreham.


We arrived just after the start of the airshow, kicked off with a display by The Blades, four aircraft piloted by ex-Red Arrows display members. We watched the aerial dance from the car, as we sat in traffic on the A27 waiting to get into the event. I can remember how exciting it was to see these amazing aviators performing with great skill and just after they finished we made it into the car park, the show seemed off to a great start.


It was our first time attending Shoreham, we had looked at photos and video from previous years and it seemed to be highly recommended. The aircraft list was varied and as a photographer, that opportunity to see rare and unique aircraft in the air is the biggest draw for me to attend an airshow. You can read about it or watch archive videos, but to experience them is totally different to seeing a static display. It’d be like only seeing Steam Trains in the sheds and never out on the railway, there’s a magic to seeing a great piece of engineering still working.


The jets were what I was looking forward to, plus the Battle of Britain tribute, which was going to involve a sortie and fake dogfights, giving us an opportunity to imagine what our grand-parents witnessed in the skies above them in the Second World War. The first hour of the airshow passed and we took lunch while some radio-controlled models whizzed about.


Shoreham is a smaller airfield, catering more to light aircraft. The runway was narrow and the airport was positioned in a pretty good spot. To the south was the coast, to the west was a private college at Lancing, north were some hills and fields across from the A27 which ran alongside the end of the runway and to the east was Shoreham-by-Sea. Some of the bigger displays were coming in from further afield or even hopping from airshow to airshow along the coast. The vintage cold-war jets were the next item and I am more of a fan of jets than propeller aircraft. The next hour was due to be some of the most interesting to me with the Avro Vulcan the headline attraction.


One of the Tiger 9 Display Team

One of the Tiger 9 Display Team


The show had started off gently with a fun display by the Tiger 9 Display Team in their vintage Tiger Moths. Now the clock ticked forwards to the 1950s & 60s when Britain was at the fore-front of aviation design and manufacturing. The Hawker Hunter T7 came in from over the sea, having flown from its home in North Weald, it flew over the runway, along the display line in front of the thousands of spectators. I turned to my housemate and remarked “It’s exhaust isn’t as loud as some modern jets.”


The jet then turned and began to turn around to fly back along the display line in the opposite direction, it pulled up to perform a loop over the fields and allow us to see why this vintage military jet was one of the UK’s most successful aviation exports. I had the aircraft in the sights of a 400mm telephoto lens, waiting and ready to photograph it fly past at low attitude back past us. As I followed it down, I sensed I was bringing the camera down much lower than had for the previous flying displays. I pulled the camera away to get a wider perspective of the environment and just seconds later the aircraft disappeared behind the trees adjacent to the perimeter.


For a moment, you hope that it will emerge again, but you don’t ever expect a crash. As the fireball rolled across the perimeter of the airfield, the audience went into a stunned silence. What was very eerie was that there was no bang from the explosion, although you could for brief moment feel the intensity of the heat as it impacted the ground. I heard a cry of “No…No!” from one spectator, while a women with the events team broke down in tears. Myself, I stood with my jaw dropped and think I turned to my housemate to make sure I wasn’t imagining it. Many of us assumed that the pilot had been killed in the inferno, we also from our angle could not tell it had hit the A27, but we thought maybe it had hit the approach road into the airport where police had placed signs telling people not to stand there or face prosecution.


The Hawker Hunter T7 shortly before the crash

The Hawker Hunter T7 shortly before the crash


The crash site moments after impact

The crash site moments after impact


As the thick black smoke billowed out over the clear summer skies, the sirens of the emergency services could be heard and the airshow commentator asked us all to stay exactly where we were while the accident was attended too. We sat down and just tried to replay in our minds what had just happened, not knowing anything about what was happening at the crash site. The air ambulance was at the scene in minutes and the careful planning done by the organisers was obviously put into effect as their worst case scenario now unfolded.


The commentator, who clearly sounded like he had been crying or was trying hard to fight it back, remained incredibly composed and said there was nothing we (the crowd) could do, but just let the emergency services do their work. He thanked us for our cooperation and patience as the smoke began to die out and the next scheduled aircraft in the flying display, the Sea Vixen, flew overhead at about 1500ft and then left the area as it was clear all flying was going to be suspended.


But then over the ocean, the star attraction appeared in the distance with its familiar shape, the Avro Vulcan. Having flown all the way from Doncaster, it had been due to follow the Sea Vixen in the performance schedule. My housemate had a radio to listen to the Tower and the Vulcan talk as it circled over the English Channel. After a few minutes the ‘Spirit of Great Britain’ was granted special clearance to fly at 1000ft directly along the runway for one flypast at the slowest safe speed it wanted. The commentator asked for a minute’s silence as the bomber made its run across the airfield, soon its roar will disappear from our nation’s skies. As it passed by and dipped its wing over the crash site in tribute, spontaneous applause rippled through the crowd.


The Vulcan makes a tribute flypast

The Vulcan makes a tribute flypast


For about six hours, the 20,000 people attending the airshow sought shade, tried to get information updates on their mobiles and did their best to enjoy the funfair, stalls and static aircraft on display. The rest of the airshow was very sombre and mute, flags flew at half mast, flight crews grounded wandered the airfield in a daze and the crash victims was dominant in people’s thoughts.


Eventually the airfield made a path across the runway and through a dirt track out onto the A27 for the parked cars to leave the venue safely. We were officially and calmly “evacuated” from the Shoreham Airshow, the air cadets and volunteers directing us out the event. One guy gave us thumbs up and a smile as we left, we gave him a wave and suddenly you realised how much a simple smile could do to make you feel better.


As I write this, the Civil Aviation Authority is updating its airshow regulations with immediate effect which will not allow vintage jets to perform aerobatic displays and restrict them to flypasts only over land as the investigation continues. All other Hawker Hunter jets that can fly in the United Kingdom have been grounded temporarily.


This is a horrific accident that some will say with hindsight could have been avoided had the aircraft not attempted a loop manoeuvre. However the pilot was incredibly experienced (ex-RAF, BA Captain) and the aircraft seemed to have been following the rules within the display box. It is so tragic that the plane did not crash just 10ft either side of the road and therefore potentially miss many innocent people. There was a very clear field on a hillside directly below where the loop manoeuvre took place.


Some are calling for airshows to only take place over water, my response to that is it causes other complications, such as being that a pilot cannot make a safe emergency landing on an airstrip because there would not be one available and salvage of the aircraft would be made more difficult in the sea.


The UK continues to have a remarkable safety record for airshows, a spectator hadn’t been killed since the Farnborough Disaster of 1952 when a De Havilland 110 broke up in midair, showering the crowd with debris. I myself will be attending the Dunsfold ‘Wings & Wheels’ Airshow on the 30th August and my love for aviation has not diminished.


As much as I feel affected by this disaster, having witnessed it, I cannot imagine the pain that the friends and family of the injured and dead are feeling at this moment, my thoughts and sympathies go out to them at this difficult time.


It’s odd how such a happy day out suddenly turned into a sombre one. This was a day that I’ll never forget.


All photos taken by the author

All photos taken by the author

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