A letter to Andy Hill

I’ve been invited to the Shoreham Airshow Memorial Service tomorrow. I don’t think the pilot in that incident, Andy Hill, will be there but I’ve been thinking about what I’d say to him if he were.

In many ways Andy Hill is much luckier than me. Nobody thought any pilot would be able to survive such a horrific crash. I was quite surprised when I heard the news that the pilot had been taken to hospital. I was even more surprised when it was announced that he had been discharged from hospital only a week after I had been discharged.

Planes aren’t really designed to crash into the ground but somehow the impact had so little vertical velocity that it didn’t kill him. And somehow his seat managed to come detached from the main cockpit structure such that he wasn’t badly burnt in the ensuing fire.

I’m sure that he was hugely helped by some excellent emergency responders and the air ambulance which transported him to hospital. As it turned out I believe he was the only person who suffered life threatening injuries.

I don’t think I’ll ever know the full reason why the Hawker Hunter hit the ground in front of me. I’m not an investigator however I know a little about aeroplanes, I’ve watched the videos of the crash many times and I’ve read the preliminary report compiled by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB). The report comes to no conclusions about the cause of the accident. The only tiny piece of new information it offers is that there were cameras in the cockpit recording the flight and they seemed to show that the aircraft responded to the pilots inputs.

It’s not my job to investigate the accident nor should I really speculate on the cause as I’m not an expert however my best guess is that the incident was at least partly due to pilot error.

When performing an aerobatic manoeuvre such as that fateful one, the pilot has to make a decision at the highest point of elevation. If the pilot hasn’t achieved the necessary elevation, or there is some sort of malfunction then the pilot simply pulls the plane out of the turn, rolls the plane upright and starts again. Since the pilot didn’t do this, we have to assume 3 options: he was at the necessary elevation with no malfunctions, his elevation was too low but he didn’t realise or a malfunction prevented him from pulling out of the manoeuvre.

The first two options are the only plausible ones given the report which stated the plane was responding to inputs and the fact that in the videos, the pilot still appears to have some measure of control.

If we assume everything was fine at the top of the manoeuvre, then we have to ask what happened between that point and hitting the ground. Loss of power isn’t an issue as the plane is descending and there should be enough elevation to get back to level flight even without power. Loss of control is another option. In the videos I’ve seen it seems like the plane reduces the rate of pitch before it achieves level flight. Again there can be multiple explanations for this: the pilot might have momentarily lost control for some reason (passing out, losing sight, becoming distracted), a control actuator may have broken or the plane may have stalled, this is when the plane is pushed beyond it’s limit and the wings instead of generating more lift generate less lift.

I think we can probably discard a control actuator malfunction or a stall as this would appear at odds with the AAIB statement. In summary we’re left with two plausible options (or a combination of both). The pilot made a mistake about the elevation required to complete the manoeuvre safely or the pilot momentarily lost control of the aircraft.

Even though I think pilot error was probably partly to blame for causing the incident, that does not mean I blame Andy Hill. Most of us make small mistakes every day; I know I make lots of small mistakes at work. On 4 or 5 occasions in my life, I’ve temporarily lost my sight. It doesn’t go instantaneously, the times it’s happened I’ve been able to sit down and wait a minute or so for my sight to come back. I’ve never been to a doctor about this, I don’t think it’s serious enough. But if it happened again at the wrong time, I could be driving a car on the motorway, it could cause someone other than me to get injured.

I’m not sure whether I’m doing the right thing about that, but I don’t want some minor condition affecting what I can and can’t do. I take risks and that day at the airshow, I took a risk, I sat somewhere where planes were flying over my head.

So here’s my letter to Andy Hill:

Dear Andy,

Firstly, I want to say I’m not blaming you for what happened to me that day at the Shoreham airshow. I hope you’re recovering well and you can get to a day in your life when you don’t think about the accident.

You probably know better than anyone what happened just before you hit the ground. I’m interested in what happened simply to satisfy my own curiosity.

I don’t mind if I never get to know but I think it’s right that the investigators know so they can prevent future injuries.

You inadvertently gave me the most thrilling memory of any jet plane. If your Hunter hadn’t hit the ground I’d have probably got an incredible close up photo and a huge rush as it came over my head. Sadly that wasn’t what happened and I wish I could roll back time to prevent it.

Finally, I hope that if you want to, you’ll be able to fly planes again. If you’re ever back in a Hunter again, I’d love to try and get some decent photos!

Best wishes,

Thomas Milburn