Future of W.Va. air show uncertain after crash

September 19, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD |

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The future of the Thunder Over the Blue Ridge Open House & Air Show remains uncertain after the plane crash Saturday that killed a pilot who was flying a post-World War II aircraft.

Feeling “gut-punched” by the fiery crash of the T-28 flown by John “Jack” Mangan, organizers of what was to be a two-day show met Monday to decide how to resolve a number of  contractual and financial issues sparked by the event’s abrupt cancellation at about 2:30 p.m. Saturday.

Whether the air show returns next year to the 167th Airlift Wing base at Eastern West Virginia Regional Airport is an “open-ended question,” said Col. Brian Truman, president of the Thunder Over the Blue Ridge Inc. board and vice commander of the Air National Guard unit.

“Everybody agreed it was too emotionally charged to address right now,” Truman said after a solemn meeting of the nonprofit organization’s board.

Mangan, 54, became the fifth person to die while performing in an air show held in the United States this year, according to John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows Inc.

After three consecutive years without any air show fatalities, Cudahy said the deaths of three pilots and two wing walkers makes 2011 “particularly difficult.”

“That for us is a pretty significant spike,” Cudahy said.

Over the last 20 years, the average number of fatal air show accidents is just shy of three per year, Cudahy said.

The last spectator death at an air show was in 1952, Cudahy said. The National Championship Air Races in Reno, Nev., where 10 people, including the pilot, died from a plane crash there, is a completely different type of event than the choreographed maneuvers of an air show, Cudahy said.

“We’re proud of our safety record,” Cudahy said.

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Peter Knudson said Monday that a preliminary report on the Martinsburg air show crash might be available by the end of next week.

County coroner Donald Shirley said the results of an autopsy of Mangan’s body aren’t expected to be known for four to six weeks.

A decorated Air Force pilot, Mangan flew with the T-28 Warbird Aerobatic Formation Demonstration Team for about five years.

The aerobatic team of post-World War II planes known as the Trojan Horsemen and the air show itself are among 870 members of ICAS, which posted a statement on its website mourning the deaths from the Martinsburg and Reno events.

Truman said a memorial service was held for Mangan on Sunday at 2 p.m. at the Airlift Wing base and counselors were available at area schools to talk with children who witnessed the crash.

Turnout for Saturday’s show was estimated at more than 20,000, which was about half of last year’s attendance. Truman attributed the smaller crowd, at least in part, to rainy weather that dampened the first hour of the event, Truman said.

The crash led to the cancellation of acts that had yet to perform Saturday and of the Sunday show.

Truman said organizers find themselves working through contractual and financial matters involving performers and others who were committed to being part of a two-day event.

“We believe we’ll be able to meet our contractual obligations,” said Truman, who still hopes to “break even” financially, he said.

Some of the acts have informed organizers that they would essentially waive part of the compensation they were expecting after only performing one of two days, Truman said.

The event also was a fundraiser for a number of high school athletic booster clubs, and Truman said there have been discussions about what could still be done to help them.

Jan Callen, executive director of United Way of the Eastern Panhandle, said the high school groups from Berkeley and Jefferson counties “put their heart and soul” into the show, which quickly became a significant fundraiser for them.

Last year’s event generated more than $100,000 for the United Way, but Callen said he obviously doesn’t expect that this year.

“I’m not that worried,” said Callen, who said the United Way has enjoyed strong community support and expects that to continue.

Callen added that he is more concerned about the air show being seen in “a positive light” as a quality event for the community.

Whether the show returns will depend on the community, said Truman, who is retiring from the Air Guard next year.

“I would say it depends on finances and the community will to do it,” Truman said.

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