Pilot in fatal Travis air show crash called ‘a leader’ in industry

Eddie Andreini had been flying planes for 61 years, executing his daredevil acrobatics at nearly 1,000 air shows across the Western United States and Canada.

Even at 77, the Half Moon Bay resident was judged to be fit enough mentally and physically for the stunts he performed; he had passed a rigorous “aerobatic competency evaluation” just a few weeks ago with no problems.

“He was a consummate professional,” said John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows. “He’d been doing this for more than 50 years and was very well-respected as a guy who flew a number of different airplanes.

“He was recognized as a bit of a leader in the industry.”

On Sunday, Andreini was killed flying a maneuver he had performed countless times before, piloting his 3,100-pound biplane upside down just above a runway at Travis Air Force Base, where an estimated 85,000 spectators were gathered for the “Thunder Over Solano” air show.

Andreini, who called the stunt his “unique inverted ribbon snatch” on his website, hit the ground and was killed, his Boeing Super Stearman aircraft bursting into flames after a few minutes.

No one else was injured in the accident. In fact, no spectator has been killed at an American air show since 1952, Cudahy said Monday from his Virginia office, although air shows have led to some deaths of non-spectators, including 22 people killed in 1972 when an old warplane failed to take off from Executive Airport in Sacramento during an air show and crashed into a Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor.

Ten spectators and a pilot died in September 2011 at the Reno Air Races, the deadliest catastrophe in air racing history, but Cudahy noted that the Reno event involved racing, not an air show.

Federal investigators converged Monday on the base near Fairfield to investigate what led to the crash Sunday.

The National Transportation Safety Board is reviewing videos of the crash provided by spectators and spent Monday investigating the wreckage of Andreini’s vintage aircraft and other evidence.

Some spectators have questioned whether emergency officials waited too long to rush to the aircraft before it burst into flames. NTSB aviation investigator Howard Plagens said his agency will probe that issue as well as many others.

“That is a typical part of our investigation,” Plagens said at a televised press conference at Travis Monday morning, where he called the event a “tragic accident.”

He added that the agency is reviewing some of the many videos taken of the crash that have been provided by spectators and posted on various websites.

“That’s always helpful because you get different angles and viewpoints,” Plagens said. “We have quite a few at this point. I believe we do have the accident sequence, so I don’t believe we’re requesting any more at this time.”

The NTSB was studying the physical wreckage of the 500-horsepower plane, as well as ground scars, before moving the plane to a secure site in Pleasant Grove for further evaluation, Plagens said.

“Right now, we are focusing strictly on the perishable evidence, which is the site and the ground scars as it sits before it gets moved,” Plagens said.

Cudahy, whose group works with the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure safety at the roughly 325 air shows held nationally each year, said videos of the crash that he has reviewed give no clue as to what may have happened Sunday.

“There was no obvious indication from the videotape as to what went wrong,” Cudahy said, adding that the council’s records show Andreini had passed an evaluation a few weeks ago that required him to be tested in more than 60 areas, including performing the flying routines he used while being observed.

“I don’t think there’s anything about this accident that would question his mental or physical abilities,” Cudahy added.

The biplane Andreini was flying was built in 1944, but Cudahy said it had been modified to enclose the cockpit and add a number of safety enhancements.

“The modifications to this plane are too numerous to mention,” Andreini’s website notes.

Andreini was well known in the industry for his performances at air shows, mostly in the West and in Canada, and the inverted ribbon-cutting stunt was considered one of the “showiest bits of showmanship,” Cudahy said.

A woman who answered the phone at his Half Moon Bay office Monday declined to comment on the crash, but his website indicated he had performed his 15-minute flying act at 950 air shows and had amassed more than 6,000 hours of flying time. He had performed April 27-28 at the “Pacific Coast Dream Machines” show in Half Moon Bay, according to his website, and was scheduled to appear at an air show in Hollister on May 25-26.

Videos of Sunday’s crash show the biplane flying just above the tarmac before it hits the ground, and the NTSB said its investigation would determine how low Andreini was flying at the time.

However, Cudahy said that for pilots like Andreini, who have passed their examinations and have vast experience, there is no limit to how low he could fly. Some air shows have featured an inverted ribbon-cut stunt using a ribbon affixed between two soda bottles that is sliced by either the plane’s propeller or its tail, he said.

Despite the daredevil nature common at air shows, Cudahy said they are much safer than in past decades, particularly because of rules governing how close planes may get to spectators.

In Andreini’s case, he would not have been allowed to fly within 500 feet of spectators because of the type of plane he was flying, Cudahy said. A jet would not be allowed within 1,500 feet, he added.

Cudahy said the air show industry averages 1.5 pilot deaths a year at the 300 to 325 shows that take place in the United States. The last fatalities recorded were in Dayton, Ohio, in June, when a male pilot and a female wing walker died in a crash.

Like the Andreini death, videos of that fiery crash made their way onto the Internet and television almost immediately, and Cudahy said such coverage tends to produce a perception of the industry that “is not true.”

Because of constant safety efforts, he said, the last spectator fatality at an American air show was in Colorado in 1952.

In the 2011 Reno Air Races incident, a 74-year-old pilot in a World War II era P-51 Mustang nose-dived into the spectator stands. It marked the first time since 1949 that anyone other than a pilot had died during the races.

Cudahy said safety rules in place for air shows restrict planes from “directing acrobatic energy at the crowd,” and that Andreini’s aircraft was not moving toward spectators at the time of the crash. “His energy was running parallel to the crowd line, so that the energy of the aircraft would not carry it into the audience,” he said.