The risks of too much safety

Safety is what we humans believe we should feel in our homes – although depressingly few of us actually experience such luxury around the world. As Sir David Attenborough regularly reminds us, from conception to expiration, life on earth is fraught with risk – irrespective of species.

Sometimes we take decisions that magnify those risks many times over. It’s called being human.

Obviously, some risks are greater than others. At the S&G we have been known to make outings to the local Scalextric club in the certain knowledge that the hobby accounts for 2.5 deaths per year, according to the Office of National Statistics. It could be a very unpleasant way to go – but not an altogether likely one.

Perhaps that very mild whiff of danger is why Scalextric racing remains popular among its practitioners – and might also explain why even the best races attract fairly minimal onlookers. Because when somebody takes a risk – a serious risk – we want to watch and we want to cheer for them. It enriches us.

Whenever the subject of falling public interest in events like motor races or air displays crops up, it always brings back memories of a little badinage from the script of that all-time number 1 movie in the S&G collection, The Great Waldo Pepper. There’s a scene where Robert Redford’s eponymous pilot tries to get work flying for the celebrated ‘Doc’ Dilhoefer’s Flying Circus:

Dilhoefer:      Pleased to meet you, Pepper, but the answer’s ‘no’.
Waldo:            I’d really like to talk about-
Dilhoefer:      The answer’s still ‘no’.
Waldo:            But-
Dilhoefer:      Look. I know who you are. You’re a damned good pilot, right? But barnstorming ain’t what it used to be so now you want a job in my flying circus. But do you got an act? No – right? Well the answer’s ‘no’ unless you got an act. Look up there, you think that pack of jackals wants to see a good pilot? They want blood! Sudden death is my business, Pepper. Not good pilots.
Waldo:            Wait a second, give me a chance would you? Please?
Dilhoefer:       I’ll give you the same deal I give everybody else… now you dream up a stunt where people think you’re gonna die. No! Where people are sure you’re gonna die – then I’ll take you on. You might wanna try wing-walking, I hear it’s very popular down south. Good luck.

In the end, Waldo masters the art of clambering out of the cockpit up onto the wing of his biplane while in flight, getting on to the top wing and bracing himself against the headwind.

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Wing walking used to mean climbing out of the cockpit and walking on the wings

It’s a fairly stupefying scene, all the more so for the knowledge that this sort of thing was commonplace in the ‘Twenties. In fact people were already getting a bit tired of it, which is why they put Susan Sarandon on the wing, with her clothes engineered to ‘fall off’ at an appropriate time, as seen at the top of this page.

We still have wing walkers today, of course. Usually they’re girls. The big difference is that now they’re securely lashed to a post. It’s not heart-stopping drama; rather more like Ryanair’s dream of future budget flights.

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Modern wing-walkers have stringent safety requirements – like tethers and a seat.

Any sort of display flying brings with it risk – far more than Scalextric racing – but the days of having nothing but the aeroplane’s own bracing wires and your sense of balance to keep you from the hereafter have long since gone. That’s why wing walking acts these days often give the crowd time to go and get a burger before the real action re-commences.

It was Ernest Hemingway who declared that there were only three true sports – bull-fighting, mountaineering and motor racing. The rest were merely games. In other words: if it can’t kill you instantly, you can’t call it a sport.

The news that the FIA is putting a cage over the cockpit of Formula 1 cars next year has met with widespread derision. The push for safety was a cornerstone of the presidency of Max Mosley, although the deaths of Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna on live TV at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix made it the overwhelming priority.

That’s why so many Grands Prix involve dollying around in 2nd gear corners these days. Whenever a circuit is modified, it is never to speed it up. While the prices of tickets go up and up, the fans get moved further and further away in order to create more run-off, so that even once-great venues that tested the nerve and sinew now offer the same challenge as a parking lot to drivers of any great skill.

Take the one that they talk about every year – the Eau Rouge/Raidillon sweep at Spa-Francorchamps, an icon in modern Formula 1 parlance that must be taken ‘flat’. Well, Spa remained pretty well unchanged for its first 60 years, with only a few exceptions when the additional track was used where Eau Rouge doubles back on itself, heads back to the Ancient Douanne hairpin and then comes back out halfway up the hill.

For the most part, however, Eau Rouge looked just like this:

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Looking ahead to original Eau Rouge/Raidillon in 1955 – no way you’d take that flat even now

Spa was rebuilt in the early 1980s to be shorter and safer. Its return to the Formula 1 calendar came in 1983 but only one exceptionally brave man – Keke Rosberg – took Eau Rouge/Raidillon without lifting because he had a relatively meagre Cosworth DFV that was trying to keep up with the 1200hp turbo cars. ‘A granny could drive it flat now,’ he chuckled recently.

 

As the image below shows, in the ‘Eighties you thundered downhill towards a solid wall of Armco with an earth bank behind it, steered sharp left and then switched back right with Raidillon getting more acute as it crossed the old stone bridge.

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In the 1980s, Eau Rouge/Raidillon was unchanged – and not flat out.

Now we have the modern ‘complex’ after it was rebuilt prior to the 2007 season. Cars race downhill towards a wide open space on the upslope where the guard rail, earth bank and crowds used to be, have a much shorter and more open left through Eau Rouge and then go up Raidillon in a very gentle, regular curve.

The bridges are gone, and the hollows, but the old outline of the left hand side of the circuit remains. Indeed, it’s all the more clear these days for being covered with high grip asphalt to help slow a spinning or braking car before it hits the deep, soft retaining wall. You can see, if you choose to look, at what a challenge used to exist – and witness how the challenge has been so greatly reduced by the modern ‘facility’.

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Smooth as a billiard table, wide open spaces and all mod cons: Eau Rouge and Raidillon today

Spa is still one of the three most beautiful and historic venues to race a motor car in Europe, right alongside Monza and Le Mans. It is still possible to get it very wrong at Eau Rouge. But it is impossible to compare achievements here to those of the first 80 years of the circuit’s existence.

Increased safety in terms of car construction, neutered circuits and endless run-off has had a two-fold effect upon Formula 1 that has trickled down to the rest of the sport: public interest has fallen, in line with old Dilhoefer’s pronouncement to Waldo Pepper, and so too have driving standards.

When Ayrton Senna deliberately collided with Alain Prost at Suzuka in 1990 it was shocking because nobody had ever put another driver’s life at risk in quite so obvious a manner. The risks were known, accepted and kept within tolerable limits – as were the driving standards of the day.

The drama of Senna’s moment of madness has now become a tactic. Increasing safety levels have only served to encourage unsportsmanlike behaviour in the top flight, and it’s now thoroughly percolated the entire system. What was once an anathema to the sport is now the norm and it has filtered down to the children competing in the grassroots – which is perhaps the ugliest aspect of all.

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Margins for safety are open to abuse – if the consequences are less severe, more chances are taken and sportsmanship goes out of the window

Equally, once Formula 1 adopts the cage – or ‘halo’ as it is being spun – then every other FIA-sanctioned series must follow suit, just as was the case with the HANS head restraint. It is likely that even karts will have a cage around them, even if it is utterly inappropriate and causes as many potential issues as it solves – just as is the case in F1, in fact.

Increasing safety, taking the sport away from the fans and sealing itself in a bubble of safety messaging is throttling not only Formula 1 but also many other strands of motor sport – as these rally images show. The spectacle and therefore the passion are ebbing away.

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Safe, ticketed spectator zones have made rallies safer but significantly reduced numbers

In the wake of the Shoreham disaster, much the same phenomenon has struck air shows, with many restrictions being imposed upon the performing pilots and the crowds beneath.  “There’s something missing…” is the phrase that has been repeated time and again in fan forums. No cause for alarm yet – but the change has been noticeable.

When one spends long enough around a risky activity, the impact of those risks inevitably hits home. One day, pop star and former display pilot Gary Numan looked at a group photo of his former flying mates and realised that he was the only one still alive. That was the day he stopped flying. His assessment: his decision. An entirely respectable one.

The S&G once worked with a hugely promising young driver who was killed by his own front wheel rebounding into the cockpit during an accident – exactly the type of injury that the cockpit cage (or ‘halo’ if you must), is designed to prevent. Would he have wanted to race with it on the car?

We’ll never know but the odds are severely stacked against his approval for any such device. He was a racer, he weighed up the risks and accepted them. Look to the responses of other racers, I think he’d agree.

No less a man than David Brabham, team-mate to Roland Ratzenberger when he was killed at the San Marino Grand Prix in 1994, popped up in the wake of the ‘halo’ announcement with views that were hardly complimentary. His belief, like that of the S&G, is that the FIA’s thought process is now completely at odds with the opinion of drivers and public alike.

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David Brabham (right) and Roland Ratzenberger: the 1994 Simtek team photo

The day after Ratzenberger’s accident, ‘Brabs’ calmly got into the sister car and started the race. He drove through the wreckage of JJ Lehto’s startline accident and that of Senna’s car at Tamburello, too – accepting the risks and believing in his team and in himself to win through. Few racers would have done any differently.

If the fixation on safety continues, however, crowds seeking to be thrilled by risk-takers may as well migrate to our Scalextric club. If somebody has taken stock of the risks and decided that they are worth the challenge then they should be applauded for it. As it is, more and more people are more likely to re-enact the great races and the amazing aerial manoeuvres via a computer game than ever witness true heroism in real life. What a sad reflection on our society that would be.

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Celluloid dogfights: a brief history

With a title that sounds like a b-side from the late David Bowie, the S&G reflects upon the too-few attempts to portray World War 1 in the air on the silver screen.

In many ways it is a tragedy that stories of the young pilots in peril during World War 1 have not received as much of the high quality of storytelling as their counterparts in the trenches. Perhaps it is the lack of poetry. Perhaps it the combined legacy of Biggles, Snoopy and Captain Flashheart that serious depictions of the airmen of the great war are so few and far between.

Whatever it is that has caused this massive gap in popular culture is utterly and fundamentally wrong-headed. Here endeth the lesson, now let’s watch some aeroplanes and dream of the day that Peter Jackson actually gets on with making the ultimate cinematic tribute.

Grand-daddy of them all is Howard Hughes’s movie Wings (1927), featuring a whole lot of veteran pilots flying war surplus aircraft. Even then, genuine machinery was becoming hard to come by and one could never mistake California for Passchendaele in a million years but enough about this epic film was authentic in a way that nobody since would ever attempt to match.

The advent of World War 2 somewhat stifled demand for movies about World War 1. Not until the 1960s was there another blockbuster about flying over the Western Front and it came in the form of The Blue Max (1966), starring George Peppard. As with Wings, the aerial sequences were filmed for real, with just enough authentic-looking replicas of Fokker Dr.Is, Fokker D.VIIs, Pfalz D.IIIs and S.E.5as to conceal the makeweight Tiger Moth contingent in the rear. The back screen projection for the actors’ close-ups look rather quaint in this day and age but it was a stronger film than it receives credit for.

Fast forward to 1975 and you have the hottest star of the era, Robert Redford, lighting up that million megawatt smile as The Great Waldo Pepper; a tale of barnstormers in the midwest in the days after World War 1. In the final section of the film, director and writer George Roy Hill goes all-out to recreate the filming of Howard Hughes’s Wings – including putting his actors into biplanes for their close-up shots. It is a riot that quickly gets out of hand when Waldo, the ace in his own mind, goes head-to-head with Ernst Kessler, the German ace of aces…

George Roy Hill went out of his way to celebrate the World War 1 airman in war, in peace and most importantly in popular culture while, at the same time, the British took a very different approach. The movie Dawn Patrol (1975) and the BBC TV series Wings (1976-77) attempted to tell the story of the air war as sneering social commentary. Both appear to have been written by North London socialists in penance for Britain’s imperial past. Jeremy Corbyn probably has the DVD box set of Wings in pride of place on his Soviet-era wall units. Ghastly.

After decades of silence about biplanes (and triplanes) over the Western Front, in came Hollywood with a bright young star, James Franco. Predictably, this is a tale of how Americans tried to win the war before Woodrow Wilson had got under starter’s orders. Flyboys (2006) was loosely based on the story of the Escadrille Lafayette in 1916-17 and is actually a good deal less infuriating than it might have been – although the speed of the CGI Nieuports and Fokkers seems to owe more to Star Wars than to The Blue Max.

And finally we have the slightly poetic violence portrayed in The Red Baron (2008) – a German movie filmed in English to try and maximise the international audience.

There is an awful lot to commend this one, but despite being a veritable feast for the eyes it’s all a bit flat with no edges whatsoever, turning the real-life Red Baron into something of a gauzy nonentity. There are moments of beauty that the PlayStation graphics of Hollywood would have overlooked but, oddly, if I were trying to conjure up some enthusiasm for World War 1 flying in someone without much exposure to it, I’d play something else. This film just isn’t quite as good as it could have been, in the same way that Flyboys isn’t as bad as it should have been.

It is quite interesting to see how techniques – and the speed of the aircraft – have changed over the years. So too are the perspectives of the film makers themselves. As the centenaries continue to roll round over the next couple of years, these films may well be dragged out of the hangar on occasion. As the remaining links between our lives and those that the films attempted to portray slip deeper beneath the waves, that is something of a worry. There really was so much more than any of what the movies have given us. Future generations may as well study Snoopy…

 

American idol – The Great Waldo Pepper (new link to film clip)

If you want movies about aircraft done properly, better get a pilot to make them. That’s why The Great Waldo Pepper is such a joy – because it was the work of George Roy Hill.

A feisty presence in the Hollywood firmament, Hill was something of an outsider among the great and the good of La-La-Land. As a child inthe 1920s and 1930s he idolised the great fighter pilots of World War 1, and when war broke out once again he enlisted as a pilot – flying a cargo aircraft around the Pacific in WW2, but becoming a nightfighter ‘ace’ in the Korean war.

Upon leaving the military, Hill worked as a journalist and then took an interest in theatre. He moved quickly to television and then on to making movies, with his debut coming in a 1962 adaptation of A Period of Adjustment by Tennessee Willams. An up-and-down career then hit paydirt with A Thoroughly Modern Millie starring Julie Andrews, which was followed by his best-loved hit: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

The leading men on Butch and Sundance, Paul Newman and Robert Redford, soon learned not to fall foul of their tempestuous director’s strong work ethic. Late arrival on set would see guilty parties strapped in to Hill’s 1930 Waco biplane and subjected to a bracing aerobatic flight.

“If you weren’t on time, he’d take you up in his airplane,” Newman later recalled. “Scared the bejesus out of us.”

It was Newman’s co-star, Robert Redford, with whom Hill’s other enduring successes were achieved. First came The Great Gatsby and then probably the most personal film of Hill’s career in the form of The Great Waldo Pepper, a paean to the barnstorming days of the 1920s aviation boom in which Redford plays a charming, roguish pilot who saw too little of World War 1 but tells a good tale and trades on his matinee idol looks to good effect.

Together with talents such as Bo Svensson, Bo Brundin and the glamour of both Susan Sarandon and Margot Kidder, this is an oft-overlooked gem of a movie and one that is perfect for S&G readers. So enjoy this little clip as Hill takes Waldo to Hollywood…