For decades, the thrill of acrobatic fighter jets screaming overhead at lightning speeds has captivated millions of spectators worldwide. The awesome precision of military flying teams truly is mind boggling.
That's one reason why more than 300,000 people packed the Ramstein U.S. Air Base in West Germany. The world's best precision pilots from many nations would be performing their death-defying stunts.Yet Sunday's performance was not death-defying. It was death. Three Italian fighter jets crashed during a complicated maneuver, one of which plowed into the crowd, killing almost four dozen spectators and injuring some 500 others, 345 of them seriously.
All of this raises a serious question about the purpose of such air shows. To the military, air shows are invaluable recruiting devices, as well as a source of immense nationalistic pride for pilots and spectators.
But is it worth the human toll? Air shows have taken a staggering number of lives, not only among the world's finest pilots, but also among those only peripherally involved. Thirty spectators died at a 1952 air show in England. Forty-six people, most of them Army parachutists, died at a 1982 air show in Mannheim, Germany.
In the wake of Sunday's crash, West Germany has now banned air shows and called on other European countries to do the same.
"Until suggestions for effective measures are complete, there will not be any more air shows with military aircraft in West Germany, this with the agreement of the air forces of our NATO allies," said defense minister Rupert Scholz.
There have been dozens of crashes involving military air show performances - including one in Utah. Usually they have taken a single life here or two lives there - most of them pilots. But pilots recognize the danger of their occupations. It is a lifestyle they have chosen.
But danger and death is not something chosen by the spectators at Ramstein Air Base. The question is not so much whether the military should continue training precision flying teams. The question is whether those teams should continue to perform what is essentially entertainment when the risk to the public can be so great.