SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Tragedy struck a Travis Air Force Base air show Sunday afternoon when a biplane crashed while performing aerobatics, killing the pilot, forcing an abrupt end to the event and raising questions about how emergency crews responded to the crash.
Veteran air show performer Eddie Andreini of Half Moon Bay died in the crash. The 77-year-old Andreini had spent most of his life in a cockpit, the last 30 years piloting his vintage Boeing Super Stearman, a powerhouse 3,100-pound, 500-horsepower biplane that carried him on his final flight. No spectators were hurt in the 2:05 p.m. crash at the base near Fairfield, according to base officials.
“He was flying close to the ground. The aircraft was upside down when it impacted the ground,” said Col. David Mott, commander of the 60th Operations Group at Travis Air Force Base, at a televised news conference on the base. “No one wants to see an incident like this.”
Mott said base officials secured the crash site and were preparing for National Transportation Safety Board investigators. The NTSB will be in charge of the investigation, said Lynn Lunsford, a Federal Aviation Administration spokesman. The FAA was already at Travis, where they will join the NTSB’s team, Lunsford said.
Where emergency crews were stationed at the time of the crash and the amount of time it took for them to respond would be “part of the investigation,” Mott said.
“We set these procedures in place,” Mott told reporters, adding that air traffic controllers and emergency crews were “immediately notified.”
Travis officials extended their condolences in a statement Sunday: “Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of Eddie Andreini. Our Travis team responded to this tragic incident to ensure the safety of everyone on the installation.”
The two-day “Thunder Over Solano” air show and open house – the first at the Solano County Air Force base in three years – featured military and civilian aircraft, highlighted by the Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team, and was expected to draw about 100,000 spectators per day.
Sunday was a clear day in Fairfield, and spectators said Andreini was flying the signature performance described by an aviation publication on his website, “… a close show, lots of maneuvers that descend tantalizingly close to the ground.”
“He did some magnificent acrobatics,” said Roger Bockrath of Davis, a retired photojournalist, who was photographing the afternoon show. “That guy knew how to fly an airplane.”
But something went wrong during the finale, an “inverted ribbon pickup,” in which Andreini flies upside down just feet above the tarmac. Bockrath chronicled the routine frame by frame, ending with the crash.
Winds were 10 to 15 knots, gusty at times, the base’s Mott said. The wind was gusty enough, Bockrath said, that Andreini, flying into the wind, passed on two attempts before trying the maneuver an ill-fated third time, hitting the tarmac, then sliding to a stop in an open field.
“He got down too low and hit the tarmac. He skidded about 500 feet and just sat there. The plane was essentially intact, just wrong side down,” Bockrath said.
Bockrath said nearly 2 1/2 minutes, by his camera’s clock, elapsed after the crash before someone appeared with a fire extinguisher. By then, the smoking aircraft was fully involved in flames, he said, the aircraft collapsing under the intense heat. Another 2 1/2 minutes passed, Bockrath said, before the first fire crews arrived.
Witnesses’ photos showed a thick plume of black smoke billowing behind spectators and the collection of military aircraft on display on the Travis flight line. Travis officials stopped the event and led spectators off the base.
Hours later, Bockrath’s anger and frustration had barely subsided.
“He should be in the hospital with second-degree burns and smoke inhalation. Instead, he’s at the coroner’s office,” Bockrath said. “It’s shocking to me how long it took. I’m still rattled by it.”