Dozens die in collision of 3 planes at air show

On Aug. 28, 1988, three Italian Air Force jets from the precision-flying team Frecce Tricolori collided in midair during the final performance of an air show, sending one of the jets into the crowd of nearly 300,000 spectators at Ramstein Air Base.


By DEEDEE ARRINGTON DOKE | Stars and Stripes | Published: August 29, 1988

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, West Germany — An Italian air force jet crashed in a ball of fire into spectators at an annual air show Sunday after colliding head on with two other low-flying jets, killing at least 46.

More than 100 people were injured in the fiery crash, which also killed the three pilots of the two-seat AermacchiMB-339A fighters.

The accident occurred about 3:35p.m., shortly after the 10-plane Italian Frecce Tricolori aerial demonstration team began its performance. A plane clipped two others flying in close formation toward it, sending the two crashing onto a runway.

The lone plane came at the crowd tail down, crashing in flames into hundreds of the estimated 300,000 at the air show. Concession stands and several vehicles, including a German police car, burst into flames.

In the moments after the crash, people were screaming and running, some of them with their clothes on fire. Flames from the explosion burned a number of spectators, while others were hit with parts from the exploding planes.

"I felt the heat of it," said Staff Sgt. John Flanagan of Wiesbaden. "I saw the guy coming right at us. I was out there with my family — my wife and two kids. I just pulled my kids and ran. "We were lucky. If we had been 100 meters more down, we would have been burned."

Jim Beichler, a University of Maryland teacher, said people next to him had said jokingly: "He's going to hit. He's not going to make it."

"Then there was a silence," Beichler said. "The plane blew up, and people started running. One guy was on fire. Other people were wrapped up in barbed wire. There were small fires all around me."

Farther away, there was shocked silence throughout the crowd, then crying. Shortly after the crash, the sound of sirens filled the air. Air Force buses and "anything with wheels" were pressed into service as ambulances.

Emergency first aid was administered in the area. Helicopters carried the more seriously injured to the nearby Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center.

"It's a mess here," Landstuhl spokeswoman Marie Shaw said. "We've got Germans coming here, Americans going to German hospitals, planes flying in, and my son was out there. I don't know how many people were hurt, but it's a lot. "

A morgue was set up at the Ramstein southside clinic, while injured also were taken to the gym at Landstuhl and German hospitals throughout the Kaiserslautern area. Authorities put out an appeal for blood donors, and, within the first hours, more than 600 people had arrived.

Air Force officials opened an information center at the Falcon Theater to help people locate missing family members. About 75 people, many looking tired and worried, quietly waited for word about 8 p.m.

"Everyone's in shock," said Virginia Howard of Landstuhl, a volunteer at the theater. "People don't know what they're saying. They're just looking."
In a press conference, Kaiserslautern County Commissioner Rudolf Tartter initially put the number of dead at 31, but Air Force officials estimated between 30 and 40. Several hours later, Landstuhl's Shaw said 43 people were dead at Ramstein and three were dead at Landstuhl.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Lawrence E. Boese, commander of the 316th Air Division at Ramstein, called the collision "a tragic accident."

"It is our opinion that every possible precaution was taken," Boese said, calling the Italian team of the “highest quality and caliber. He estimated the accident occurred at the show center, 1,500 feet from spectators. Eyewitnesses said the collision occurred as close as 120 feet above the ground.

Access to the base was immediately cut off by German police, who directed traffic away. Spectators trying to leave the base were trapped in a 2 1/2-hour traffic jam as authorities cleared the way for emergency vehicles.

The remaining seven Italian planes, which had been emitting smoke in the red, green and white colors of their nation's flag before the collision, landed at nearby Sembach AB.

"This accident is too large for us to understand ... and we have to learn consequences for it," said Rudi Geil, minister of the interior for the state of Rheinland-Pfalz. "I cannot see how we can take responsibility for holding such an event again," said Geil, who described himself as "in great despair."

Representatives of the Social Democratic and Free Democratic political parties had asked the state government to cancel the event, citing potential dangers of flying demonstrations. But the Rheinland-Pfalz state government said Aug. 5 that the U.S. Air Force has operated the air show under regulations outlined by the German government, and there was no reason to cancel the show.

Immediately after the accident, West German Defense Minister Rupert Scholz, who had defended the shows, announced cancellation of a German air force air show scheduled for Sept. 25. The Frecce Tricolori were the last show of the day, scheduled for 3:40p.m., following flying demonstrations by U.S. aircraft from Ramstein, Hahn and Bitburg air bases, West Germany, and RAF Bentwaters, England.

Also performing were military planes from Germany, France, the Netherlands and Portugal. The air show began at 12:30p.m.

The three Italian pilots killed Sunday were identified as Lt. Col. Mario Naldini, 41; Lt. Col. Ivo Nutarelli, 38; and Capt. Giorgio Alessio, 31. In Rome, Italian Premier Ciriaco DeMita expressed the profound sorrow of his government at what he called the "terrible disaster" at Ramstein.

The Ramstein air show included about 20 airplanes on display. They were to fly out as scheduled Monday, but base officials did not know when regular flying would resume.

In another air accident Sunday, this one in Kleine Brogel, Belgium, a Finnish military training aircraft spun into an uncontrolled dive and crashed during an air show at a Belgian air force base, killing the pilot, wire services reported.

Military officials said the pilot, Ari Piippo, 44, of the Finnish air stunt team, was believed killed instantly when his Finnish-made propeller-driven Valmet aircraft crashed into a meadow outside the base northeast of Brussels.

There were no other casualties, and the area was closed off for an official investigation.

On Aug. 7, a Belgian pilot died when his Mirage 5 jet fighter crashed at an air show, also organized by the Belgian air force, at Leopoldsburg, seven miles west of Kleine Brogel. In April, May and June, 19 military aircraft of the United States, Britain, France and Germany crashed in West Germany, prompting calls for an end to low flying and the grounding of some planes.

Five U.S. Air Force F-16s have crashed this year in Germany.

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