Thousands turn out for Spangdahlem Air Base open house
Stars and Stripes August 2, 2011
SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany — Martin Wegner witnessed the horror of the 1988 crash at the Ramstein Air Show.
The former Huey military helicopter pilot helped Americans carry the scores of injured to medical help.
Since then, he’s been to 100 air shows. Add to that Saturday’s open house at Spangdahlem, where three aircraft were scheduled to fly the first aerial demonstrations — with maneuvers more complex than a flyby — for the public at a U.S. military base in Germany since the Ramstein disaster, where 67 spectators were killed and more than 500 others injured.
“Ramstein was bad luck,” Wegner, 49, said. “It was a terrible thing, but it’s no reason to stop air shows in Germany.”
The ’88 crash involved three Italian pilots who died in a midair collision that sent one of the planes careening on fire into the crowd. Since then, military air shows of the type held at Ramstein have been banned in Germany.
Some survivors recently expressed dismay that any type of flying display was returning to a military base. But a number of people in Saturday’s crowd, estimated at 10,000, were eager for something dazzling.
Andreas Kaiser, 25, who rode his bicycle from Trier on Saturday, said it didn’t make sense to ban air shows when “you have so many big, spectacular air shows” about 30 miles away in the Netherlands.
“Should we wait until all the people who experienced this are dead?” Kaiser said of the Ramstein air show crash survivors. “When is it long enough?”
Kaiser came to the open house “because it’s nice that I can come this close to the runway.” But, he said, the jets “do more spectacular stuff in normal practice during the week.”
Petrus Kessels, a retired member of the Dutch air force who lives near Bitburg, said he thinks it would be OK to allow a military air show, but with stricter safety standards than what took place at Ramstein.
“When it happened, the public was too close to the runway,” he said. Other measures, such as restricting dangerous stunts or adjusting the distance between planes, could make an air show safer.
“It’s exciting enough for the people who don’t see airplanes every day,” he said of Saturday’s maneuvers. But real fanatics, “they want to see the Blue Angels, the Red Devils, etc.,” he said, referring to the Navy’s aerial demonstration team and the British army’s parachute team.
Sandra Kehl thinks it’s better to keep any flying displays low key, as Spangdahlem was doing.
“It’s been a long time, but it’s dangerous,” she said. “I think it (the Ramstein crash) could always happen again, something like this.”
Kehl, a German, was at the 1988 Ramstein air show. She was 16 at the time. She and her friends had left the show two hours before the planes crashed.
“We live close by, so always when there’s an open house, we always go. It’s something different; it’s interesting for the children,” she said of her two daughters, ages 7 and 10.
If Spangdahlem put on a bigger air show, Kehl said she would have to think hard about bringing her family. “It would not be an easy decision.”
A few Americans wished for more excitement. Air Force spouse Christina Turner, 27, has seen the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds aerial team perform in Tuscon, Ariz.
“It would be nice to have a bigger” air show here, she said. “Watching all the aircraft perform their tricks, it was really exciting.”
Air Force spouse Deeann Stichter, 37, said it didn’t matter to her what sort of maneuvers were being flown.
“I think it’s cool that they’re even doing it. The kids get to see what their parents do, and the Germans get to see what the Americans do,” she said. “I don’t think big shows are absolutely necessary.”
The open house and aerial demonstrations were to continue Sunday.