Vintage: The Ramstein Air Show disaster in Germany, August 1988
The Ramstein Air Show disaster occurred on Sunday, 28 August 1988, during the Flugtag '88 Air Show at Ramstein Air Base near Kaiserslautern in West Germany. Three aircraft of the Italian Air Force display team collided during their display, crashing to the ground in front of a crowd of about 300 000 people. There were 70 fatalities (67 spectators and three pilots) and 346 spectators sustained serious injuries in the resulting explosion and fire while hundreds more had minor injuries. Despite Ramstein being a significant Air Force base, the American military and German civilian authorities were not prepared for a mass casualty event. At the time it was the deadliest air show accident in history (until overtaken in 2002 by the Sknyliv air show disaster). It is also the third-deadliest aviation accident to happen on German soil, after the 1972 Königs Wusterhausen air disaster and the 2002 Überlingen mid-air collision. Ten Aermacchi MB-339 PAN jets from the Italian Air Force display team, Frecce Tricolori, were performing their ‘pierced heart’ formation. In this formation, two groups of aircraft create a heart shape in front of the audience along the runway. In the completion of the lower tip of the heart, the two groups pass each other parallel to the runway. The heart is then pierced by a lone aircraft, flying in the direction of the audience. The mid-air collision took place as the two heart-forming groups passed each other and the heart-piercing aircraft hit them. The piercing aircraft crashed onto the runway and consequently both the fuselage and resulting fireball of aviation fuel tumbled into the spectator area, hitting the crowd and coming to rest against a refrigerated trailer being used to dispense ice cream to the various vendor booths in the area.
At the same time, one of the damaged aircraft from the heart-forming group crashed into the emergency medical evacuation UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter, injuring the helicopter's pilot, Captain Kim Strader. He died 20 days later, on Saturday, 17 September 1988, at Brooke Army Medical Centre in Texas from burns he suffered in the accident.
The pilot of the aircraft that hit the helicopter ejected but was killed as he hit the runway before his parachute opened. The third aircraft disintegrated in the collision and parts of it were strewn along the runway.
The pilot flying the solo plane that was supposed to pierce the heart was Lt Col Ivo Nutarelli, a 38-year-old Flecce veteran who had performed the manoeuvre 70 times. On this fateful day, Nutarelli got his timing wrong, flying higher than expected before diving down too fast. As the other nine planes pass each other at 350 miles per hour, Nutarelli knows he is flying too fast and does everything he can to slow his descent. Unfortunately, a collision was unavoidable, with Nutarelli’s aircraft clipping Pony 2, piloted by Capt. Giorgio Alessio. Pony 2 explodes mid-air while Nutarelli’s jet crashes into Pony 1, shattering its tail section before cartwheeling across the sky in flames.
Stunned onlookers on the ground cannot believe what they are witnessing as Nutarelli’s plane crashes in a grassy area just in front of them, sending nearly 300 gallons of ignited jet fuel into the crowd.
Following the collision and the ensuing debris and flames, killing dozens of spectators with hundreds more suffering horrific burns. The seven remaining Machhi MB-339As formed a dead man formation and return to Sembach Air Base.
Of the 31 people who died on impact, 28 had been hit by debris in the form of aircraft parts, concertina wire and items on the ground. Sixteen of the fatalities occurred in the days and weeks after the disaster due to severe burns; the last was the burned and injured helicopter pilot. About 500 people had to seek hospital treatment following the event and over 600 people reported to the clinic that afternoon to donate blood.
The disaster revealed serious shortcomings in the handling of large-scale medical emergencies by German civil and American military authorities. US military personnel did not immediately allow German ambulances onto the base and the rescue work was generally hampered by a lack of efficiency and coordination. Victims were being transported to hospitals anyway they could be with the local telephone flooded with so many calls that it failed, leaving amateur radio operators to relay important messages. The rescue coordination centre in Kaiserslautern was unaware of the disaster's scale as much as an hour after it occurred, even though several German medevac helicopters and ambulances had already arrived on site and left with patients. American helicopters and ambulances provided the quickest and largest means of evacuating burn victims but lacked sufficient capacities for treating them or had difficulty finding them. Further confusion was added by the American military's usage of different standards for intravenous catheters from German paramedics. A single standard was codified in 1995 and updated with a newer version in 2013.
A crisis counselling centre was immediately established at the nearby Southside Base Chapel and remained open throughout the week. Base mental health professionals provided group and individual counselling in the following weeks, and they surveyed the response workers two months following the tragedy and again six months after the disaster to gauge recovery.
Sources: Aviation Club, The Sun, Wikipedia