I’ve always enjoyed a good airshow. The bigger airshows try to have the big name aerial demonstration teams performing. The USAF Thunderbirds or USN Blue Angels in the United States. In Europe, there are similar aerial demonstrations teams in different countries. The Italian team came to the Ramstein Airshow for a show on August 28, 1988 to perform to a crowd of 300,000 spectators. This airshow was one of the world’s worst airshow disasters.
What went wrong?
The Italian Air Force display team was attempting to perform a ten aircraft maneuver called the “pierced heart.” Two groups of planes fly at opposite ends of the runway towards each other like a game of chicken. The “piercing” aircraft is a solo aircraft meeting the other aircraft at show center traveling perpendicular to the other aircraft, directly towards the crowd. The solo aircraft cut the spacing too close and collided with another aircraft at 45 meters above the ground, traveling over 350 knots directly towards the crowd.
What happened to the aircraft?
The solo aircraft crashed in front of the crowd and exploded. This fireball and debris hurtled towards the crowd. The crowd was the densest right where the aircraft crashed as that’s where you had the best view. Everyone wanted to be at show center. One of my friends was assigned to a nearby base and wanted to be in that very spot.
What happened to my friend?
His girl friend (now wife) was running a few minutes late. My friend was too late to get to show center where he wanted to be. If he had been there, he likely would have been killed or seriously injured. From the time of impact to the plane crashing on the ground was just a few seconds. People didn’t have time to run. What happened to the people where the jet crashed?
There were 70 fatalities and 500 people were injured
Three of the fatalities were Italian airship pilots and the rest were on the ground. 31 people died at the scene. Sixteen of the fatalities died of severe burns days and weeks later. One man close to the explosion on the ground was thrown 30 feet. He saw his young son surrounded by the flames of the fire and ran to get him, picked him up and ran out safely. How were these victims honored?
There is a Memorial just off of the Ramstein Air Base main gate
Gaby and I visited the memorial today. It’s been almost 23 years since the disaster but the memory is still strong for many in the local area. The memorial is easy to get to and in a shady, quiet spot near some running water. There are two benches to sit on and reflect what happened that day. The names of the victims are engraved on the memorial. It’s a powerful memorial. There is a dedicated website for the airshow disaster and memorial at
http://www.flugtag88.com/. What did we learn from the disaster?
The disaster revealed problems with disaster response
The response was hampered by German and American mis-communications. German ambulances weren’t let on to the base right away. The rescue center in Kaiserslautern didn’t learn of the scale of the disaster for at least an hour. American and German IV catheters weren’t the same standard. A new IV catheter standard was created in 1995 so this problem wouldn’t happen again.
This terrible disaster affected the lives of many people, even to this day. Aviation disasters always have lessons we learn and this was no exception. New procedures and standards have been adopted. The two best websites with information about this disaster are WikiPedia and Flugtag88.com.
Ramstein Air Base has not had an airshow since 1988.