Disasters — 12 October 2011

Most air forces and navies of any size have at least one aerial demonstration team. In the U.S., it’s the USAF’s Thunderbirds and the Navy’s Blue Angels. Even the U.S. Army has helicopter and parachuting demo teams. It’s a dangerous business, and it goes without saying that only the best of the best need apply.

And, in the U.S., the UK (with the RAF’s Red Arrows team), France, and most other countries, these teams rehearse tirelessly so that their shows are as safe as they are exciting, or as safe as you can be while at the same time being so damned exciting. There are major tradeoffs between the two concepts.

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In aviation circles, there are certain teams who are known to lean quite a bit more toward excitement than safety. The Italian Frecce Tricolori team was one of those; the Canadian Snowbirds team had that reputation for a long time, though we’re not sure it’s still true. The French team has had a similar rep. But what the hell, man, do these, shall we say, slightly more daring teams put on a show! When the Canadians do their famous “bomb burst,” or “palm tree” maneuver, it never fails to raise goose bumps, even without the required Scorpions music playing over the PA.

But this is about the Italian team. And the horror they created occurred at the U.S. base at Ramstein, Germany, during the annual airshow, called Flugtag ’88 (roughly, “Flyday ’88”). This was and is done at U.S. and NATO bases in Europe to keep up good relations with the locals. The star attraction for the 1988 Ramstein show was the Frecce Tricolori, who never left a crowd disappointed. Terrified maybe, but never let down.

The Frecce Tricolori (a reference to the Italian flag) was a relatively big team, using 10 Aermacchi MB-339 PAN light ground attack or trainer jets (the two U.S. teams use no more than six powerful jets, while the Brits and Candians nine fairly small jets). The FT were in the process of pulling off their famous Cardioide or “pierced heart” maneuver.

In this routine, two formations create a heart shape in front of the audience and parallel to the runway. Just before the climax, in which a solo plane passes through the heart at high speed — toward the crowd — the two groups of planes forming the heart passed each other parallel to the runway. At this point, the aircraft began to collide. As in “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” someone had blundered, and into the Valley of Death rode the three-hundred (thousand) spectators.

Nowadays, precisely because of what happened during this maneuver, there is no airshow on the planet, as far as we know, that allows any performing aircraft to fly toward the crowd.

The final toll was 67 dead spectators and three dead pilots. Also, 346 spectators were seriously burned or otherwise injured when thousands of gallons of flaming jet fuel and airplane parts rolled over the crowd like a volcanic eruption.

In aviation circles, there are national air-demonstration people who rank this incident — in terms of deaths and serious injuries — as only the second-worst airshow disaster in history. But there are many aviation types — including us — who put this one at the top, primarily because of the nightmarish injuries suffered by those in that vague category lumped together as “injured.” That implies that they got better. But how much better are you when your body has been left 90 percent scarred from third-degree burns?

This one, like every one of these, did not have to happen.

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