Investigators seek cause of deadly air show crash; death toll reaches 9
Jul. 27, 1997
BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) _ A pilot who nose-dived at an air show appeared to regain control of the plane at the last instant _ but not soon enough to avoid skidding in a ``carpet of flame'' that showered spectators with deadly debris.
The Jordanian pilot and seven spectators, including a French girl and her father, were killed Saturday when the light aircraft crashed amid blustery wind near public bleachers outside the coastal resort of Ostend.
The rest of the victims were Belgium men. An additional person, a Red Cross volunteer, died from injuries early Sunday. About 40 people were injured, 10 of them critically.
Investigators searched the wreckage Sunday for clues about why the pilot lost control while doing loop-the-loops during the stunt display.
``As to the cause, human error or mechanical error, it's just too early to say,'' Interior Minister Vande Lanotte said.
Capt. Omar Hani Bilal had been an experienced flyer with the Royal Jordanian Falcons, the aerial acrobatic team of the Jordanian Air Force. He was five minutes into a solo display before 30,000 people when things went awry.
The German-made Extra-300 plane suddenly appeared to be blown off-course by a heavy gust of wind, according to witness accounts and an amateur video broadcast Sunday.
The video showed the single-engine plane plummeting toward the ground when it appeared to start pulling out of the nose dive. But it nonetheless hit the ground and start skidding.
``It was a carpet of flame, I tried to run but debris hit me in the back and I fell,'' survivor Herman Commeyne told Belgium's RTL-TVI television.
``Everything disappeared in a fraction of a second, it was horrible,'' witness Jean-Marie Bogeart said. ``There were dead and injured everywhere. I saw a child with a severed foot, a man covered in blood.''
King Albert and Queen Paola broke off a vacation in Italy to pay their respects to the dead in Ostend and comfort bereaved relatives. They were joined by Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene.
The crash was one of Europe's worst air show accidents since 70 people died when three Italian jets collided at a U.S. air base at Ramstein, Germany on Aug. 28, 1988. One of the jets plunged into the crowd and exploded.
Lanotte said he expected a preliminary report on the cause of the crash by Monday. German experts were expected to join the examination of the wreckage, stored in a sealed warehouse at the Ostend airport. Doctors also carried out an autopsy on the pilot's body Sunday.
Maj. Gen. Mohammed Abadnah, the Jordanian Air Force commander, said Bihal was ``a very qualified pilot, in fact one of the best in the world.''
Other Jordanian flyers, accompanied by the Jordanian ambassador, went to the chapel were the victims' bodies were placed overnight and stood in silence before the flower-covered coffins.
The Jordanian, who had been scheduled to perform at more flying displays in Belgium, canceled all engagements.
The 23-foot Extra-300 is one of the most popular light planes among acrobatic flying enthusiasts.