Investigators Probe How Aerial Valentine Turned Into Disaster With AM-Air Show, Bjt
BONN, West Germany (AP) _ The veteran pilots had planned to thrill their air show audience with a perfectly timed stunt, to slickly manuever their 10 sleek jets into the shape of a huge, high-flying heart.
Instead, the aerial valentine turned into a fiery killer. One jet collided with two others at the U.S. air base at Ramstein Sunday, then crashed into the crowd.
The disaster killed 46 people, including the three Italian air force pilots.
″We have absolutely no idea what went wrong,″ Gen. John Galvin, commanding officer of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, told reporters Monday at the air base.
He said Italian authorities would lead the investigation into the tragedy.
A crowd of about 300,000 people were watching as the Italian pilots, flying at nearly 450 mph, began performing the maneuver in which the jets create a silhouette of a giant heart.
″Five of the planes came from one direction, and four came from another. A single plane came from yet another direction, and there was a huge crash,″ said a West German witness.
Italian officials said that in the maneuver, nine aircraft fly perpendicular to the runway and then begin to climb in front of the spectators. At a certain point in the ascent the formation divides into two groups of four and five planes that turn away in opposite directions while descending in curves.
The two groups then fly past each other while traveling in opposition directions and parallel to the ground.
As a spectacular finish the 10th jet flies through the formation as the paths of the two groups of planes appear to intersect.
That was when the stunt turned into a disaster.
Rainer Bogensberger, an amateur pilot who witnessed the tragedy, said the solo airplane collided with two of the other jets and it ″then plowed into the audience in a huge fireball.″ One of the other planes crashed onto a runway and the third plunged into a forest.
The remaining jets circled the airfield for a few minutes before landing.
Witnesses said the jets were flying at an altitude of about 100 feet when the accident occurred.
Klaus Koplin, head of the Federal Aeronautics Office in Braunschweig, said regulations require that aircraft other than helicopters stay above 500 feet.
″The pilot may go below this minimum altitude only for the purpose of landing or taking off,″ he said.
Other West German officials noted that the rules for air shows at NATO bases are set by the military commands involved and not civilian authorities.
Galvin defended the competence of the Italian air demonstration team.
″This team has been doing that maneuver since 1961. There has never been an incident with that maneuver since then,″ he said.
Bogensberger said the tragedy could have been worse.
He said there were several military transport planes parked about 600 feet from where the jet crashed into the crowd and thousands of people were in that area.
″If this machine flew on for just another 200 meters (about 600 feet), it would have rammed right into these transport planes and would likely have set off huge explosions,″ Bogensberger said.