We’ve all heard of the German Heavy Metal band Rammstein, I’m sure. Their famous offerings including ‘Ich Will’, ‘Feuer Frei’ and ‘Sonne’. But there’s a story behind their name, and that story is the Ramstein Airshow Disaster. The band initially named Rammstein-Flugschau (Ramstein Airshow- the extra ‘m’ was a spelling mistake which they kept) have since stepped away from the association, claiming the name came from the “ramming stone” of the same name – a large stone doorstop affair found on old gates but the initial addition of the ‘flugschau’ berates that story. But that’s not really the topic for today.
In the Summer of 1988, my friends and I were who were lucky enough to be raised in the warm embrace of the Royal Air Force, paid witness to our annual airshow. The Red Arrows, always a crowd pleaser, were in attendance, alongside our own display of Tornados and other invited guests performing fly-bys and other fun filled attractions. One highlight was the visiting Italian Air Force Display team, the Frecce Tricolori; a ten man display flying Aermacchi MB-339 PAN Jets. The team had been guests in the Officers Mess for several days, lovingly cared for by my own Mum, who brought home shirts to launder for them, amongst various other ‘motherly’ duties. I took some shirts up one day and was introduced to the team who were all very dashing and suave to my 17 years old sensibilities. I got a smile and a wink from ‘Pony 10’ Lieutenant-Colonel Ivo Nutarelli; Mum got a pot plant. “The Triffid”.
On the day of the airshow, we all gathered on the airfield and watched the FT put their jets through their paces. Oh boy! They were awesome. A collective of hearts in mouths and “daren’t look….yet can’t stop looking!” They were all we talked about for days. Yes we were loyal to our own Reds, but these guys….. The grande finale was the ‘pierced heart’ manouvre. Executed by nine of the team flying in split five to one side, four to the other, towards the crowd and joining to be pierced by Lt-Col Nutarelli. Spectacular. The Reds modified the same manouvre in their nine smaller jets. Watch them, you will see what I mean. So a few weeks later, on August 28th 1988, it was with horror that my friends and I, after discussing at length the significance of Nuterelli’s name being for his daring flying, that we learned the team had met with disaster at another airshow in Germany at the USAF base of Ramstein.
Whilst performing their signature manouvre, Lt-Col Nutarelli had come in too fast and at the wrong angle, too low. It is debated that he tried to slow his Jet by dropping the undercarriage however this is speculative; there are a number of different reasons why the wheels could have been down. Ivo clipped Pony 1 flown by Lt-Col Mario Naldini, smashing in the nose of his own Jet whilst simultaneously destroying the tail of Pony 1, and sending it in ricochet into Pony 2, piloted by Captain Giorgio Alessio. Naldini managed to eject as his aircraft slammed into a Taxiway to the side of the runway, hitting the emergency evacuation helicopter, and destroying it; however, his chute failed to open in time and he was killed instantly as he hit the ground. The Pilot of the helicopter was fatally injured with severe burns and died some weeks later of his injuries.
Alessio went down with his Jet, as the impact sent him straight into the side of the runway. He was killed instantly. Nutarelli’s doomed jet, severely damaged and uncontrollable, smashed into the crowd-line on the runway. Still moving at a tremendous speed, its momentum carried it through a police car, the fencing delineating the active line of the runway, spiraling uncontrollably until coming to rest on an ice-cream van. The crowd were showered with hundreds of gallons of flaming aviation fuel, and burning aircraft parts. They had less than seven seconds to run from the moment of impact between the jets and their hitting the crowd-lines. Nutarelli was also killed as his Jet disintegrated during its snowball down the flight-line. Aside from Med-Evac Pilot Captain Kim Strader, and the three Italian Pilots, 66 spectators were killed in the ensuing fireball, 27 at the scene, with the rest succumbing to their injuries in the next few days and weeks. Hundreds more injured, many severely with up to 90% third degree burns for many.
During the aftermath, there was a great deal of confusion. The only evacuation helicopter had as we know been destroyed. Due to lack of communication and resulting security hold-ups before being allowed onto the base, it took up to an hour to get German medical teams to the injured; many of whom were already being transported away by civilian transport on the backs of pick-up trucks and so on. American military helicopters were commandeered to fly the injured, but lacked facilities or supplies for treatment. German Emergency Helicopters turned up and were also employed in treatment and transport of wounded. Details of the disaster were not forwarded to nearby hospitals, who were already receiving unaccompanied, untreated wounded before the official report was received. Organisation was non-existent.
As a result of the accident, several new guidelines were introduced for future displays. The most important one being that a ban was placed on aircraft performing display manouvres over the crowd, and a minimum distance being placed between the front of the crowd line and the active runway. Emergency procedures were revised and action plans put into place to prevent future chaos in similar incidents. And a standard of medical procedures was introduced, particularly regarding intravenous lines which had shown to be carried out in different ways with different instruments by the German and American teams, causing a breech between the two when handing over patients.
The accident at Ramstein, was at its occurrence, the worst airshow disaster ever. It has however since been over-taken in number of casualties by the 2002 Sknyliv disaster in the Ukraine when one solitary jet crashed after clipping the ground during a manouvre, colliding with a static aircraft and spinning out of control back across the runway into the crowd killing 77 people including 28 children. Both Pilot and Co-Pilot were blamed for the incident and jailed for 14 and 8 years respectively. Ground crew and flight planners involved also received jail sentences.