In episode 123 of Take to the Sky: The Air Disaster Podcast, we explore the Flugtag ’88 Air Show Disaster that killed 70 spectators on August 28, 1988. During the “pierced heart maneuver”, a solo jet from the Italian Air Force precision aerobatic display team, known as the Frecce Tricolori, crashed into two other jets during the maneuver, and then collided with the audience below. The jet tore through the audience, and as it did, it mowed down people in its path and ignited a massive blaze across the airfield that injured hundreds more. The cause of the crash was straightforward: the solo jet had come into position too quickly, kicking off a chain of events that led to the disaster. However, the hasty and unorganized response on the part of the German state and the US military in the wake of the disaster is where the legacy exists. Following this disaster, military emergency response methods to events like this changed completely, and many countries banned air shows with high-risk maneuvers and no longer permitted audiences to be placed in close proximity to flying demonstrations. Ultimately, the victims of the air show had to fight for financial support due to their injuries sustained at the air show, and they ended up paying for their own memorial off-base so they and their loved ones could visit the site unencumbered.
Flugtag ’88 Air Show at Ramstein Air Base Attracts More than 300,000 Spectators
Sunday, August 28, 1988, was a beautiful, sunny day with, most importantly, clear skies because that meant it would be a near-perfect day for flying. This kind of weather pleased the more than 300,000 people who began to converge on the US Air Force Base in Ramstein, then a part of West Germany, for the Flugtag ’88 air show. You may have heard me mention West Germany. Just as a history lesson refresher, in the 1980s, Germany was politically divided into two blocs: the East, which was in the former Soviet zone of occupation and known as the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and the West, known as the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), where NATO allied forces including the Americans, British, and French had established numerous military stations. This included the air base at Ramstein. The 3,000-acre air base lies 9 miles (or 15 km) to the west of Kaiserslautern, not far from the French border. Ramstein is also the headquarters of NATO’s Allied Air Command.
Since 1955, the US Air Force has staged an annual Open House at Ramstein free to the public and military alike. Over the years, the highly-anticipated and attended Ramstein Flugtag air show became known as the biggest and best airshow in continental Europe.
In addition to the spectators gathering for the show today, there were dozens and dozens of security and emergency personnel there, including the German national police agency and Ramstein air base security and emergency forces, who were each assigned to various locations throughout the area to patrol and watch for any potential problems.
One such potential problem they were anticipating was encountering protestors of the air show. Leading up to the air show, many West German politicians and environmentalists had long opposed air shows as dangerous and noisy. Citing several past accidents at similar air shows, the Social Democratic and Green Parties had demanded that such displays be banned, while local Protestant churches asked that the show be canceled and urged parishioners to boycott what they called a spectacle that glamorized weapons. Before the crash, protesters stood outside the gates of Ramstein with placards. One sign read, ''We are afraid of air shows. End them now.''
But for the people at the air show that Sunday, these concerns were far from their minds as they excitedly anticipated the day’s show.
A highlight of the air show was the chance for so many people to see previously never-before-seen aircraft because, amid the Cold War, many countries completely forbade the photography of aircraft. At Flugtag, people would be able to see these very planes up close and personal – and even get to peer inside some of the aircraft.
Frecce Tricolori Takes to the Skies at Ramstein to Perform Thrilling Pierced Heart Maneuver
But what most people really came to see was the scheduled demonstration by the Italian Air Force precision aerobatic display team, known as the Frecce Tricolori. Today, ten of their pilots will fly Aermacchi MB 339A two seat trainer aircraft, which are light-attack fighter jets used primarily for training but also for emergency air support. The pilots are volunteers from fighter squadrons who, combined, have thousands of hours of flying experience, and are selected for their top-level skills. Today, the team includes three standout pilots, including Mario Naldini, Ivo Nutarelli, and Giorgio Alessio. It seemed these pilots were remotely aware of the controversy and perceived danger surrounding their acrobatics. Lt. Col. Nutarelli even said a few weeks before the air show, "When I am flying, I feel free like a bird. We are going to the limits, but I don't think I am doing something dangerous."
Shortly before 4 P.M., the Frecce Tricolori were on their final fly-by. The Italian jets swept down to a hair-raising 100 feet (or 30 m) from above the ground in two, five-jet formations, racing toward one another and trailing red, green, and white smoke in the of the colors of Italian flag. After completing this initial formation over the crowd, the jets then looped back and split into 3 groups. This is the moment everyone has been waiting for: the pierced heart maneuver. This maneuver happens when the jets form two sub formations: five jets fly to the left and four jets fly to the right and trace the shape of a vertical heart by their flight paths and the trailing smoke. Then, exactly centered under the dissolving-point at the "heart point" at the same altitude just above the heads of the audience at about 240 to 295 feet (or 75 to 90 meters), the two sub-formations of jets will then cross each other in an encountering maneuver. At this same moment, a solo pilot in a single jet closes the loop, by piercing the heart of the two sub-formations like an arrow, in a slanting direction towards the audience.
And so, everyone watched as the two sub formations assembled in air, four jets on one side, and five on the other. Then they began their encounter maneuver as the solo aircraft prepared to make its piercing. And this is when a deafening bang overtakes the sky above.
Frecce Tricolori Solo Aircraft Comes in Too Fast, Strikes Other Jets
The solo aircraft, with its wings level and coming out of its loop, strikes the tail of the lead aircraft of the V-shape formation. Immediately, an explosion produces a giant fireball in the sky. The lead aircraft then rolls, out of control, and hits the jet on its left (the first left wingman). These two aircraft fall onto the airfield, ironically causing extensive damage to a Black Hawk Medevac helicopter, which was on casualty evacuation stand-by, seriously injuring the seven-person crew. Its helicopter pilot, Kim Strader, suffered burns so severe burns that he died from them a few weeks later.
Next, mere seconds after the initial crash, two of the jets still in the formation flew straight through the fireball and suffered considerable damage but were able to land safely at nearby Sembach airfield. The second left wingman and the 4 aircraft in the diamond formation were not damaged.
But while, technically, this is a crash that happened in air, it would not remain that way for long. When the very first solo plane struck the second plane, a fireball erupted in the sky, one that bloomed just shy of 1,000 feet (or 300 meters) in front of the edge of the audience below.
Then the solo plane, the jet that ignited the crash in the first place, slams to the ground in flames, just 100 to 160 feet (or 30 to 50 meters) in front of the nearest row of spectators, which was the most densely packed area of the spectator section and included a control tower and a VIP section. And this is where things go from terrible to catastrophic.
Jet Crashes into Audience at Ramstein Air Show, Engulfing Rows of Spectators in Fire
Due to its kinetic energy, the exploded jet, now engulfed in its own fireball, careens through the outer edges of the crowd of people, dragging a barbed wire barrier with it. Those who stood nearest the crash site barely had time to react, especially as many visitors initially thought this commotion was a pyrotechnical part of the show. Spectators stared in disbelief and shock, many rooted to their spot, and dozens were caught in the center of the inferno. People standing in the first few layers of the crowd were instantly incinerated, never having a chance to escape. The fireball and the disintegrating jet continued to roll through the crowd, burning and singing people’s skin as they ran away, desperately clutching their children or friends and loved ones in their arms as they did. The resulting fireball set vehicles and concession stands alight. At the same time, large pieces of jet aircraft debris were hurled into the crowd, including both wings that broke off and flung away as it collided with the cab of a truck.
These pieces of wreckage become projectiles, whizzing through the crowd, mowing down in its path the arms, legs, and even heads of spectators. One man watched in horror and disbelief as a piece of the jet flew toward his wife, and he slammed himself to the ground out of instinct, thinking he was about to also be struck. When he opened his eyes and began to stand back up, he looked over at his wife and saw that her head was sitting on her neck wrong, half sliced off and leaning forward, and then she just fell to the ground, motionless.
The flaming spectacle and its aftermath, including the cries of the injured, were seen and heard live on German television. People would go on to compare the scene to the devastation of war or would grimly call it “apocalyptic.” And certainly, some people would have felt the end of the world had been visited upon them. After the final piece of careening jet finally came to a clattering rest on the ground, the true toll of this disaster could be revealed. The once spotless and well-organized air base, with its linear runways and neat and tidy fields, was on fire and choking thick, back smoke rolled across the landscape. Cars, trucks, vendor stalls all burned wildly. Trails of fire on the ground, caused by jet-fuel-soaked earth, interrupted the path of escape for wild-eyed, in-shock spectators. Some of them blindly and silently walked into these blazes.
Photographs from the moments following the jet smashing into the crowd is the stuff of nightmares and show the dazed faces of men, women, and children with blackened skin and singed hair. Most of them walked around, dazed, or barely able to move, crying in pain and terror. Many people’s clothing had been torn off by the intense heat blast that rolled through the crowd, or the clothing had been burned right off their bodies as the heat and fire waves pushed through the crowds. Many of their limbs look like they were encased in a dark hosiery, with large peeling patches of pink and peach skin showing through, blood dripping down their limbs. Though they weren’t covered in hosiery. The dark skin on their bodies were severe third- and fourth-degree burns. Many people who appeared alive in these photos and images right after being burned later succumbed to their injuries.
Victims Share Memories of Horrific Scenes When Jet Smashed into the Audience
Accounts of the horror and chaos have been shared widely. Roland Fuchs, who attended the air show with his wife Carmen and 5-year-old daughter Nadine, describes the moment when he tried looking for his family, "In this chaos I was looking for my five-year-old daughter Nadine and found her burning on the ground. I tried desperately to stifle the flames.
But I myself was badly injured, and my clothes were soaked in kerosene from the downed machine. With my bare hands, I barely had a chance against the flames on Nadine's body. So it was only with great difficulty that I managed to staunch the flames, especially as my hands caught fire again and again. In between I kept looking for my wife Carmen. However, among the many burned, it was not possible to recognize her, because everything was black, so one could not even orient oneself on garments. I tried to focus on my little daughter, picking her up and hugging her because her clothes were still a bit on fire. She did not stop screaming. Suddenly, a few Americans came – I do not remember, whether soldiers or civilians – who held me, while one of them took my daughter and just walked away. I tried with all my strength to pull myself away, but the two who held on to me were stronger. The last vision I have of Nadine is of her arms, stretched out in my direction. I probably became unconscious then."
Roland, whose body had up to 65 percent of third-degree burns, amazingly, survived. Trauma that great even today in many cases is still a death sentence, and in 1988, it surely was. No one thought he would survive. But it was only him that survived. His wife and little girl did not.
Wolfgang J (no last name) remembers the horrors of that day: “After the impact and the explosions, there was dead silence for a few seconds, everyone stared at the inferno, no one moved. Only then panic broke out. People screamed and ran away in all directions. My friends and I started to run as well. I stopped and tried to orient myself. In front of me, a huge black cloud of smoke rose into the sky and there was an extreme smell of burned flesh in the air – even after many months I noticed this smell in my nose and cannot forget it until this day. I walked past charred people as if being in a trance. Many had burns all over the body and screamed while others were silently sitting on the ground and staring straight ahead. It felt like an eternity until the first ambulance arrived and the first rescue helicopter landed, but I cannot say how much time really had passed.”
Thomas Wentzel, who was also in the front portion of the audience, said of the moment of the crash, “An unimaginable heat seized me, and I thought I was going to die. In front of me, a wing or at least a large part of it passed by and shaved everything down. A man was thrown away like being fired from a catapult, others disappeared in a wall of fire. An incredible pressure pushed glowing hot air into my lungs and then suddenly there was no air left to breathe anymore…”
70 People Die, Hundreds are Injured by Fire and Flying Jet Debris at Ramstein Air Show
Heavy black smoke billowed from the field as American and West German ambulances converged on the site. The injured were taken to military and civilian hospitals in the area, some by helicopter. Overall, 70 people lost their lives, including four Americans, the three Italians pilots involved in the crash, one person each from France and the Netherlands, and 61 Germans. Thirty-one people died on impact, while another twenty-eight had been hit by debris in the form of airplane parts, fencing wire, and items on the ground. Sixteen of the fatalities occurred in the days and weeks after the disaster due to severe burns. About 500 people had to seek hospital treatment following the event, with 346 of those spectators suffering serious injuries. Another 600 uninjured people reported to the clinic that afternoon to donate blood. At the time, this was the deadliest air show accident in world history.
Emergency Response to Air Show Disaster Lacked Coordination and Leadership
But the legacy of the Ramstein Air Show Disaster is not merely about the catastrophe itself as it is about the rescue response, which revealed serious shortcomings in the handling of large-scale medical emergencies by German civil and American military authorities. Reports allege that US military personnel did not immediately allow German ambulances onto the base, and the rescue work was generally hampered by a lack of efficiency and coordination.
The rescue coordination center outside the air base was unaware of the disaster's scale as much as an hour after it occurred, even though several German medevac helicopters and ambulances had already arrived on site and left with patients. American helicopters and ambulances provided the quickest and largest means of evacuating burn victims, but lacked sufficient capacities for treating them, or had difficulty finding them.
Essentially, the military was, unsurprisingly, using war-time medical response methods as opposed to what we would now expect during a disaster of this scale. There was no triaging of patients and victims, people were moved away from the scene without first being stabilized or administered to, and then people were transported to hospital without a briefing to hospital staff on the pre-treatment and status of the injuries.
RAF Post-Disaster Analysis Highlights Shortcomings of Ramstein Emergency Response
The Royal Air Force in the UK seems to agree that the response was mishandled, at least in a post-disaster analysis conducted by Terry Martin, RAF Squadron Leader for the RAF Institute for Aviation Medicine and was published in the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps two years after the disaster. In his analysis, he summarized the problems he found in the military response to include:
Chaos: Casualties occurred in overwhelming numbers in widely dispersed groups, which made it hard for rescuers to get to everyone. The sheer number of spectators and their freedom of access onto roads made transport difficult in the minutes after the crash.
Communication, which was almost impossible. No one appeared to be in overall control during those first vital minutes when decisions needed to be made and conveyed to the growing army of helpers. Radio nets were jammed and became unusable. The PA system was damaged and temporarily out of service. With no obvious leader and so many helpers it became important to identify key personnel, but doctors were often indistinguishable from non-trained personnel, as were nurses and others with valuable skills.
Medical assets: At Ramstein, most of the medical equipment was behind the crowd line and, unfortunately hard to reach. Supplies took up to 15 minutes to reach the disaster site. There were also inadequate numbers of stretchers and blankets, while other supplies soon ran out and delays were caused as fresh stocks were located.
Casualty evacuation was obviously hindered by the unfortunate destruction of the dedicated Medivac helicopter. Also, in the early minutes, triage failed as volunteers and first-aiders filled incoming ambulances and helicopters indiscriminately. This inevitably led to a number of patients, most injured and not expected to survive, being evacuated instead of patients with a greater chance of survival being evacuated as priority.
Casualty identification and tracking: It was an immense task to keep track of all the casualties and to correlate lists of missing with lists of those victims who had been positively identified. As separated families were reunited, the military command was often not informed, and names needlessly remained on the missing list.
Speed of the evacuation: The incredible speed by which all the casualties were evacuated simply shifted the problem further down the line. The quick but hasty and disorganized response meant igniting pandemonium in several hospital systems. To make matters worse, many patients initially arrived with no prehospital care. almost all had no clinical documentation. and the staff at the hospitals had little idea of how many more casualties to expect.
Injured Victims Struggle to Get Fair Compensation from Germany, US Military After Air Show Tragedy
Politically, no one took complete responsibility for the tragedy, which is why the survivors often feel abandoned by German politics and the US military. Victims incurred millions of dollars for their recoveries, which included the treatment of burn injuries, professional reintegration (e.g., retraining), and financial compensation for personal suffering. But most of this was paid by German social security and pension funds, and thus, by many of the victims themselves as taxpayers. Although a special fund was set up for compensation payments and treatment costs, besides Italy and the US, Germany was the main contributor. Many Germans felt that the US Armed Forces – the undisputed organizer of the air show that had featured high-risk maneuvers– should be held responsible. But they were not, nor was Italy.
And when victims submitted expenses related to items lost during their injuries at the Flugtag, they encountered icy German bureaucracy. For example, for every shoe lost during the escape, for every damaged piece of clothing or the like, the German authorities demanded proof of purchase as a proof of ownership, and therefore, as entitlement to compensation. And when some victims finally did receive compensation, they were asked to repay the German state. Consider this example: one woman could not work due to her injuries after the accident, and once she was able to return to work, was asked to pay back the money. When she refused, she was sued. After a three-and-a-half-year court case, a court ruled she did not have to repay the money to the state.
Victims Pay For Their Own Air Show Disaster Memorial Outside of Ramstein Air Base
Victims not only had to fight for compensation after the accident, but they also had to fight for a memorial. The first memorial was erected inside the walls of the air base, which would have been fine except that the air base did not allow public access to the memorial. So, the victims paid for a second memorial to be erected that is publicly accessible next to the road leading to the airbase. There is also a museum display with a memorial in Rimini, Italy, where the wrecks of the three aircraft involved in the disaster now reside. There, another memorial stone with the names of all victims can be found.
Lastly, this story has a tie-in to another story we just covered, episode 121, Itavia Flight 870. Two of the deceased Italian fighter jet pilots who died in the air show, Lt. Col. Ivo Nutarelli and Lt. Col. Mario Naldini, were alleged to have known details about the downing of Flight 870, and people speculated if the air show had been a ploy to cover up their assassinations. We mentioned that many witnesses or whistleblowers involved with that disaster had mysteriously died. However, Judge Rosario Priore, who was investigating the case at the time, rejected their deaths as sabotage.
Following the air show disaster, many other air shows scheduled after Ramstein were either cancelled or postponed. The Ramstein Air Show Disaster led to drastically increased safety restrictions on airshows in Europe, and since then, the United States Air Force has never hosted another airshow at Ramstein with flyovers. However, Italy’s acrobatic team, the Frecce Tricolori, still performs at air shows worldwide, in fact, their shows season runs from May to October, with approximately 35 air displays annually. However, they do not perform the pierced heart maneuver and only perform stunts in a safe distance from the audience.
And THAT is the sad story of the 1988 Ramstein Air Show Disaster.