Death by Airshow: History’s Biggest Airshow Disasters

Cape Town recently hosted South Africa’s biggest air show: Africa Aerospace and Defence, at Ysterplaat (near Milnerton). By all accounts, the 3-day show was a resounding success, but not all airshows are that lucky. Over the years there have been a number of airshow disasters, perhaps the most spectacular of which is the Ramstein airshow disaster, which took place in (then) West Germany in 1988.

Considering that 70 people died and 500 had to be treated at hospital, perhaps spectacular is the wrong word: catastrophic is more appropriate. Among those killed were 67 spectators and three pilots. According to Wikipedia, 346 spectators were seriously injured during the explosion and subsequent fire, but scores more were hurt by shrapnel.

An Italian Air Force display team were performing a “pierced heart” formation, which is when two groups of aircraft create a heart shape and a lone plane, flying towards the audience, pierces it. The timing of the accident couldn’t have been worse, as the lone plane crashed into the two groups just as they were passing each other.

Once again, according to Wikipedia, the single aircraft crashed onto the runway and the fuselage and resulting fireball of aviation fuel headed straight into the crowd. The universe has a cruel sense of humour as one of the other damaged aircraft crashed into the emergency medical evacuation Black Hawk helicopter, inflicting fatal burns on the pilot. The pilot of the aircraft that hit the helicopter ejected, but his parachute didn’t have time to open before he hit the runway and was killed.

It was a bad day that got worse as the emergency medical response was not as good as it should have been. Some of this was caused by a lack of cooperation between German and American military authorities; some was due to inefficiency; and some by the differences in the types of medical equipment used by the separate military paramedics.

Eight years ago, Ukraine suffered an airshow disaster of similar proportions. The Sknyliv airshow disaster occurred when a Ukrainian Falcon crashed during an aerobatics presentation near Lviv, Ukraine. More people were killed than at the Ramstein disaster (over 80) but fewer people were injured (around 100).

The accident occurred when the plane began a rolling manoeuvre; it was in its descent when the left wing clipped the ground. The pilots managed to eject but the plane skated over the ground towards some stationary aircraft before exploding and cart-wheeling into the crowd. The pilots survived.

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Wikipedia comes to the rescue again as it says that following the disaster, the Ukrainian president fired the head of the air force, and a military court sentenced both pilots to prison after they were found guilty of failing to follow orders, negligence and violating flight rules. One of the pilots, however, maintains that the crash was due to technical problems and a faulty flight plan.

In 2007, one of America’s most famous aerobatics pilots died after his plane crashed at the Vectren Dayton Air Show near Miami, Florida. According to eye-witness accounts, Jim LeRoy was performing a stunt with another aircraft. They were doing loops when LeRoy swooped too close to the ground; he couldn’t pull up before he hit the ground and the plane burst into flames. LeRoy suffered major burns and died on the way to the hospital.

Ironically, LeRoy was part of an airshow troupe that called themselves the Masters of Disaster. He was a very experienced pilot and had won several awards for his showmanship. His skills were so much in demand that he was one of the few aerobatic pilots able to earn a full-time living by performing at airshows.

We have to go all the way back to 1952 for the next airshow disaster, which took place at the Farnborough Air Show in Hampshire, England. A BBC article states that a jet fighter “disintegrated” during a low-level fly by. Both engines broke free and fell into the crowd. It was reported that 27 people were killed and 63 injured. Apparently, the plane had just broken the sound barrier before it exploded.

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