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Looking Back: Ramstein air show crash

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • OSI Command Historian

There were clear blue skies and near perfect weather on Aug. 28, 1988, as approximately 300,000 people gathered at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to observe the “Flugtag ‘88” air show.

The schedule for that Sunday afternoon included a full day of flying demonstrations and a large static display of aircraft representing a variety of North Atlantic Treaty Organization member nations. The highlight of the afternoon was a scheduled demonstration by the Italian Air Force precision aerobatic display team, the “Frecci Tricolori.”

In coordination with the German national police agency and base security forces, special agents from Office of Special Investigations Detachment 7024 were assigned to various locations throughout the static display area to patrol and watch for any potential problems to include demonstrations and potential terrorist activities. A joint command post was established among all participating agencies to ensure a timely and efficient exchange of information. Though any potential protests were expected to be non-violent and the potential for terrorist activity was deemed to be low, Det. 7024 activated its traditional antiterrorist plan which ensured a robust presence of special agents and other personnel on scene throughout the air show.

As special agents observed the crowd, most of the spectator eyes focused on the sky as the Italian planes took off at 3:40 p.m. Just four minutes later, a mid-air collision occurred during a crossing pattern at very low altitude above the runway as one aircraft crashed into another which in turn caused that aircraft to strike another. The latter two of the stricken aircraft crashed into the adjacent taxiway, with one of those striking an idling U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter. The aircraft that initiated the crash erupted into flames and cartwheeled onto the runway, rolling through a fence and across an emergency access road and into the crowd, scattering debris before coming to rest against an ice cream truck. The crash was estimated to have occurred at just 150 feet above the ground and it took less than seven seconds from the initial mid-air collision until the aircraft first entered the crowd.      

There were 12 OSI special agents in the near vicinity of the main crash site. As the crowd began to flee in all directions away from the flames, these special agents instead headed towards the disaster where they proceeded to use their training and skills to render medical assistance to the wounded. After treating the injured, special agents assisted local emergency response authorities by helping move the victims to waiting helicopters and ambulances for transport to medical treatment facilities. A number of special agents helped with the dead and assumed duties at a temporary morgue that was established on site while others continued to help the living with crowd control responsibilities.        

Emergency response efforts dwindled as night fell and OSI personnel shifted duties yet again when they transitioned from casualty and crowd control responsibilities to assist in answering questions for the hundreds of people who remained on site looking for information and help. OSI personnel even helped gather and distribute food from the air show’s various concession stands for people who anxiously waited for any updates about missing friends and relatives.

The final casualty toll was staggering. In the air, the three Italian pilots lost their lives. One of them ejected but his parachute failed to open before he struck the ground. Sixty-six spectators were killed on the ground. Almost half of those were killed instantly during the impact of the aircraft into the crowd. The rest passed away in the days and weeks that followed, most as a result of severe burns, but some due to injuries suffered by flying debris. The pilot of the idling U.S. Army helicopter was also killed, passing away three weeks after the crash as a result of severe burns. Overall, four Americans were killed, three Italians, one person each from France and the Netherlands, and 61 Germans. Another 346 spectators suffered serious injuries with hundreds more having minor injuries. At the time, this was the deadliest air show accident in world history. Today, it ranks as the second deadliest behind only the July 27, 2002, Sknliv Air Show crash in Ukraine which killed 77 people.

OSI’s efforts did not end with its first response. OSI forensics specialists from across Europe were deployed to Ramstein to assist German authorities with the investigation into the crash.  Det. 7024 was host to a multinational task force of counterintelligence specialists who helped identify missing persons, to include both U.S. and non-U.S. citizens. For several days after the crash, people returned to the site looking for information. Det. 7024 processed more than 3,000 queries in person and by telephone. Detachment personnel assisted with the effort to identify and track down the owners of vehicles which had been left on base. On occasion, special agents also successfully located people who were originally reported as missing.     

OSI was later recognized for its efforts by the German national police agency during a special function that was organized to thank the different agencies from across the region who provided support during the response effort. Det. 7024 was the only organization from Ramstein AB recognized at the event.

In response to this acknowledgment, the Det. 7024 commander later commented: “OSI special investigators worked literally nonstop for days. They functioned as go-betweens for the international task force and the American missing persons task force to ensure all information was properly exchanged and coordinated. The OSI detachment was commended for their unselfish and extensive support. It’s a tremendous testament to the men and women assigned to OSI at Ramstein.”

Editor's Note: This is the eighth installment in the Looking Back history series, spotlighting the storied legacy of OSI.