The Ramstein air show disaster occurred on Sunday, August 28, 1988, during the Flugtag ’88 airshow at Ramstein Air Base near Kaiserslautern, West Germany. Setting the scene, it was a sunny summer afternoon with around 350,000, mainly German and American spectators enjoying what they thought was a fantastic day out.
Next up was the arrival of the Italian air force’s elite aerobatics team, the Frecce Tricolori (Tricolor Arrows), and their single-seat Machhi MB-339As aircraft.
At 15:40, the ten brightly painted jets swooped over the crowd after having taken off fully-fueled from a nearby airfield four minutes earlier.
The last maneuver of the display was Frecce’s signature formation called the “pierced heart.” The ten planes would swoop upward and then abruptly split apart with five peeling to the left and four rolling to the right leaving a single aircraft to fly between them as they flew past each other close to the ground.
The pilot flying the solo plane that was supposed to pierce the heart was Lt. Col. Ivo Nutarelli, a 38-year-old Flecce veteran who had performed the maneuver 70 times.
The timing was all wrong
On this fateful day, Nutarelli got his timing wrong, flying higher than expected before diving down too fast. As the other nine planes pass each other at 350 miles per hour, Nutarelli knows he is flying too fast and does everything he can to slow his descent.
Unfortunately, a collision was unavoidable, with Nutarelli’s aircraft clipping Pony 2, piloted by Capt. Giorgio Alessio. Pony 2 explodes mid-air while Nutarelli’s jet crashes into Pony 1, shattering its tail section before cartwheeling across the sky in flames.
Stunned onlookers on the ground cannot believe what they are witnessing as Nutarelli’s plane crashes in a grassy area just in front of them, sending nearly 300 gallons of ignited jet fuel into the crowd.
Following the collision and the ensuing debris and flames, ending lives of dozens of spectators with hundreds more suffering horrific burns. The seven remaining Machhi MB-339As form a dead man formation and return to Sembach Air Base.
They were not prepared
Despite Ramstein being a significant Air Force base, the American military and German civilian authorities were not prepared for a mass casualty event.
Victims were being transported to hospitals anyway they could be with the local telephone flooded with so many calls that it failed, leaving amateur radio operators to relay important messages.
The result of the Ramstein air show disaster was the loss of lives of 70 people and a further 346 with severe injuries.