A Moment in Air Force History

By the 1970s, Ramstein’s air shows had become one of the most popular in Europe, requiring a half year to plan and hosting as many as 700,000 visitors. This was a long way from the air show’s humble beginnings.
On May 22, 1955, Ramstein Air Base – then Landstuhl Air Base – held its 1st Armed Forces Day Open House. Just 3,000 visitors came to see the base. But attendance tripled the next year with the addition of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe aerial demonstration team – the Skyblazers.
Since USAFE pilots were already training to fly normal military tactical maneuvers in their daily work, it was a logical step to have them demonstrate those maneuvers at USAFE air shows. The mix of military and professional stunt flying, plus numerous static displays and a wide assortment of foods, brought in thousands of people to the base. Generally the shows promoted good community relations. However, opposition groups were a familiar sight at the gates often creating unpredictable security issues. Occasionally these security issues became of such concern, as was the case during the 1975 Baeder-Meinhof gang trials, that year shows had to be cancelled. But everyone knew that there would always be another Ramstein air show next year.
On Aug. 28, 1988, the Ramstein air show tradition came to a tragic end. The last team scheduled for the day was the Italian 10-plane Frecce Tricolori. Shortly into their show, while attempting a complicated “Pierced Heart” maneuver, three of their jets collided. The crash occurred 1,500 feet in front of the spectators, however, the forward momentum of the soloist aircraft sent debris and fuel into the crowd killing 34 – including the three pilots – and injuring about 500 others. Witnesses say help was immediately on the scene, but for many it was already too late. Mass casualty medical evacuation by military and civilian sources continued through the early morning hours. Ultimately, 70 people died as a result of this accident.
USAFE declared Sept. 1, 1988, a day of mourning throughout the command, and its tactical mission stood down in a shared expression of grief. The accident investigation ultimately found all U.S. and NATO safety regulations had been followed and attributed the accident to pilot error. In 1989, a memorial was held and a monument behind Chapel 1 was dedicated. Later, a second memorial was erected off base near the Landstuhl tour bus parking area. By 1991, German-American Friendship Fests began being held, but the days of the big Ramstein air shows were over.
Family members of victims of the 1988 catastrophe will meet here Saturday to remember those who died. Our thoughts are prayers are with them.
(Courtesy of the 435th Air Base Wing and 86th Airlift Wing history offices.)