On the morning of Aug. 28, 1988, Buck Sgt. David Richards was up early.
A 24-year-old bomb dog handler with the 435th Security Police Squadron at Rhein Main Air Base, he knew he had a long day in front of him. He had no idea, however, exactly how long his day would actually be.
He met up with his friend and co-worker, fellow Buck Sgt. Pat Morlein, and the two picked up their dogs and headed to Ramstein Air Base to conduct security sweeps for the Flugtag Air Show going on that day. After a quick meeting with the operations chief upon arrival, they conducted building, open area and parking lot sweeps with their canines, finishing about halfway through the air show.
“They said, ‘Go ahead and enjoy the rest of the day,’” recalled Richards, 23 years later. “‘Leave now if you want, or you can watch the air show.’”
A long-time air show fan, Richards decided to stay. He and Morlein dropped off their dogs at a temporary kennel nearby and headed to the airfield.
“Since we were armed up that particular day, we didn’t want to be in among the crowd,” he said.
Instead, they found a good spot near the taxiway, between rows of concertina wire.
“We wanted to be right at air show center, because that’s theoretically the best spot to get,” he said.
Initially, the spot paid off; they watched a series of performances before the headline act, Italy’s “Frecce Tricolori,” prepared to close the show.
“I’d never seen them before. I didn’t know what to expect,” Richards said. “But when I saw the 10 aircraft taxiing by me, I knew I was going to be in for something pretty special. I’d never seen a 10-ship demonstration.”
Richards was a photography hobbyist at the time and was carrying his camera ― ready to get some great shots of aerobatics from up close.
“I couldn’t afford 36-exposure rolls of film, so I was able to get a couple 12-exposure rolls,” he said. “They were on sale ― nobody wanted those, I guess.”
The Italians rolled down the runway and lifted off.
“They formed into a 10-ship delta formation, so that they seemed like bowling pins,” Richards said.
Five planes broke off in one direction, four in the other, and a lone plane split off in the middle – Richards snapping away as they went.
“I remember it’s called the ‘pierced heart’ maneuver,” he said.
As the aircraft set up for the big finish, Richards could hear the announcer thanking everyone for attending. The planes all rushed down together for a carefully calculated, crowd-wowing near miss. Richards was ready with his camera to time his photo just right.
“I wanted to get a picture of the planes crisscrossing and all that, and I took a picture ― not realizing there was actually no film left in the camera. It was exposure 13 of a 12-exposure roll of film,” Richards said.
Then a pleasant, relaxed summer day turned into a nightmare from hell.
“When I brought the camera down, I saw this plane coming at me that was on fire, tumbling towards me, and I just went strictly into survival mode at that point,” Richards said.
Grabbing Morlein, the pair started running.
“I felt a wave of heat and flame on my back,” he said. “I dove on top of him, and we landed in this little gully, right by a set of concertina wire.”
The debris from the crashed aircraft passed over the two and landed in the crowd behind them. Richards discovered his right arm was on fire with a piece of shrapnel sticking out of it.
“My friend Pat, he didn’t have a scratch.”
After hurriedly putting out the fire on his arm and realizing they were otherwise all right, they switched into “security police mode.”
“We didn’t know the scope of the crash ― we didn’t realize that two other aircraft had crashed further down the runway,” he said. “Anybody that could move, we wanted them to get out of that area. We didn’t know if there were going to be any secondary explosions or anything like that. Then we started doing first aid on the ones that were hurt.”
The day stretched into a 20-hour marathon as the two buck sergeants helped the security police maintain crowd control, and make way for emergency responders as they came and went from the scene. They also spent time as security for the hangar selected to serve as a makeshift morgue.
“I saw a lot of people who were injured, I saw a lot of people who were just in a daze, walking around,” Richards said. “We just helped as much as we could, with the ability that we had.”
Sometime after dark, word finally came down that the exhausted Airmen from Rhein Main could go home. They stopped by the kennel to collect their dogs, “and that was that.”
The full impact of what he’d been through didn’t hit him until afterward, particularly when he developed the roll of film he’d shot of the Frecce Tricolori.
“I didn’t even realize the photo I had gotten until I saw it,” he said.
The moment he captured, on exposure 13 of his 12-exposure roll, showed a spinning airplane, debris flying everywhere, just beginning to ignite.
“I called the office of special investigations and told them I had a photo that might be helpful in the investigation, and once they saw it they said, ‘Absolutely, we could use this,’” he said.
The photo became a centerpiece in OSI’s collection of imagery used to determine the series of events in the crash. It helped prove the solo pilot had come into the formation too low, and too fast. “They said they used it through the investigation,” Richards said.
Today, Chief Master Sgt. Richards is a husband and father to 6-year-old triplets. Surviving the Flugtag disaster is an experience that changed his life.
“I think it changed my mindset, my perspective. Obviously it gave me a greater appreciation of life,” he said. “I consider myself a lucky one.”
Later in his Air Force career, Richards cross trained to become a career photojournalist and combat cameraman, often attending air shows and even flying in them at times to take photos.
“I’ll continue to go to air shows ― I figure, what’s the chance of that happening again, right?” he said. “I hope to see the Frecce Tricolori perform while I am here, I really need to do that during my tour in Europe.”
Now a 27-year chief with 3rd Air Force Public Affairs at Ramstein, he’s recently returned to Germany to finish the last tour of his career. Though many things have changed, some have stayed the same, he said.
“When I was here the first time, it was still a divided country between East and West Germany,” Richards said. “Back then, the Deutchemark rate was 3.40, 3.50 to $1. Now it’s a unified country, with all the trials and tribulations that go along with that. The country has changed, but the people really haven’t. They’re still really hospitable and great to work with.”
This weekend, Richards plans to finally become an active member among his fellow Flugtag survivors.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing who shows up on the 28th for the memorial ceremony, because I’m going to be there for that,” he said.
With the combined experience of surviving Flugtag, and 27 years in the Air Force, Richards often mentors young Airmen with wise words.
“Seize your experiences in the Air Force, whether it’s one enlistment or six,” he said. “Anything can happen at any time, especially in this day and age, so really enjoy what you do, be the best that you can be, absorb as much as you can. Because 20 years from now, whether you’re a crusty old chief like me or separated or retired, you’ll think back and say, ‘Those were some pretty amazing times.’”