Plane Crash in Bremen

This has certainly been a summer of disasters in general and plane crashes in particular. First Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down in Ukraine, which rattled me a lot, because my Dad has flown the very same route only a few weeks ago. Then a TransAsia flight crashed in Taiwan, an Air Algerie flight in Mali and a private plane crashed into a supermarket parking lot in San Diego, all within the span of less than a month.

Yesterday at noon, Bremen was hit by an airplane disaster when a small plane crashed into a warehouse shortly after taking off at Bremen Airport, killing both people on board. Luckily, no one was hurt on the ground, because the plane hit a tyre warehouse on the premises of a car dealership rather than the showroom or the workshop, both of which would have been full of people. The crash site burned for several hours though, some homes in the area were evacuated and there was a smoke plume over Bremen.

Radio Bremen and Weser Kurier have more (in German). Here is also a report from the local news program buten und binnen (Outside and inside in Low German) with lots of footage and interviews with spokespeople of the Bremen police and fire brigade as well as two apprentices at the car dealership. Here is another buten und binnen clip interviewing a spokesperson of the German flight safety agency. Finally, here is a follow-up report from today with footage of the burned out crashsite and an interview with the owner of the car dealership.

The cause of the crash is not yet known, though the pilot apparently reported problems directly after the start and witnesses report that the plane was burning before it crashed. It is suspected that he tried to turn the plane around and crashed before he could reach the airport. The crash site is only a few hundred meters behind the North-Eastern end of the runway.

The plane was a Saab 91 Safir from 1954, which was owned and operated by the Lufthansa commercial flight school. The plane was about to go out of service and would have been transferred to the Lufthansa museum in Berlin later this month. There has been no official confirmation about the identity of the two people inside the plane, but the current word is that they were an experienced Lufthansa pilot and an Italian journalist.

This whole thing was something of a shock to me, because I know the neighbourhood where the plane crashed very well. The plane managed to crash right next to the intersection of two busy roads, which are main routes into the city centre and where I drive along all the time. My aunt and uncle live within walking distance of the crash site. A gentleman I know via my translation work lives literally next door. And just two days before the crash, I had lunch with my Mom at a café opposite the crash site. So it’s kind of obvious that I’m a bit rattled.

It didn’t help either that I heard the planes passing over my house all afternoon. I live under one of the flight paths from Bremen airport, though far enough out that the planes are audible, but not annoying. Apparently, yesterday they diverted all air traffic to the path that leads over my house to avoid the smoke plume. The airport was even closed for a while and a few flights had to be diverted to other airports. Mind you, all this happened on the busiest travel weekend of the year, because the summer holidays in Bremen and Lower Saxony started the day before.

The truth is that horrible as the deaths of the pilot and the passenger of the doomed plane are, it could have been much worse, is the plane had hit the showroom or the workshop of the car dealership or the ethnic supermarket behind the crash site or the houses nearby or the two busy roads intersecting next to the crash site or 24-hour gym and shoe shop on the other side of the road or the popular café opposite the crash site (the café is a wooden building, too) or the Airbus plant right next to the airport or the various office buildings that sprung up at the airport in the 1990s. Not to mention plenty of residential areas and several shopping malls and schools underneath the flight path. For example, my school was under the flight path as well and the planes were still so low and so loud that when the windows were open, we had to interrupt the lesson until the plane has passed. There was a particular Ryan Air flight which regularly interrupted my English class. In fact, it’s a stroke of luck in the middle of a bad case of misfortune that there weren’t more casualties yesterday.

As with all tragedies of this sort, you get the usual suspects airing their views. The delightfully named “Association for those damaged by air traffic”, actually just a bunch of people who bought cheap real estate near the airport and now wish that it would stop operating except for the two weeks they are on holiday, is already yelling and in the comments at a national news site, people were calling for banning all amateur pilots, totally disregarding the fact that the plane was not piloted by an amateur at all, but by an experienced Lufthansa pilot. As for the flight school connection, the Lufthansa flight school has been operating at Bremen Airport for more than fifty years without incident.

Here are a few facts: Bremen Airport opened for business in 1920, i.e. it is 94 years old. The first commercial connection was a flight to Amsterdam, operated by KLM. 94 years later, this same service still exists, though the planes are very different. Parts of the original 1920 Art Deco terminal building were still visible until a remodelling in the 1990s by the way. What is more, in those 94 years, the city grew and moved a lot closer to the airport. In fact, some of the residential buildings in the area were built in the 1920s and 1930s, i.e. not long after the airport. Would it have been more prudent to build the airport somewhere else? Probably. But the airport is where it is and relocating it elsewhere isn’t possible for a variety of administrative reasons too complicated to go into right now.

Besides, in its 94-year-history, Bremen Airport only experienced three crashes. The first was the Lufthansa flight 005 crash in 1966. The plane missed the runway, probably due to low visibility and heavy rain, and crashed into a field on the South-Western end of the runway, killing all 46 aboard, including actress Ada Tschechowa and several members of the Italian Olympic swimming team. I still remember that there was the burned out ruin of a barn at the site of the 1966 crash well into the early 1980s, until they extended the runway and relocated the road.

The second crash happened in 1972, when a prototype VFW-Fokker 614, which was being built in what is now an Airbus plant right next to the airport, crashed onto the airfield, killing the co-pilot. For some reason, this crash is almost completely forgotten, probably because it did not involve a plane in active passenger service.

The third crash, finally, happened yesterday, 42 years after the previous one. Not too bad considering that Bremen Airport is used by approx. 2.6 million passengers per year.

By the way, my Dad managed to drive past the sites of both the 1966 and 2014 crash just minutes after they happened. In both cases, he later said, “There was a fire. I had no idea what had happened.”

Finally, even living far from any airports is no guarantee that you won’t be affected by a planecrash. I bet the people of Eastern Ukraine (not the separatists, the ordinary farmers in the region) did not exact to find airplane parts and bodies raining onto their fields and villages. The people of the Scottish village of Lockerbie certainly did not expect to have an airplane dropped onto their heads (and the Pan-Am bombing also killed eleven people on the ground).

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13 Responses to Plane Crash in Bremen

  1. Sherwood Smith says:

    Thanks for the links. yeah, we had one not far from us about twenty years ago–the little plane crashed in our schoolyard, but on a Saturday, so no kids were there. It caused the little airport to be taken out (a smart idea, as it was right in the middle of enormous city, but it had been around since the twenties, and the area was all orange groves. Rich businessmen had managed to keep it open for their own convenience, as well as sport fliers.)

    • Cora says:

      Oh, that must’ve been scary. Luckily, the school was closed and no one was hurt. Like I said, my school is actually under the flight path as well and quite close to the 1966 crash site.

      Looks like you’ve had the same problem as we do with the city encroaching upon an airport that has been around for a long time and was originally surrounded by fields. I understand closing down a small airport which is only used for private and sports planes, especially when there are other alternatives nearby. But Bremen only has this one airport (there’s also an airstrip for private and sports planes in nearby Ganderkesee), so closing it down would be like closing LAX.

      • Mark says:

        Well, Bremen Airport is not exactly LAX. Not even quite. And just look how (not) import Bremen’s central railway station is to Deutsche Bahn. The airport probably has some significance, but it has certainly no significance as a major hub. There are also many other commercial airports in Germany that are small and who struggle and which probably nobody would really miss (Paderborn/Lippstadt, Lübeck etc.). So I wouldn’t overestimate the importance of Bremen Airport.

        There was another small airport near Bremen until a couple of years ago, by the way, Lemwerder. It was mostly military and industrial and sometimes a nightmare to live close by (the smell of kerosene in the living room and the constant noise of the engines) and I remember one time where even commercial flights were starting from there when the staff of Bremen Airport was on strike for a week or so. Our house was built around 1900, and the airport was built in 1937, I think, so my family didn’t move there because of that airport. We were there first 🙂

        But there was absolutely no one who was against that airport. Since it was closed that region is dead.

        • Cora says:

          Oh yes, I’d actually forgotten all about Lemwerder. I remember it mainly being used for maintenance purposes for the nearby EADS/Airbus/Aircraft Service Lemwerder plant. And yes, there isn’t much left in Lemwerder, ever since the aircraft maintenance yard closed, though there’s always Lürssen building yachts for people with too much money.

          The Airbus plant is also why Bremen needs its own airport (even if we could theoretically fly via Hamburg or Hannover), because otherwise we could kiss those 3000 jobs good-bye. Besides, I kind of like Bremen Airport and the ability to get there in approx. 30 minutes (we’re actually closer, but the terminal building is on the other side) with a connection to the whole world via Amsterdam or Frankfurt.

          Apparently, in the 1970s Hans Koschnick actually tried to persuade Niedersachsen, Hamburg and Bremen to join forces and build a central North German airport hub to replace the airports of Hamburg, Bremen and Hannover, but was turned down. Even though this solution would probably have been better than the three not very ideal airports (both Hannover and Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel are pretty dreadful) we have now.

  2. Not much gripes me more than people who move next to an airport and then complain about the noise. It’s the ultimate in stupidity, especially when one considers that most airports were built far from any housing areas and that housing development later encroached upon the airport environment rather than the other way around.

    As for those who would have airports shut down, they fail to realize the economic impact these facilities have on their area. All throughout history wealth has followed transportation infrastructure. Initially the engines of economic growth were seaports and river towns. Later it was railroad lines. In the mid 20th Century towns benefited from proximity to major highways. Today if a city doesn’t have ready access to a nearby airport served by a major airline then it is at a distinct disadvantage drawing corporations. It’s really short-sighted.

    • Cora says:

      Some of the real estate near the airport was very cheap and very attractive such as lake front housing. And the people who bought it totally failed to notice the airplanes passing by overhead. It probably would have been better not to build housing developments there, but the decision was made in the 1960s/1970s, i.e. at a time when air travel was no longer an exotic novelty. And plenty of housing, business and retail developments near the airport are even more recent such as a strip mall built in the early 1980s which literally has approach lights installed on its parking lot. I’m still marvelling how anybody ever thought that was a good idea.

      Some of the complainers are just chronic whiners in general, e.g. one of the leaders of the anti-airport movement doesn’t live any closer to the airport than I do and aircraft noise isn’t a problem here (I can hear it, but lawnmowers are a much bigger problem). Never mind that my aunt and uncle who really do live close enough to the airport that they can see the passengers behind the windows both say they don’t really hear the planes anymore.

      But these people do have influence. For example, the runway of Bremen airport is long enough that anything up to a Boeing 747 can land there, but they’re not allowed to use the full length except for the sporadic Beluga flight transporting Airbus parts. They’re also very strict about shutting down flight operations at 11 PM to the point that even scheduled flights that got delayed elsewhere have to ask local authorities for permission to land post 11 PM. I nearly fell afoul of this once during a stopover in Frankfurt, when the last flight to Bremen was delayed due to a faulty ground radar (a.k.a. shit happens) and they weren’t sure if they could secure permission to land in Bremen after 11 PM. Never mind that most of the passengers were travelling from further abroad and thus couldn’t have used the train, as the anti-airport people often say.

      Also totally agree on the economic impact of airports. In Bremen’s case it’s even more severe, because we have an Airbus plant. And since you can’t really build planes without a nearby airport, that would be 3000 jobs down the drain. Not to mention the Lufthansa flight school and the many businesses who have specifically set up shop close to the airport.

  3. Daniela says:

    I still rememeber the news about the crash in Überlingen which isn’t far from here. They were lucky because planes went down over wooded area and “only” caused some fires. Just imagining if the planes had crashed into Überlingen or Constance…

    It’s even scarier when it’s a place one knows and frequents. Of course plane-crashs are always so horrifying because so many people die all at once. But if one adds up the dead from car-crashs. Or trains. When I was still commuting regularly, during the winter-months trains would be late several times because someone had commited suicide.

    • Cora says:

      I remember the Überlingen collision as well. That one was horrible enough (and even led to the post-fact murder of a flight controller) without affecting people on the ground.

      As for car and train crashes, we just had the Dresden bus crash and the Mannheim train crash plus hell knows how many smaller car crashed that don’t make national news. As for railway suicides, when I was studying in London suicides were so horrifyingly common that tube lines often shut down because of what they euphemistically called “person under the train”, particularly outside the immediate city centre.

      One day I was late for university and said, “Sorry, but there was another damn person under the train”, a fellow student told me “Try living in East Finchley. The unemployment office is right next to a bridge over the tube line, so there are suicides all the time.” Really quite horrifying.

      • Daniela says:

        Here the traintracks (and a convenient bridge across the tracks) are right next to the psychatric clinic. Every time the Bahn announced “Aufgrund eines Personenschadens…”, everyone knew that someone had jumped in front of the train again.

        Very horrifying. But also the reactions of the people, because most were annoyed with being late and having to figure out how to get to work.

        • Cora says:

          Sometimes you honestly wonder what engineers and cityplanners are thinking.

          Though I also have a bit of sympathy for the train passengers annoyed at being late for work. If there are certain train lines where suicides are extremely common, the reaction of regular passengers will eventually change from “Oh my God, that’s horrible!” to “Oh please, not again!” and “How am I going to explain this at work?” Especially since many bosses probably won’t be very forgiving if an employee is repeatedly late and claims train delays due to suicide as an excuse. Unless the boss uses the same train, that is.

          • Daniela says:

            Suicides are very common on that line and as a comuter I was always annoyed with it because of all the extra hassle it caused. “Not again!” were usually my exact thoughts.
            For a time I also didn’t have a car and finding alternate transport was difficult. And yeah, my boss wasn’t always very understanding.

            But sometimes it sunk in that it was a person who’d just killed themselves. And I also felt a lot for the train driver who had the most horrible shock of their life.

  4. Leon says:

    I knew the pilot of this most recent crash and he was a very safe and conscientious pilot. He has flown commercial cargo jets for Luthansa since the early 1990’s and never had an incident. He was one of the kindest people I have ever met, and I flew with him on at least one occasion in a private plane. His attention to detail and flight safety were impeccable, so something must’ve been very wrong with this plane, not pilot error. He leaves behind a wife and two daughters, and I am greatly saddened by his death.

    • Cora says:

      I’m very sorry to hear about your friend.

      In fact, as soon as it became clear that the crashed plane belonged to the Lufthansa flight school, it was very clear to me that the cause was probably a technical rather than a pilot error, because the Lufthansa flight school only employs experienced pilots.

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