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).