History of Europe

When the Skywriter flew to his death

by Jochen Lambernd

For his birthday, a twelve-year-old boy gets a sightseeing flight over Hamburg in a seaplane. On July 2, 2006, the child awaits an exciting and unusual adventure. With the Beaver DHC-2 de Havilland from the company Himmelsschreiber, passengers can take a 20-minute sightseeing flight at an altitude of around 600 meters above the Hanseatic city. And the conditions are good:it's warm, the thermometer shows 26 degrees and visibility is clear. But this Sunday went very differently than planned, as documented in the report by the Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation (BFU) in Braunschweig.

Start is still running without problems

At around 10:30 a.m., pilot Jörg S, who is also the company’s managing director, starts the seaplane in the city sports harbor near the Überseebrücke. The twelve-year-old and his stepfather and three other passengers are on board. They come from Hamburg, Lower Saxony and Bremen. The start-up process runs smoothly. First, the machine moves on the water in the direction of the take-off route on the North Elbe. At 10:36 a.m., the 52-year-old informed air traffic control that he had taken off with the machine. Walkers on the banks of the Elbe watch as the plane climbs. It then turns to the south with a right turn.

Floor touches ground

Just before the Beaver DHC-2 crosses Veddeler Damm, witnesses hear the engine stop. They then watch the plane lose altitude. A last radio message from the pilot is incomprehensible. But:Fire broke out on board. The pilot is still trying to make an emergency landing on the tracks of the Hamburg-Süd port station. The machine first touches the ground with the right wing, then the floats tear off and land on a wagon. The fuselage, engine, tail section and both wings fall onto a track and burst into flames. Four of the six occupants died instantly, including the 12-year-old boy. Particularly tragic:the child's mother watches the crash from the departure point.

About 115 emergency services from the fire brigade, rescue services and police move out. At the scene of the accident, they are presented with a picture of horror. The rubble is ablaze, wreckage is scattered between the parked wagons, in the middle of the rails is the engine block with the bent propeller blades.

Stepfather survives the accident

The 38-year-old stepfather, who was sitting next to the pilot can free himself from the machine. He is taken to the hospital with severe burns. His condition is initially critical and he is placed in an artificial coma. Around 40 percent of his skin was burned in the accident. After about four weeks, his condition is stable, but he is still in intensive care. Only three months later can he be transferred to another ward. The man has to struggle with the health consequences for a long time.

Last German "sky writer"

Pilot Jörg S. is considered to be extremely experienced with around 1,000 take-offs and landings per year. According to descriptions from colleagues and the assessment of the BFU, he is very responsible and an enthusiastic pilot. S. is also the last German "sky writer" who can write messages in the sky with airplanes.

The 52-year-old also manages to save himself from the burning wreck. He tells the first responders that he has noticed a "drop in pressure". He is taken to the hospital with severe burn injuries. His chances of survival are considered slim. 80 percent of his skin is burned. And so the pilot dies the next day.

The age of the machine is irrelevant

The Beaver DHC-2 machine only received a completely overhauled engine in April 2005. A year later, the aircraft is still being checked and subjected to a routine check a few weeks before the accident. The plane is already 44 years old. According to a BFU spokesman, this does not mean a higher risk of accidents. "There are old planes that are built very robustly," he explains. With single-engine machines, however, there is always a general risk that the engine will fail. Then the pilot can look for an emergency landing site while gliding. "With a seaplane, however, gliding is made more difficult by the skids," explains the expert.

Engine fire determined as the cause of the crash

Three months after the crash, the investigators agree:an engine fire caused the accident. According to the BFU, fire broke out during the flight in the tanks in the fuselage and in the engine. As a result, the engine stopped and the machine crashed. The experts find a leak in the fuel supply between the fuel pump and the carburetor. They can no longer find out the cause of this due to the fire damage. In addition, in this phase of the flight the pilot no longer had a chance to reach a more suitable area for an emergency landing. The inevitable consequence is the crash, which takes the lives of five people.