Carnage on the Autobahn: The crash of Paninternational flight 112
On the 6th of September 1971, a holiday charter flight to Spain went suddenly awry just moments after takeoff from Hamburg, Germany, when both engines failed at a height of only 700 feet. With seconds to decide where to land, the pilots lined up with the best runway they could find: the German Autobahn. Traveling at a speed of 278 kilometers per hour, the twin-engine jet touched down hard on the motorway, but within moments it slewed violently to the left and slammed into a bridge pillar at high speed, ripping the plane in half. By the time the wreckage came to a stop, 22 of the 121 passengers and crew were dead, and the remains of the BAC 1–11 were strewn for almost 400 meters down the A7 in Hasloh.
An investigation would soon reveal that the untimely dual engine failure was the result of a boneheaded maintenance mix-up, but the mistake which caused the crash was only the tip of a very large, and very weird iceberg. The crash of Paninternational flight 112 was actually the inevitable outcome of the explosive growth of the West German holiday charter industry, which was in turn propelled by a group of small, short-lived airlines set up not so much to move people as to avoid taxes. From these unusual origins emerged a bizarre story of blatant corruption, bad legislation, and bribery, which came together to launch and then perpetuate an airline which never should have flown in the first place.
As the 1960s came to a close and the fruits of West Germany’s “economic miracle” began to fall into the hands of the general population, the once-devastated country experienced an unprecedented boom in its travel and hospitality industry. Among the areas which saw the most growth was the quintessentially European practice of booking a full holiday package, including a chartered airplane flight, through a travel agency. The travel agencies usually arranged transportation not on scheduled flights with regular airlines, but with special charter airlines, who offered on-demand services to large customers rather than selling tickets directly to individuals. At first, the lion’s share of this market was held by Lufthansa subsidiary Condor Flugdienst, but as the market began to grow, space appeared for competitors. In 1961, only 27,000 people flew on West German charter airlines, but by 1971, this figure had grown 100-fold, to 2.8 million, and would reach 3.5 million in 1972. The number of new charter airlines registered between 1969 and 1972, at the height of the boom, was at least 30 — and although many of them never got off the ground, quite a few of them did.
One of these airlines was Paninternational, a scrappy charter carrier founded in 1968 by a young chemist named Tassilo Trommer and his friend, businessman Jürgen Botzenhardt, owners of a small travel agency called Paneuropa. Seeking vertical integration of their travel services, the pair acquired a brand new British-made BAC 1–11 twin rear-engine passenger jet and applied for approval from the West German Federal Aviation Office, or LBA. In 1969, they received permission to begin operations, and Paninternational first flew passengers that spring. From there, the airline grew rapidly, and before long the founders managed to land a major contract with the NUR travel agency owned by Olympic equestrian Josef Neckermann, which allowed further expansion. Over the course of 1970 and 1971, Paninternational acquired three more BAC 1–11s and two Boeing 707s, which it flew to holiday destinations in Southern Europe, North Africa, and beyond. Nevertheless, the airline’s operations were said to be sketchy — and it would not be long before these deficiencies made themselves manifest in dramatic fashion.
Early in the morning on September 5th, 1971, a Paninternational maintenance crew began a scheduled maintenance session on one of the airline’s new Boeing 707s at the company maintenance base in Düsseldorf. In order to perform the work, the crew needed to fully drain the plane’s fuel tanks, which was initially accomplished using a fuel truck. But once the truck had sucked up all the fuel it could, about 100 liters of kerosene remained in the bottom, which would have to be drained manually. Shift supervisor Erich Duvenhorst therefore faced a fairly prosaic question: into what, exactly, should this fuel be drained?
There remains some uncertainty about who ultimately answered this question — Duvenhorst would later claim it was a collective decision, not his own. In any case, what is known is that the maintenance team went to the Paninternational storage building to retrieve some kind of container. Rooting through heaps of unorganized trash, scrap metal, and even a random Volkswagen engine, the mechanics eventually located several large, unlabeled 60-liter plastic drums, which they then brought back to the ramp and placed beneath the aircraft. The sump drains were opened, and the fuel was collected in two of the drums, one of which was filled to the brim, while the other was left somewhere between one half and two thirds full.
By this point, Duvenhorst’s shift was technically over, and the next supervisor, Dieter Brockerhoff, had already arrived. At some point while both supervisors were present, someone took the drums full of kerosene back to the storage area, but no one could say who. Duvenhorst would later claim that dealing with the drums was Brockerhoff’s responsibility, because he was the supervisor for the present shift; Brockerhoff, for his part, would claim that Duvenhorst was responsible because he oversaw the defueling and had not yet clocked out. Regardless, someone did indeed put the drums back where they came from — still completely unlabeled.
The next day, a Paninternational BAC 1–11 registered as D-ALAR arrived in Düsseldorf after a scheduled flight, where it paused for two hours in order to complete routine checks. During this period, an order came down from dispatch: could the Paninternational maintenance crew please load the plane with 300 liters of demineralized water?
The BAC 1–11 was one of a handful of passenger jets built during the 1960s and early 1970s that featured water-injected engines. Water injection, which was also used on some early Boeing 707s and 747s, helped cool the engines, allowing them to generate more power without overheating — a very handy feature in an era where jet engines were much less powerful than they are today. On the BAC 1–11, which was powered by two tiny, cigar-like Rolls Royce Spey 512 engines, water could be sprayed into the compressor section just before the combustion chamber in order to enable better performance during “hot and heavy” takeoffs, where the power required to become airborne would otherwise cause the engines to overheat.
Since most airplanes didn’t use water injection, demineralized water was not available at many airports, so Paninternational’s practice was to load drums of water into the cargo hold at airports where it was available in order to tanker it to airports where it was not. The airline typically loaded up at Düsseldorf, where demineralized water was available on tap at a BP fuel station. And to hold the water while it was in transit, the company used — as you may have already guessed — 60-liter unlabeled plastic drums.
The order to load D-ALAR with 300 L of water came down to Paninternational cargo loader Bernd Seifert, who went to the company storage building to retrieve and fill five 60-liter drums. When he got there, he found two drums which were conveniently already full. He would later claim that he sniffed the drums and didn’t smell kerosene, but it’s impossible to say whether he was telling the truth. In any case, he took the five plastic drums, including the two which were full of kerosene; filled up the empty ones with demineralized water at the BP station; and loaded them all into the cargo hold of D-ALAR.
D-ALAR subsequently departed Düsseldorf, then flew to Frankfurt, Málaga, Hanover, and finally Hamburg, arriving at Hamburg Airport that afternoon. The crew disembarked, and a new crew boarded, along with 115 passengers who had booked an all-inclusive trip to Málaga, Spain, through Neckermann’s travel agency.
In command of the flight was 32-year-old Captain Reinhold Hüls, who was relatively inexperienced for his rank, especially at the time, with only 4,065 total flight hours. He was, however, by far the most experienced crewmember. The second-in-command that day was 32-year-old Elisabeth Friske, who was notable for being the first woman to pilot a commercial jet for a West German airline. At that time she had just over 1,000 total flying hours, including only 85 on the BAC 1–11. She was still so new to the aircraft type that she had to fly under the supervision of a qualified third pilot, 33-year-old Manfred Rhode. For his part, Rhode actually had even less flight experience than Friske, with only 975 total hours, although he had 487 on the BAC 1–11, which was apparently enough for Paninternational to let him monitor probationary First Officers.
As they prepared for the flight, the pilots calculated their takeoff weight, taking into account their 115 passengers, six crewmembers, and full load of fuel and baggage, and arrived at a figure of 46,553 kilograms. With an outside air temperature of 17˚C, they found that the maximum takeoff weight was only 45,806 kg, but if they used water injection to unlock more engine power, the maximum would be 47,400 kg, allowing them to take off. This had been anticipated, which was why the plane had been loaded with demineralized water in the first place. According to the proper calculations, 368 L of water were required, and although there were actually only 300 L on board, this discrepancy seemed to have passed unnoticed at the time.
Meanwhile, third pilot Manfred Rhode set about pumping the contents of the five containers of demineralized water into the plane’s water injection tank. He noticed nothing amiss about the contents of the containers, even though two of them actually contained kerosene. A ramp worker later said he told Rhode that “It stinks of fuel here,” to which Rhode allegedly replied, “Everything stinks of fuel here,” and kept pumping. Rhode, for his part, later said he did not remember this exchange, and that if anyone had told him he was actually pumping fuel, then he would have stopped immediately. In the event, however, he did not, and 300 L of “water” were loaded into the water injection tank, of which 100 L were actually kerosene.
Of course, most of us recall the adage that oil and water don’t mix. In fact they will mix if you stir them together, but they won’t stay mixed for very long. Within minutes, therefore, the less dense kerosene inside the water injection tank separated out from the heavier water, until all the kerosene was floating in the top of the tank, while all the water sat in the bottom. The bottom of the tank, not so coincidentally, was also where the water injection pump inlet was located, a fact which was about to become very important.
Once everyone was on board, the pre-flight checks were complete, and all doors had been closed, the pilots taxied to the runway, armed the water injection system, and assumed the takeoff position. Standing on the brakes to keep the plane steady, they increased engine power to check for performance anomalies, but everything appeared to be normal. Satisfied that they were ready to go, Captain Hüls released the brakes, and flight 112 rolled off down the runway, reached its takeoff speed, and became airborne without any indication of a problem.
In fact, the pilots could not have known that they were flying on borrowed time. Because the water had settled to the bottom of the water tank, the injection pump initially drew only water, which it sprayed into the engines to cool them down during the high-power takeoff. But the system was thirsty, and just 25 seconds after takeoff, the water ran out, at which point the pump started sucking in almost pure kerosene instead.
As soon as kerosene started coming out of the spray nozzles, all hell broke loose. Instead of cooling the engines, the kerosene immediately ignited, and a series of loud bangs rocked the aircraft. Smoke and flames began to trail behind both engines, and thrust dropped precipitously as the overheated engines surged violently, sending blasts of air ripping forward through the high and low pressure compressors. Within seconds, both engines were damaged beyond repair.
At that moment, flight 112 had reached an altitude of only 700 feet and was still within sight of the airport. Captain Hüls immediately asked air traffic control for vectors back to the airport, but almost as soon as he had made the transmission, it became apparent that a return to the field could not be accomplished. Both engines had dropped below idle thrust, and the nearest runway was directly behind them, necessitating a time-consuming 180-degree turnback. But as the plane’s momentum bled away, its altitude peaked at 850 feet, and it began to descend, dropping inexorably back to earth. Their rate of descent quickly reached and then exceeded 500 feet per minute, leaving the pilots without enough time to turn around. It was obvious that they needed to make a forced landing — but where?
For Captain Hüls, there was only one real choice — the A7 Autobahn, just outside the village of Hasloh. Thinking fast, Hüls turned right from 335˚ to 350˚, lining up with the motorway at the last moment. But the Autobahn was hardly a runway: it curved slightly to the left and was crisscrossed by high-tension powerlines. A bridge also loomed dead ahead, just beyond the projected impact point. And to make matters worse, it was rush hour, and the northbound lanes were jammed with commuters heading home to the suburbs. In an emergency landing on a highway, the conventional wisdom is to land with the flow of traffic, but it was obvious that that would be impossible — if they attempted to land in the northbound lanes, there would be mass casualties. Instead, Hüls was forced to choose the lesser of two evils, lining up to land against traffic on the mostly empty southbound lanes instead.
As stunned witnesses followed it down, the plane dropped low over the Autobahn, smoke still streaming from its engines. In the cabin, there was no emergency announcement — passengers barely had time to realize they were sinking and assume the brace position. By now the plane was dropping at 2,000 feet per minute, three to four times the maximum rate that the landing gear was certified to withstand, and without engine power, they had little hope of leveling out before impact. And to make matters worse, the plane was over its max landing weight. But there was nothing Captain Hüls could do about any of that — instead, he zeroed in on their landing site, trying to dodge as many obstacles as possible. Slotting the plane beneath a set of power lines, he came in low, raised the nose until the stall warning activated, and planted the wheels on the asphalt at a speed of 278 kilometers per hour.
Almost from the moment of touchdown, things began to go awry. The left main gear touched down first, but due to the excess weight and high rate of descent, it collapsed immediately. The left wing struck the ground in a shower of sparks, ripping out an emergency telephone box and uprooting the outside guard rail. The plane slewed hard to the left, drifting into a dramatic 60-degree sideslip; the pilots slammed on the brakes in an attempt to stop, but it was already too late. Still traveling at high speed, the plane careened sideways into a bridge, where a massive concrete pylon tore through the forward passenger cabin; simultaneously, the tail struck the bridge deck, which cleanly sliced off the horizontal stabilizer. The brutal impact with the pylon split the fuselage in two, severing the cockpit and forward galley, while the main portion of the airplane continued forward, spun around nearly 360 degrees, struck a tree, and came to rest straddling a ditch beside the Autobahn.
As soon as the plane came to a stop, the passengers evacuated through the overwing exits and through the break in the front of the cabin, assisted by passing motorists. Other bystanders hurried to the badly damaged forward section, only to find that the passengers who had been seated there were now scattered across the Autobahn, having been killed instantly on impact with the pylon. The cockpit, however, fared slightly better, and all three pilots were found inside, alive but unable to escape the wreckage. Good Samaritans extracted Captain Hüls, who was seen leaning against a tree in a state of shock before being hurried away, so as to spare him the sight of his deceased passengers. First Officer Friske had suffered a broken leg and was said to be incoherent as she was pulled from the cockpit and taken to a waiting ambulance. The third pilot, Manfred Rhode, had suffered a severe blow to the head, but he too was extracted alive and transported to hospital.
In total, 18 people died at the scene, including one flight attendant; three died en route to the hospital; and one died a week later after succumbing to their injuries. Nineteen people, including the other five crewmembers, were seriously injured, 38 suffered minor injuries, and 42 escaped completely unscathed. In all, 22 people died and 99 survived, although it was noted that the outcome could have been worse: in fact, all of the fatalities occurred on impact, and a fire only broke out several minutes later, after everyone had left the plane. Had a fire erupted immediately, the death toll certainly would have been higher.
As investigators from the Federal Aviation Office, or LBA, arrived that evening, they were faced with an unprecedented accident scene stretching several hundred meters down the A7. From the point of first touchdown to its final resting place, the aircraft had traveled 390 meters, destroying numerous obstacles in the process, including light poles, guard rails, and more. The lanes of the motorway and the adjacent fields were strewn with debris, while smoke issued from the still-smoldering passenger cabin. But, given the contents of the distress call and the observations of witnesses, there was only one piece of the plane which investigators really wanted to look at: the engines.
Upon teardown, it was discovered that the engines had been severely damaged prior to impact. Every blade in the low and high pressure compressors had broken, and the combustor cans featured heavy, linear burn scars which lined up with the water injection nozzles. Furthermore, an examination of the water injection system turned up numerous deposits of a sticky, oily substance, and the liquid preserved inside the water lines was identified as 97% pure kerosene. From that point, it was fairly obvious what had happened: somehow, kerosene had entered the water injection system, where it was sprayed onto the engines, causing them to overheat. This threw off the delicate balance of pressure inside the turbines, resulting in surges which destroyed the engines.
Because the indicators related to the water injection system could only tell the pilots how much liquid was in the tank, and not whether that liquid was actually water, there was no way that Captain Hüls or First Officer Friske could have foreseen the failure, nor could they have prevented the engines from suffering catastrophic damage. Furthermore, once this damage occurred, they had precious little time to decide a course of action. In fact, the entire flight, from takeoff to touchdown, lasted only 91 seconds, and the period from the engine failure to touchdown lasted only 66 seconds. That left the pilots in a position where they had only seconds to pick a viable landing site, and investigators concluded that Hüls made the right choice in deciding to land on the Autobahn rather than trying to return to the airport.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is worth noting that a pilot in his position today would be unlikely to make the same decision. History has shown that landing passenger jets on highways rarely ends well, and it is nearly always preferable to touch down in a field, or even a forest, if sufficiently level terrain is available. There were in fact numerous open fields near the crash site, and while it’s impossible to say what would have happened if they had attempted to land on one, it’s hard to imagine that the outcome could have been much worse than what actually happened. That said, our present knowledge of the risks involved in highway landings comes from accidents like Paninternational flight 112, which captain Hüls obviously could not have taken into consideration.
As for how the kerosene got into the water tank, the mechanics involved gave conflicting testimonies. Investigators did manage to establish that the kerosene came from a defueled Boeing 707, whose fuel tanks were drained into two unlabeled plastic drums, which were then returned to the Paninternational storage area, alongside other drums which were empty. The mechanics who filled the drums were apparently unaware that the airline normally used them to hold demineralized water, because the 707s on which they worked were not equipped with water injection systems, and they were unfamiliar with the practice on the BAC 1–11. The most basic labeling and organization in the Paninternational storage area could have averted this misunderstanding, but neither was present.
At this point, there was a gap in the known sequence of events, as it was never established who took the drums and put them back with the empty ones. It was also unclear how much fuel, exactly, was in them. Forensic evidence confirmed that two drums definitely had kerosene in them, but the length of time between the start of the water injection and the engine failure was more consistent with four full drums out of five containing water. In theory, one drum should have contained about 2/3 kerosene and 1/3 water, but this was uncertain. Mr. Seifert, the mechanic who filled the drums with water and loaded them onto the plane, later presented a defense in court which confounded the matter even further. His position was that he had smelled the drums before taking them, but that he had probably smelled the drum which contained both water and kerosene, masking the smell. But if this was the case, who had filled the remaining 1/3 of this drum with water? This proposal is therefore difficult to reconcile. Seifert and his lawyers did, however, demonstrate before the court that kerosene and water in unlabeled containers look virtually identical, and that the smell of kerosene could only be detected from very close range, possibly explaining why he failed to notice the true contents of the drums. Similarly, it was proposed that the presence of a lingering kerosene smell on the ramp in Hamburg had been normalized to the point that any additional scent from the drums would have been insufficient to tip off third pilot Manfred Rhode to the fact that he was pumping fuel, not water.
One last point which investigators considered was the fact that the flight was not loaded with enough water, even if it had in fact all been water. The manufacturer’s calculations showed that 368 L were required for the takeoff, but the airline only provided 300 L. The captain told investigators that he thought the drums held 70 L each, rather than 60, and that he remembered seeing the water quantity indicator read 75 to 80 imperial gallons (350 L), but it was clear that the actual volume could not have been this high. In any case, if 368 L had actually been acquired, assuming that the amount of kerosene remained the same, then the plane would have reached 1,500 feet before the engine failure instead of 700 feet, which was still not enough to get back to the airport. However, it is worth noting that this would have allowed the plane to land after the bridge instead of before it, potentially reducing the severity of the accident.
The safety investigation by the LBA ultimately produced only a basic outline of the events directly leading to the crash. It had nothing to say about the general quality of Paninternational’s operations or about the LBA’s own oversight of the airline as West Germany’s aviation regulator. Thankfully for us, however, these issues were addressed by two more investigations by a parliamentary committee and a public prosecutor, and by investigative journalists at Der Spiegel, which together revealed the parallel story of the rise and fall of Paninternational and its unscrupulous owners. Without this story, any retelling of the tale of flight 112 would be missing this vitally important and at times bemusing economic and historical context.
As mentioned at the start of this article, the period between 1969 and 1972 saw the foundation of as many as 30 new charter airlines in West Germany. But why so many, and why during this specific period? The answer, funnily enough, came down to an extraordinarily bad piece of legislation which made it possible to launch an actual, functioning airline with, as Paninternational co-founder Jürgen Botzenhardt later put it, “practically zero money.”
Botzenhardt and his business partner Tassilo Trommer appear to have been among the first to discover that under Paragraph 82f of the Income Tax Implementation Ordinance, a West German corporation could receive a tax write-off equal in value to 240% of the depreciation on a newly acquired “means of transport.” The law was intended to prop up the shipbuilding and shipping industries, but its consequences proved much broader than the statute’s authors probably intended. A German shipping magnate may have been the first to realize that this law in fact allowed for what has been termed a “depreciation model” of financing. Basically, the way it worked is that a company could seek financing for a new vessel by selling cheap “limited shares,” which did not allow the shareholder to take a percentage of profits, but did allow them to take advantage of the tax write-off for depreciation in the value of the means of transport purchased with the shareholder’s financing. This allowed the shipping company to make a pitch to small, individual investors to contribute, let’s say, 100,000 deutschmarks toward the purchase of a new boat; and then when that boat decreased in value, they could reliably claim a tax write-off worth, say, 200,000 deutschmarks. If the investor had personal income which necessitated the payment of more than 200,000 deutschmarks in taxes, then this scheme would provide them with a massive net windfall.
Botzenhardt and Trommer, apparently inspired by the aforementioned shipping company, discovered that the wording of the law, which was intended for ships, did not actually exclude airplanes. Therefore, they set up Paninternational using the depreciation model of financing: they sold limited shares to so-called “limited partners,” who received access to the tax write-off under Paragraph 82f, while the owners used the limited partners’ money to finance the airline’s first BAC 1–11. Subsequently, Paninternational’s accountants could declare that the value of the airplane had decreased, and suddenly everyone who had helped finance the plane could claim a tax write-off equal to 240% of the depreciation of the value of their ownership stake, which almost invariably came out to more than the cost of buying that stake in the first place. Botzenhardt himself contributed only 8,000 deutschmarks from his inheritance to the purchase of the airplane; everything else was covered by the limited partners, which is what he meant when he said the company was able to acquire a plane for “practically zero money.”
If this sounds like an extremely dubious scheme, that’s because it was. It relied not only on authorities not closing the loophole, but also on the constant acquisition of new airplanes whose value could then be depreciated in exchange for tax write-offs. But Trommer, Botzenhardt, and their limited partners made lots of money, at least at first, so numerous other companies followed suit. Some of these “airlines” never even intended to fly passengers — all they had to do was finance a plane, declare that its value had decreased, and reap the rewards. The company didn’t have to make a profit; in fact, it didn’t have to earn a single deutschmark in revenue, and every stakeholder would still make money. People in the aviation industry in West Germany started referring to these airlines as “dentist companies,” after the types of wealthy but not-necessarily-investment-literate individuals who signed on as limited partners, apparently wooed by the excellent short-term returns and blind to the doubtful long-term prospects of their involvement.
The owners of Paninternational, for their part, absolutely did intend to fly passengers using their “dentist airline,” and were in fact so eager to do so that they started selling seats to travel agencies before they had even received their operating certificate from the Ministry of Transport. As for whether they intended to carry those passengers safely — well, that was another matter entirely. In 1969, shortly after the airline commenced operations, LBA inspectors found that the company’s bookkeeping was sloppy, its plane was departing while over the max takeoff weight, and it had failed to train its staff in the use of the emergency equipment. By January of 1970, rumors of Paninternational’s poor safety standards started to leak to the media, prompting the Minister of Transport to ask the LBA to inform him of the agency’s plans for “intensive surveillance” of the company. The LBA replied that Paninternational did indeed “give cause for concern,” and followed this up a month later with an inspection report that described the airline as “a danger to flight safety.” Under pressure over the violations, co-founder Trommer promised to fix the situation, but two months later so little had changed that the LBA was made to audit Paninternational again. Nevertheless, just one day later, the Ministry of Transport granted Paninternational permission to add a second BAC 1–11 to its fleet, and five weeks after that, a third.
Then, on April 29th, 1970, Paninternational’s Director of Flight Operations, or DFO, sent a letter to the LBA stating that, “Under the current circumstances, we are unable to maintain safe flight operations.” He didn’t last much longer in that position: he was apparently forced out the next day. Nevertheless, the whistleblowers kept coming. In July, the airline’s chief pilot wrote to the LBA, reporting that Paninternational pilots had poor practical skills and navigation ability; that pilots were flying routes to Africa on which they were not properly qualified; and that the company’s flights to Djibouti were outside the max range of the BAC 1–11, causing every single flight to land with less than the required minimum fuel margin. Concluding his letter, he wrote, “Do the limited partners really know what happens to their money? Do we have to wait for something to happen?”
After that, the warning bells just kept ringing. In August, the LBA told the Minister of Transport that examinations of Paninternational crews “had revealed a completely inadequate level of training” in several areas. Seventeen pilots were temporarily grounded as a result. Nevertheless, just days later Paninternational applied for permission to add Boeing 707s to its operating certificate — and against all good sense, the Ministry of Transport said yes. Then in November, an LBA official wrote that Paninternational’s Düsseldorf maintenance facility — the same one where the kerosene mix-up occurred — was “completely inadequate for the maintenance of commercial aircraft,” and threatened to ground the airline if they didn’t clean it up. But the leadership of the LBA overruled him and actually apologized to Trommer, writing that the employee’s threat was not the official position of the agency. Again, Trommer promised to get the airline into shape, but once again, in January 1971 an LBA inspector’s report found that the company “lacked the prerequisites for orderly and safe flight operations.” And yet, four weeks later, the LBA granted Paninternational permission to add a fourth BAC 1–11, followed three weeks after that by another Boeing 707.
Paninternational apparently assuaged the LBA’s concerns at this point by hiring a new Director of Flight Operations, Joachim Kuehnel, who had previously been an LBA inspector. To Kuehnel, however, the inadequacy of the company’s operations was immediately obvious. Within a short time, he wrote to his bosses to complain about a lack of spare parts, delays to urgent repairs, and literal scrap metal being installed on operational aircraft. He also mentioned an incident in which a pilot had to abort a takeoff because a mechanic left a mechanical lock on the fuel control system. The mechanic’s work apparently had not been reviewed by an inspector. And in another incident, he said, a Boeing 707 had to divert to Barcelona following a partial loss of thrust in two of its four engines, which turned out to have been caused by dirty fuel filters that hadn’t been cleaned even once since the airline acquired the aircraft.
Sixteen days after sending this letter to management, Kuehnel was fired. He was Paninternational’s fourth DFO in two years, and, as it would turn out, its last.
Immediately after his dismissal, Kuehnel went straight to the Ministry of Transport and submitted his evidence, urging the ministry to halt Paninternational’s operations. But the officials demurred, arguing that they would rather conduct more inspections before making a decision. In the end, the LBA let Paninternational keep flying, but only under the condition that they hire a new DFO by either August 1st or August 15th (sources disagree on the exact date). But this date came and went without a new DFO having been hired, and yet, mysteriously, Paninternational remained in the air. The Director of Flight Operations position was in fact still vacant when the accident occurred on September 6th.
Having discovered all of the above information, the parliamentary committee concluded that the LBA was clearly aware of Paninternational’s disastrous safety standards, and wrote that the agency’s decision not to ground the airline was not only ill-advised, but actually illegal, in that it represented a failure of the LBA’s mission to protect the safety of German air travelers. The horrible safety standards at Paninternational and other West German charter companies were hardly a secret; in fact, the International Air Transport Association had called the founders of these airlines “unscrupulous entrepreneurs” whose “sole goal was quick profits without regard for the passengers,” and urged the LBA to crack down. Paninternational in particular had become known in the industry by the derisive nickname “Panic International,” and for good reason. So why didn’t the LBA do anything?
As it turned out, the committee suspected that the LBA’s repeated extensions and expansions of Paninternational’s operating certificate weren’t just poor decisions, but rather the result of blatant corruption involving one of the Bundestag’s most influential figures: Karl Wienand, the Parliamentary Secretary for the powerful Social Democratic Party.
As it turned out, Wienand was apparently friends with Paninternational founder Tassilo Trommer, and not long after the crash it was revealed that Trommer had paid Wienand a total of at least 160,000 deutschmarks in “consulting fees” between 1969 and 1971. Both Wienand and Trommer initially claimed that the checks made out to Wienand were repayment for a personal loan, but documents later proved that this was not the case, and in 1974 Trommer was forced to admit that Paninternational had actually employed Wienand as a “consultant.” Investigators noted that Wienand had not paid any taxes on this consulting income, but even more worrying, there was reason to suspect that Wienand had personally intervened to keep Paninternational in the air. “Whenever it came to pending drastic measures at Paninternational, in came Wienand,” an LBA flight safety expert told the parliamentary committee.
In general, Wienand was accused of propping up Paninternational’s rapid growth by ensuring that it received preferential landing and takeoff rights, but there were more specific incidents of corruption as well. For instance, in November 1970, Paninternational wanted to partner with a travel agency called Hotelplan in order to operate charter flights to Brazil, but the plan ran into trouble with both Brazilian and West German authorities, who felt that the Director of Flight Operations at that time lacked sufficient experience to oversee an operation of such magnitude. According to documents seen by Der Spiegel, Botzenhardt then told Hotelplan that he had a consulting arrangement with Karl Wienand, and that Wienand was undertaking negotiations “at the highest level” to remove the blockage. Wienand’s efforts may not have been successful, as the airline did end up having to remove the DFO before receiving permission to fly to Brazil, but that wasn’t all. Most chillingly, witnesses told the committee that when Paninternational missed the deadline to appoint a new DFO in August 1971, the LBA was ready to ground the airline, but Wienand convinced them not to do it. If true, then Wienand more or less directly caused the crash of Paninternational flight 112, since the flight only took off because he had intervened to save the airline a few weeks earlier.
In the end, the committee was unable to prove that Trommer and Botzenhardt paid Wienand to pressure the LBA, presumably because they didn’t leave enough of a paper trail. Although Wienand defended himself to the end, and he never faced a trial related to the crash, he was later charged with false testimony and tax evasion. He ended up being fined 102,000 deutschmarks, but this was only one of several corruption cases in which he was involved, as he was later accused of paying off an opposing lawmaker to change his stance in a no-confidence vote — and even more incredibly, in 1993 it emerged that he had been a spy for East Germany all along.
For Paninternational, the crash and the resulting scandals represented the beginning of a relatively swift end. Initially, the house of cards wobbled but stayed up, and in fact the airline kept flying for a month after the crash. But the writing was on the wall almost immediately, because the crash damaged the reputation of Neckermann’s travel agency, which responded by voiding its 5-year contract with Paninternational. The loss of its largest and in fact almost sole customer immediately rendered the airline insolvent, and by October it had racked up a debt of 100 million deutschmarks. Furthermore, the depreciation scheme no longer worked to bring in new financing, because the Bundestag had closed the loophole at the end of 1970. The company ultimately declared bankruptcy and ceased operations at the start of October, but the owners didn’t stop looking for a way out.
Later that month, in a bizarre addendum to the story, Botzenhardt and Trommer were desperately scrounging for cash to pay off their debts and resume operations when they received a remarkable phone call from a naturalized American citizen named Cristoph A. Michel. In the call, Michel offered to save Paninternational from bankruptcy by injecting US$5 million on behalf of his airline, Emerald Airways. He even provided them with a U.S. phone number, and when they called the number, it was answered by an authoritative-sounding American who affirmed that Emerald Airways would indeed bail out Paninternational. In reality, however, this airline didn’t even exist, nor did the $5 million, and Mr. Michel was actually just a random guy with delusions of economic grandeur. Nevertheless, the executives bought it hook, line, and sinker, and Michel had them paying for his hotel room and giving him rides in Trommer’s luxury car for 16 days before they figured out what was going on.
In the end, Paninternational disappeared, and the “limited partners” were left holding the bag, since the end of the tax scheme in 1970 had turned them into nothing more than regular shareholders. Nevertheless, Botzenhardt completely got away with it, and Trommer only faced a minor charge for failing to pay his employees’ social security contributions between July and September 1971. Others were not so lucky: in 1974, a court sentenced shift supervisor Erich Duvenhorst and mechanic Brend Seifert to seven and eight months in prison, respectively, for their roles in causing kerosene to be loaded into flight 112’s water injection system. This was rightly criticized at the time as yet another case of low-level employees getting slapped with criminal convictions while the executives whose reckless actions created the situation walked away scot-free.
For the most part, the other charter companies founded in West Germany in the late 1960s and early 1970s suffered the same fate as Paninternational, and by 1975 most of them had gone out of business. Fortunately, those which remained went on to have excellent safety records.
As for the pilots, all eventually recovered and went back to flying. Captain Reinhold Hüls eventually got a job working for a reorganized and beefed-up LBA, where he remained until his retirement. Elisabeth Friske struggled to get a job at another airline and eventually ended up flying private jets, where she was tragically killed in a crash in 1987 while carrying Schleswig-Holstein Premier Uwe Barschel (who survived).
Looking back at the crash of Paninternational flight 112 from more than 50 years in the future, it’s hard to believe that any of this actually happened, from the airline’s birth in a ridiculous tax avoidance scheme, to the bribery of Karl Wienand, to the bizarre kerosene mix-up, to the dramatic emergency landing on the Autobahn. But it all happened, and it was all connected, not through a series of unfortunate coincidences, but through the actions of several unscrupulous individuals who turned a blind eye to the danger. It’s also a lesson in what can happen when the aviation safety regulator is too weak, too underfunded, and too vulnerable to political pressure. Wienand tried to pass off his corruption as “totally normal” behavior. But when lives are on the line, we can’t allow such intervention to become “totally normal,” because in the end, a properly funded and politically independent civil aviation authority is the only thing stopping a morally dubious entrepreneur from attempting to start a modern-day Paninternational. And perhaps a less useful, but funnier piece of advice as well: whatever you do, if someone asks you to join a depreciation-based financing scheme, don’t buy in.
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