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The story of a Swedish fighter jet crashing into Stockholm island Långholmen in front of thousands of shocked onlookers is one I hear every time I cross over the Stockholm bridge that overlooks the site with my father in law. As with any such anecdote, I approached it with skepticism and had always assumed some of the key details may have been exaggerated.
Far from it. The crash, which occurred 25 years ago in the Swedish capital, is as dramatic a near-miss story you are ever likely to read. Despite the jet in question plummeting and bursting into a ball of flames near a group of spectators who were enjoying the demonstration of high-tech capabilities it was supposed to be carrying out, there were no serious injuries, and the pilot escaped with his life.
To set the scene: the Saab JAS 39 Gripen jet (first flown in 1988) was still ultra cutting edge when the ill-fated display unfolded on August 8th, 1993. That afternoon the jet took to the sky over the Riddarfjärden section of Lake Mälaren – an area many who have visited Stockholm will know from visits to Stockholm City Hall – and pilot Lars Rådeström started pulling off maneuvers to the delight of an estimated hundred thousand impressed onlookers. They had gathered to enjoy the spectacle, which was part of the Stockholm Water Festival.
As the jet was flying over Västerbron bridge however, something went horribly wrong. Terrifying video footage shows how the plane stalls in the middle of a roll and the pilot then ejects just before the aircraft starts to drop rapidly in altitude. As Rådeström floated to the ground a safe distance away, the jet plunged, smashing into the Långholmen island and bursting into a ball of flames, then sending thick black smoke into the sky.
Photo: Yngve Magnusson/TT
Luck intervened for the best that day. The plane crashed at the cliffs above the beach on Långholmen, only 30 metres from the bridge where spectators were gathered to watch the display but fortunately, far enough that no one was seriously injured. Eight people suffered minor injuries, but firefighters arrived at the scene within minutes and managed to quickly extinguish the fire.
The investigation into the incident later showed that the jet's control system was the source of the problem, having overloaded due to repeated joystick input. It was Rådeström's second crash, after previously crashing a Gripen during an attempted Linköping landing in 1989. The pilot, who retired in 2001, no longer gives interviews on the crashes.
The memory of the Stockholm crash lives on to this day however, not least thanks to an example of Swedish dark humour placed at its site. A sculpture on Långholmen by artist Thomas Qvarsebo displays a metal likeness of a paper airplane with its nose mercilessly plummeting into a panel representing the ground, topped off with the text "The JAS 39-Gripen crashed here during an air show on August 8th, 1993". Just in case any passers by didn't understand the significance.
A sculpture on the site of the crash reminds Stockholmers and visitors of the story. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT