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The Cottbus MiG-21 Crash of 1975

Cottbus MiG-21 Crash of 1975

On Schmellwitzer Street in Cottbus, in northeast Germany, stands an old five-story apartment building. High up on the face of the building, between the second and the third floor, one can still see the scars of an accident that happened nearly half a century ago.

On January 14, 1975, thirty-three-year-old Major Peter Makowicka was on a training mission when the MiG-21 that he was flying encountered engine failure. The military control center at Cottbus Air Base ordered the pilot to eject and save himself and let the plane go down, but Major Makowicka refused. Doing so would have crashed the plane into the TKC (Textile Combinate Cottbus) endangering the lives of thousands of workers. Major Makowicka instead guided the plane away with the intention of crashing it into an empty field. But with losing altitude, Makowicka couldn't get that far. The plane grazed the roof of a building behind the factory site and at 10:15am crashed into a 5-story “Plattenbau”—an apartment constructed from prefabricated concrete slabs typical of East Germany.

Major Makowicka was killed instantly. He was later awarded the “Battle Order for Services to People and Fatherland” in gold for his heroic sacrifice. The crash also killed five residents of the building, all women and employees of the TKC. Another woman died from severe smoke inhalation after being admitted to the hospital.

Shortly after the crash, the Cottbus fire department arrived on the scene and started evacuating the building. The impact had ruptured the fuel tanks on the plane and all 800 liters of it began to pour out catching fire and sending temperatures soaring to over a thousand degree centigrade. Many residents jumped out of the windows in panic, causing serious injuries.

One hour fifteen minutes after the crash, the fire was by and large extinguished. The area was cordoned off. Two days later, the hole in the building was patched up. This patchwork of new concrete and paint is discernable to this day.

Cottbus MiG-21 Crash of 1975

The building as on April 2018. The repair hole is still visible. Photo: Redrobsche/Wikimedia Commons

An enquiry into the accident revealed that the grounds crew had forgot to properly secure the engine compressor hatch which came off when Major Makowicka was preparing to land the plane, causing the engine to fail. This hatch, located in the wheel well, was attached with only 4 out of 36 screws. This was a common practice because the pilot and the mechanics were supposed to walk around the plane and inspect the engine prior to flight. To save time, the hatch was attached with four screws cross wise. Only after the pilot had checked the area, would the engine hatch be closed with all of the 36 screws and the aircraft readied. On that day, the pilot failed to make the pre-flight inspection and the mechanic forgot to secure all of the 36 screws. The aircraft took off normally but during flight vibrations loosed the screws. With the landing gear retracted, the hatch held. However, when the landing gear was lowered, the hatch fell off disrupting the airflow to the engine causing it to flameout.

Major Peter Makowicka

Major Peter Makowicka

The crash caused panic among Cottbus’s population. They called for suspension of air traffic from the Cottbus airfield. Mothers feared to send their children to schools located on the approach path to the airfield. Textile employees went on strike. Perhaps because of these protests, the Cottbus airfield was closed and operations transferred to Holzdorf airfield north of Herzberg in Brandenburg.

Despite the relocation, on March 16, 1985, another malfunctioning MiG-21 crashed in Cottbus. The pilot saved himself by ejecting from the plane, but plane itself crashed into a student dormitory of the engineering school. Fortunately, it was Saturday and the dormitory was empty.

Cottbus MiG-21 Crash of 1975

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