02.08.2022, Brandenburg, Wildau: Jörn Lehweß-Litzmann sitzt in seinem Büro vor einem Computerdisplay, auf dem eine baugleiche IL-62 bei der Landung zu sehen ist. Der damalige Interflug-Ingenieur war Mitglied der Untersuchungskommission des Flugzeugunglücks von 1972. Eine Iljuschin IL-62 der DDR-Gesellschaft Interflug war am 14.08.1972 kurz nach dem Start bei Königs Wusterhausen abgestürzt. Alle Passagiere und Besatzungsmitglieder kamen ums Leben. (zu dpa-Korr "Tod auf dem Flug in die Ferien - Katastrophe in der DDR vor 50 Jahren") Foto: Soeren Stache/dpa +++ dpa-Bildfunk +++

The small family actually wanted to go to the bathing lake when Ursula B., her husband and the children heard a loud bang above the garage. “We thought that sounds really strange, like a helicopter,” says Ursula B. Then clouds of smoke could be seen a kilometer or two away. It quickly became clear: It was an airplane. Crashed.

The now 80-year-old remembers August 14, 1972 with crystal clarity, when the Ilyushin IL-62 of the GDR company Interflug almost crashed on her hometown of Königs Wusterhausen south of Berlin.

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Ursula B. was a nurse, she wanted to help, her husband immediately drove her towards the scene of the accident. But everything was locked by then. The two turned to the clinic where Ursula B. worked. There they waited for hours for the injured. Everyone sat together, doctors, nurses, helpers. “But nobody came,” says Ursula B. “Everyone died immediately.”

The crash of the GDR holiday plane from Schönefeld to Burgas in Bulgaria exactly 50 years ago is still considered the worst air disaster on German soil. 148 passengers – most of them from Cottbus, Dresden or Berlin – and eight crew members died. Rumors about the cause are still circulating today, because the GDR authorities kept their findings under wraps for political reasons.

A few days later, the GDR mourned in a state ceremony and laid 60 unidentifiable victims to rest in a common grave. But why the Ilyushin burst in the air, the relatives did not learn at the time – although experts determined it very quickly. “Nothing ever came out,” says Ursula B. “They weren’t allowed to say anything.”

The machine took off from Schönefeld at 4:29 p.m. on this muggy and warm Monday. She only got as far as Cottbus, until the crew noticed problems with the elevator and turned back. The IL-62 drained fuel to become lighter. It did not help. The tail broke off and the plane tipped over.

The pilots radioed Mayday, but the people on board had no chance. At 5:00 p.m. the machine went down on the grounds of the Königs Wusterhausen waterworks. Fire brigade and rescue workers found the burning hull, rubble, suitcases, body parts.

Carsten Häusler, who was twelve at the time, was cycling from his grandparents in Zeesen back home in Königs Wusterhausen. When he saw the cloud of smoke, the boy drove in that direction.

“Everything was closed off incredibly quickly,” says Häusler, who later became a pilot with the National People’s Army and is now involved in the Berlin Contemporary Witnesses Exchange. He came quite close to the scene of the accident on secret paths. “I could still see the tail unit of the machine on the meadow,” he says. He did not see the victims.

He remembered two things in particular. The first onlookers on site are said to have stolen things from scattered suitcases. “That was quickly stopped, and anyone who was caught was held accountable,” says Häusler. Exactly who that was has not been revealed.

The other drastic experience for the boy: In the days and nights that followed, he heard non-stop trucks driving contaminated soil from the scene of the accident. Because the springs for the city’s drinking water were nearby.

Jörn Lehweß-Litzmann was also on site very quickly, and quite officially. Before the catastrophe, the then 28-year-old Interflug engineer was involved in the adjustment of the Ilyushin, which had only entered service in the GDR in 1970. He became one of 63 members of the committee investigating the cause of the accident.

According to him, it was clear from the start that a fire in the rear would be the undoing of the aircraft. But why did he break out? An attack or a flight through one’s own kerosene cloud was quickly ruled out, writes Lehweß-Litzmann in an article for the Königs Wusterhausen homeland calendar from 2019.

Instead, the GDR Commission, after weeks of investigations, came to the conclusion that a leaking hot air line in the rear was causing air at 300 degrees to flow onto a wiring harness until the insulation was charred. The consequences: short circuit, sparks, ignition of the magnesium built into the aircraft, which burned off at 2000 degrees, destroyed the elevator and finally “welded off” the entire tail.

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Within three months, “all the questions raised were processed,” writes Lehweß-Litzmann. But the Soviet designers of the Ilyushin did not confirm the results of their GDR colleagues – they amounted to design defects. The head of the government commission, Paul Wilpert, recommended that the government let the dispute with the Soviet comrades be and say nothing more about the cause of the accident. State and party leader Erich Honecker personally approved this at the end of 1973.

Conclusions were drawn behind the scenes. The designers of the Ilyushin adopted changes to the model recommended by their GDR colleagues, and from then on Interflug controlled the hot air system of the Soviet machine particularly precisely. However, the whole truth of the classified information only came to light after the upheaval in the GDR.