© dpa
  • Passengers jumped to safety but sudden change of weight sent blimp soaring skywards
  • Investigators piecing together last moments of doomed flight
  • Wife of Australian pilot pays tribute to 'hero' who stayed at controls

Investigators were today piecing together the last moments before a a Goodyear blimp burst into flames and plunged to earth in a weekend crash in Germany.

The pilot, Michael Nerandzic, 53, was killed but three passengers managed to jump to safety when the airship caught fire as it was coming in to land at the Reichelsheim aerodrome near Friedberg.

When the airship was just two metres from the floor, Mr Nerandzic told his passengers, all journalists, to jump to the ground while he tried to land safely.

But once the three had leapt clear, the sudden loss of weight caused the blimp to soar skywards and burst into flames before crashing to the earth in a chilling echo of the Hindenburg disaster.

The cause of the crash was not immediately clear but an investigation was underway.

Klaus Himmler, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation, said his office was interviewing witnesses of the accident, collecting evidence and analyzing photos. He said the investigation could take weeks.

Photographer Joachim Storch - who was aboard the helium-filled blimp - said he heard the pilot yell 'We had an accident'.

He said the pilot then shouted 'I crashed the airship' as the smell of fire crept through the blimp.

Storch and two other passengers jumped from a window. The sudden loss of weight caused the ship to shoot into the air, where it burst into flames, killing the pilot.

Mr Nerandzic's widow, Lyndy, says she was due to fly over to meet her husband in a few weeks.

She says he gave his life to save his passengers.

'When there was trouble on the airship he brought it down to as low as he could to let the passengers jump out and he stayed at the controls,' Mrs Nerandzic said.

'As soon as they jumped out of course, being an airship, he knew it would rise up and it did.

'They found him still at the controls when it crashed. He also steered it away from his ground crew.'

Mr Nerandzic's brother, Zorrin Nerandzic, says he was an experienced pilot and well respected in the industry.

One eyewitness said: 'We could also hear the cries of the doomed pilot as the fire surrounded him. It was terrible.'

Eyewitnesses said three passengers escaped the gondola of the blimp before the pilot ascended and crashed in a nearby field.

The journalists who escaped were a photographer from Germany's Bild newspaper and two from RTL television.

The crash happened at 8.30pm on Sunday after the airship had made a round trip for the pressmen to take photos of the state of Hessen.

A spokesman of Lightship Europe Limited, which owned the airship, said: 'One member of the flight crew suffered fatal injuries. There were no injuries to passengers or ground crew.

'As is customary in incidents involving aircraft, the aviation and local authorities have initiated an investigation and it would be premature for Goodyear or Lightship Europe Limited to speculate on causes and findings at this time," the statement said.'

Germany led the world in airship technology in the first half of the last century. Its most famous airship was the Zeppelin - named after Count von Zeppelin who began experimenting with rigid airship designs in the 1890s.

The Zeppelin was a rigid airship, meaning it has an internal structural framework, whereas blimps are non-rigid and there shape is maintained solely by internal air pressure.

One of the best-known Zeppelins was the Hindenburg which crossed the Atlantic to New Jersey on May 6 1937, but caught fire as it was trying to land, causing the deaths of 35 people.

The actual cause of the fire remains unknown, although a variety of hypotheses have been put forward.

The incident shattered public confidence in the giant, passenger-carrying rigid airship and marked the end of that particular era of air travel.

The aircraft have made a comeback in Germany in recent years as tourist magnets.