A South African pilot flying for an American aerobatic team was killed on Saturday when his plane crashed during a performance at an air show in the Gobi Desert in northwestern China.
Pilot Paul Smith died when his twin-seat XA42 plummeted to the ground during the inaugural Silk Road International General Aviation Convention at Zhangye, Gansu province.
The airport where the crash occurred had only opened on Friday to cater to tourists visiting the nearby Zhangye Danxia geopark.
The crash happened just before 11am, the Zhangye municipal government said in a statement.
The German-made XA42 was certified by the European Aviation Safety Agency as an aerobatic aircraft. Such aircraft have performed on the mainland before.
Videos posted online show the plunging plane followed by black smoke rising from the wreckage. A witness who shared the video said on Weibo that the plane appeared to be performing a dive but “lost control and did not rise again”.
Xinhua reported that the plane went into a dive and crashed about 100 metres from the airport runway. The crash site was well away from the spectator area and there were no other casualties. “The audience was calm. We were just concerned about the pilot,” said the witness, who did not give her name.
An earlier statement by the government said flying conditions were very good for this type of event and that the show was carried out in accordance to a planned schedule in planned air space.
It was not the first air show tragedy involving a foreign pilot in China. Three years ago an American pilot plunged into a lake and died while training for an air show in Shenyang, Liaoning province.
The statement said the American team was flying under the instructions of their coach. They cancelled their performances after the accident. Other events at the air show resumed in the afternoon. The event opened on Friday and ends on Sunday.
An investigation into the accident was being carried out.
The statement said the American team was invited to the air show by the Shenyang Aviators Aviation Culture Media Company.
According to earlier report by People.com.cn, 44 aircraft from eight manufacturers would perform at the show while 76 other aircraft from 17 general aviation companies were exhibited.
Zhangye in ancient times played an important role on the Silk Road, the land trade route from China to Central Asia and beyond.
The local government had hoped the airport would be a permanent venue for the air show and other aviation events as part of the One Belt, One Road initiative, People.com.cn reported.
The initiative is Beijing’s plan to direct domestic overcapacity to help develop infrastructure and improve trade and with Asia, Europe and Africa.