ST. MORITZ, Switzerland — There was a crash today at the men’s giant slalom in the Alpine World Ski Championships, but it wasn’t a racer that hurtled to the ground. It was a cable camera, its wires severed by a too-close flyover from the Swiss Air Force. That was frightening enough, but it was just inches from true disaster.
The Championships, which happen every two years (the last were at Vail/Beaver Creek in 2015), are the biggest event on the ski racing calendar. So it’s no wonder that St. Moritz – like every other spot picked to host the event – has lined up dozens of events outside of competition, including regular air shows. And, so far, they’d all gone off without a hitch. After all, Switzerland is famously organized at hosting ski races, and St. Moritz is particularly experienced – it’s the area’s fifth time hosting the championships alone.
And then came today’s flyover.
At 11:45am, the PC-7 planes were doing their thing. Swooping in perfect formation, turning on a dime, heading straight up into the air, then straight down. It was impressive. “Now that’s Swiss precision,” someone near me said as we stood and stared, jaws slightly open.
And then the wing of one of the planes clipped the wire of the cable cam – the television camera that swoops up and down the run, giving that birds-eye view of the racers we’re all now accustomed to seeing in ski racing. The camera plummeted to the ground in the finish area. You can see it here:
Fortunately, no one was hurt. The whole thing happened between two runs, so no one was in the finish area. And the camera was lucky to have dropped there, rather than somewhere else where spectators and skiers were still milling about.
But here’s the thing: the camera’s cable runs right next to the cables for the chairlift. Not only was that lift running at the time, but it was full — with skiers, spectators and even World Cup racers themselves, many of whom were heading up to check out the course for their second run.
Because of concerns that the incident also affected the downward cable of the chairlift—the severed camera wire may have contacted it—the lift was stopped for half an hour. To give everyone time to inspect the course, the race was moved back 30 minutes. The damage was estimated at €250,000.
Obviously, though, it could have been worse.
Both FIS and St. Moritz are taking the incident seriously. In a press conference that took place right after the winners’ Q&As, they told reporters that the military is leading the investigation into the incident, alongside the police. The air shows that were planned for Saturday and Sunday have been canceled. (The pilot was also able to land his plane without a problem and was uninjured).
Update: On Friday afternoon, the army released this statement:
By today’s training of the PC-7 Swiss air team at 11:30 in the finish area of Salastrains at the 2017 FIS Alpine World Ski Championships, one of the planes touched the wing cam cable camera. This caused a tear in the cable, causing the camera to fall down. No one was hurt in the incident and the plane landed safely in Samedan at the regional airport.
For security reasons, the operation of the chairlift Salastrains was briefly stopped. This caused the second men’s slalom run to be postponed from 13:00 to 13:30.
The police and military will further investigate the incident.
But it’s not the first time that sports events have been marred by objects falling out of the sky. Two years ago, Marcel Hirscher, today’s winner, narrowly escaped being hit by a drone:
And last year at the Rio Olympics, seven people were injured when a cable cam fell some 65 feet to the ground.
Although drones were banned by FIS at ski races after the Hirscher incident, cable cams, of course, remain an integral way to broadcast races. Maybe the question isn’t whether they should be banned...but whether airplanes should be flying quite so close to them. In 1998, a U.S. military jet flying over an Italian ski resort sliced through the supports of a sky tram. The cable car fell 260 feet to the ground; all 20 on board were killed.
Today’s incident was a very, very far cry from that one in terms of consequences. But in terms of distance, it might not have been that far at all.