As people stared from chalet balconies at the smoke-enveloped crash site, Sukhoi's staff made frantic telephone calls and officials at the bureau's static park pavilion could be seen openly weeping as they waited to hear about the crew's fate.

"We can't see the runway from here so we really don't know what has happened," said a spokeswoman, choking back tears.

But minutes later, with news that the pilots had been released from military hospital, reactions turned to relief.

French Aerotech pilot Igor Laroche, summed up the general feeling best: "First I was afraid. As a pilot, it would have been like losing one of my family. Seeing a crash felt very strange. It is a very sad and disappointing end to the first day," Edmond Marchguay, head of show organiser SIAE, pointed out that the Sukhoi had passed pre-show validation flights without problem and pilot Viacheslav Averinov had been within flight display height restrictions. "We know these guys: they always respect the limits," he said.

Visitors around the showground swapped their eye-witness stories.

"You could see the flames between the rudders. The plane came back down on its tail. It dropped like a stone," said Leonard Jeffords, a US visitor.

Raoul van Lennep at United Technologies said: "I thought it was about to land but its rear end clipped the ground. You couldn't tell if it was people jettisoning or bits of kit." Nobby Gray added: "He seemed far too low. I thought, 'he's going to get into trouble.'"

Source: Flight Daily News