Skydiving Midair: What a Tale the Video Tells
Last weekend’s midair collision between two Cessnas carrying skydivers wasn’t the first midair caught on camera, but it may be the first impact filmed by a passenger from five feet away. Google gives the accident an entire page of search hits.
That film will give the FAA and NTSB plenty to chew on in determining the cause of this accident, but my guess is the investigators may have some rather more piercing questions for the pilot flying the number two airplane than Matt Lauer did on the Today show last week. We ran NBC's version of one skydiver’s footage here, but in this slow-motion cut, the actual collision dynamic is more discernible. It appears to be shot from inside the number two aircraft which is positioned exactly where you wouldn’t want it to be: above and to the left of the lead ship. One of the reports said it got there because of prop wash from the lead.
Once the skydivers climb onto the step, the aircraft—looks like a Cessna 185 from the ground photos-- appears to settle from the top onto the other aircraft. You can clearly see the skydivers exit the lead ship and, post impact, the 182’s right wing departs with a visible spew of fuel, which then ignited. The pilot of that airplane exited and successfully landed under an emergency parachute. The trail aircraft, damaged, landed safely. What I couldn’t see from the film is what mechanism caused the 182’s wing to depart. Did the 185’s wheel just crush the spar or did its prop slice through the structure? That the skydivers on the step survived uninjured what must have been a good wallop strikes me as unusually good luck.
Normally, skydiving aircraft formations are set up with the trail airplanes positioned so the skydivers in trail can see the lead aircraft jumpers exit and thus time their own exits. That can put the aircraft level with or slightly below the lead, but usually behind, too. And, of course, a cardinal rule of formation flying is that no matter where the trail is positioned, the pilot should never lose sight of the lead and have an agreed upon lost wingman procedure if visual is lost.
Then there’s the unique problem of skydiving formation flight. Close formation flight normally involves deft control inputs and sometimes large power changes to hold station accurately. That’s hard enough with a clean airplane, but with two or three 200-pound skydivers hanging off the strut or step and a piston engine huffing to maintain altitude, control margins can be substantially eroded, even in a powerful airplane like the Twin Otter favored by skydiving operations. I've seen lead airplanes--a 206, actually--get on a pretty good sink rate when jumpers crowded the step.
Although the inherent risk seems high, the actual risk probably is not, because hundreds of skydiving formation flights occur every year without significant incident. But this does remind me that about seven years ago I was invited to particiate in a 100-way skydive using 182s; kind of a nostalgia jump for those of us who grew up before the arrival of turbine aircraft. But about the same time the organizers realized they couldn't afford to move that many 182s to Florida, about half of us snapped to our senses and realized that jumping from a 25-plane Cessna formation sounded like practicing bleeding.
When I saw this film for the first time, I wondered if any other skydivers had the same initial reaction I did: Oooof! A sunset load. For some reason, I have experienced more bizarre incidents on sunset loads than in any other aspect of skydiving. I think there are definite reasons for this, the major one being that the last load of the day is sometimes hurried to beat the fading light and everyone—including pilots—is tired from a day of jumping and flying.
Little things get overlooked. I was once in the third row in from the door of a Twin Otter admiring the setting sun on jump run; a minute later, I wasn’t admiring getting someone’s reserve pilot chute in my face from a handle that snagged on the door during exit. Maybe that wouldn’t have happened at 10 a.m., but I’ve seen more of it happen late in the day. Winds aloft often shift at sunset, too, meaning an exit spot that worked fine all day, suddenly doesn’t. At one dropzone, I once landed so far out—and across a river—that it took two hours, a boat ride and a truck to get back home. It happens. Just seems to happen more near dark.
If there's anything cool about this accident—other than that everyone survived—it's that the pilot of the 182 appears eligible to join the Caterpillar Club, the informal group of people who have saved their lives by parachuting from a disabled airplane. While skydivers and skydiving operations obviously don’t qualify, I think a burning 182 missing a wing meets the definition of disabled. A photo of the pilot after his emergency rig landing revealed a face badly bloodied, possibly by shards from a shattered windshield. He ought to at least get a pin for his trouble--a Purple Heart for jump pilots.
At least the jumpers and pilots got a nice payday out of the deal. According to the Washington Post, NBC news paid them more than $100,000 for exclusive use of their footage. Not a bad return on a $300 GoPro, but something reviled in the media as checkbook journalism. These days, networks do what it takes to remain competitive and that includes about anything.