Skydiving Midair: What a Tale the Video Tells

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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.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (8)

Former skydiver driver here too, mostly in 182s. I agree that there were some formation procedures that seriously went wrong there. Don't understand why the trail plane was in that position in the first place. Our trail plane on 2 ships were to the right to see the door open on lead. We didn't do too many 3 ships but I remember them being more challenging since #3 was in the same position the trail was in the video and couldn't see as well. With tailwheel time being rarer these days, lead in the 182 may have been the less experienced pilot (that's where we put ours, just told them to fly straight with as small changes as possible on jump run). Lead may have pulled back the power too much when the skydivers were on the step but it was still trail's responsibility to maintain visual and deconflict. Yes, I understand how control goes away on that ragged edge slow flight with high-asymmetric drag devices hanging off the strut. But even if lead's power was misjudged, trail should have peeled away (albeit as gingerly as you can with skydivers on the step). My gut/aerodynamics also tells me that peeling to the right should be easier too in that situation, meaning #2 should have been to the right. But I haven't flow a load in almost a decade now.

I agree on the last jump of the day angle, but thinking back all of my really bad luck loads as a pilot were the first of the day (a student stretched glide into powerlines but survived, static line attachment point breaking off, etc.). My last skydive was on the last load of the day as a send off from my boss, the beautiful sunset in the background made for some great stills on landing, but there were plenty of garbage loads that we pushed as well.

This incident is a perfect example why skydive pilots should have a emergency chute due to the increased risk of aircraft destruction in flight. There were a few occasions that could have went worse for me and I would have had to use mine. The one that most comes to mind was a reserve popping open in the hang on the strut that just barely missed the tail. If it had popped on the step I really think it could have torn off the tail.

Posted by: Matthew Edwards | November 11, 2013 8:27 AM    Report this comment

I had the same burning question; what caused the wing to depart? Other than what you said, could it be a sudden impact from above onto a fully laden 182 caused one of the strut attachments to exceed its rated load (momentary over-G)? Lose the strut and it will fold up like a lawn chair.

I admire and respect you fellows that cheat death every jump, but I inherited my dad's old-pilot gene; that is, I don't plan on jumping out of any flying machine unless it's on fire (or worse)! Looks like both of us would be out the door of that 185 in a quick second ha ha!

Posted by: A Richie | November 11, 2013 9:00 AM    Report this comment

Make that "out the door of the 182"...dang typos!

Posted by: A Richie | November 11, 2013 9:02 AM    Report this comment

Matthew, a few years ago I did some reporting for Parachutist on skydive aircraft accidents and there were a couple of pretty gruesome accidents involving reserve or main deployments on the step or even inside the airplane. One or two tore off or damaged tails, one ripped out the right side of the airplane.

There were also a number of loss of control or spin type accidents due to jumpers on the step hanging out there a little too long, as we are all wont to do.

I shudder to think the number of times I have seen a 182 jump pilot sitting on rather than wearing the pilot rig.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 11, 2013 9:11 AM    Report this comment

Most of my skydiving and all of my jump piloting has been in 182s. I've flown formations several times for the Wisconsin outfit where I jump, a place with a reputation for good safety procedures. Several years ago I had an experience which has some relevance to this recent mishap.

Our drop zone was asked to bring our two 182s over to a nearby DZ so we could join theirs for some 16-way jumps. (The other DZ had a reputation for being less safety conscious than ours, to put it kindly.) Since I didn't know Brand X's pilots, I asked their lead pilot for a safety briefing, which did not seem to be his intention before l brought it up. We had a very short session, the gist of which was "follow me and things will be fine." I asked what our procedure should be if we lost sight of one another, and he said that should never happen. Brand X's owner was the formation captain and barked at the lead pilot to get things rolling, so we took off. I flew right echelon and 2 other planes were in left echelon behind the leader. Seemed to me the lead was having a bit of trouble maintaining level flight, and when I lost sight of him I broke off to the right and circled around, rejoining in a couple of minutes and getting a clean 16-way off. When I landed I was immediately confronted by the irate owner of the DZ who kept jabbing his finger in my chest, telling me this was all my fault and I didn't know how to fly because my head was up my ass and that I cost him precious money for extra fuel and that he would never hire someone like me to fly for him. I told him when sight is lost in a formation safety is the main concern, but that only made him angrier. Finally I walked away but he followed me and grabbed my shoulder, still yelling at the top of his lungs I cost him money. After demanding he get his hands off me I threw a $20 bill on the ground and told the other guys from our DZ I was headed back home. Several of our jumpers were also disgusted by this jerk's behavior and flew back with me; I tossed them out at 12,000' over our DZ and they had a nice 4-way.

So, was it my fault or the lead pilot's that sight was lost? I don't think it was mine, but it could have been. The point is it doesn't matter. I don't want someone flying in formation near me if sight is lost, whether it's his fault or mine. I just want safety first. If that's the paradigm then we're dealing with procedures, not "fault."

I've never jumped in Superior and don't know any of the folks there. I don't know exactly what caused their accident, and won't second guess it. I do know how hard it is to fly accurately with so much weight out on the right side of a 182, especially in formation. That's why I broke off that flight years ago, to prevent a potentially fatal collision and chunks of flaming aluminum falling on the countryside. Even though it took an extra 5 minutes, everyone in that 16-way (except the idiot owner) had a nice jump and landed safely. Everyone at Superior landed safely, too, and no one on the ground was hurt. That's a miracle we should all be thankful for.

Posted by: Dennis Whitehead | November 11, 2013 10:53 AM    Report this comment

I'd love to see that article. Do you remember what issue it was in? I flight instruct at an university and one of the students' first jobs is often flying skydivers. Unfortunately, it seems the closest DZ to us at the least does not encourage pilots to wear the rigs and may not offer them a rig at all. I encourage any of my students that ask me about flying jumpers to wear the rig! I tell them my story about the near miss with the reserve and the story about the Australian Caravan pilot that barely got out to illustrate.

We once aborted a load due to a pilot chute starting to come out of the pack when the skydiver was in the student slot by the door that had a small cutout in the lower front corner. They immediately and carefully moved him to the back of the plane before it could catch any wind. The skydivers themselves told me to abort instead of pushing it before I really understood why they were moving him without asking me. That's another time that didn't seem like much but was a close call where a rig would have been necessary had it been worse.

Overall, I felt like our outfit was pretty safety oriented. Just like all of aviation, you have those that are and those that push it. Not saying that this operator is one of the latter though, overall may have been just a bad day.

Apparently this season has been a bad one when it comes to some big names fatalities, but the thing that always impressed me was how safe the skydiving part actually is compared to public opinion. After the first jump jitters, I felt pretty confident in the safety of a jump (only 8 total), almost as confident as I feel on most airplane flights (that's not to say the adrenaline wasn't pumping though!). Like flying airplanes, most modern skydive accidents are human error, not equipment failure. In the end that is what is great about this story, that everyone made it out!

Posted by: Matthew Edwards | November 11, 2013 11:11 AM    Report this comment

Matthew, I'm guess on the date, but I think it might have been around 2002 or 2003 when I wrote that piece of Parachutist. I can't seem to find it in my archives but I did find a slide talk I did based on the research. I'll e-mail you that, for what it's worth.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | November 11, 2013 11:31 AM    Report this comment

Dennis Whitehead, I commend you for sticking to your procedures and keeping a cool head about it. You did right. Occasionally I have run into one of these loudmouth careless types in various endeavors (notably in both flying and in firearms where it really matters) and have found the best solution is not to over-react, but usually to calmly do a 180 and get the heck outta there.

But, that was pretty funny about tossing a $20 bill on the ground; it showed everyone exactly what he valued the most over everything else!

Posted by: A Richie | November 13, 2013 1:24 PM    Report this comment

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