Well I’m sure by now most of you have heard about the recent midair collision between two skydiving planes. This accident was a scary one for me because it took above a skydiving school that’s very close to mine and I know almost everyone who was on board. I was at number one son’s final football game of the season when it happened and had my phone off. When the game was over, they lost in a tough game but had a great season, I turned my phone on and was shocked to see how many messages and texts I’d received. It was with great foreboding that I started to listen to the messages because if I ever get that many at one time it usually means that there’s been a skydiving accident or airplane crash involving someone I know. Little did I realize that it was both. As the details of the crash came out the first thing I heard was that while in a two plane formation load full of skydivers the chase plane got caught in the wake turbulence of the lead plane and was sucked into it. Now, I’ve flown literately hundreds of formation loads and the first thing I thought was why the hell were they that close in the first place? Back when I started flying formation loads the common wisdom was to fly as close as possible thinking that it made it easier for the jumpers in the chase plane to catch the jumpers leaving the lead plane. What I noticed was that what really happened was that the chase jumpers had to dive down and behind the planes to catch the lead jumpers, not very efficient. What I started doing was to position the chase plane fifty feet lower and one hundred feet back from the lead plane so the chase jumpers had a better angle on their targets. It didn’t take long for this new practice to take hold among all the local drop zones. Fast forward to mid-air and the fact that planes were close enough to hit told me that they were doing it wrong to start with. Then I thought about the claim of wake turbulence and thought that was bullshit because wake turbulence flows back and down from the lead plane and if the chase plane hit it he would probably no hit the lead.
Then I saw one of the videos from inside the chase plane and it all became clear as to what happened. The video clearly shows the chase plane too close and on the same level as the jumpers start climbing out in preparation for the jump. Just as this is happening the pilot in the chase plane takes his eyes off the lead plane and looks down at the jumpers climbing out of his plane. When he did this either the lead plane dropped down and back a bit or the lead drifted up and froward, doesn’t matter, and when he looked back up the plane he’d been flying formation on was gone. That has to be a terrifying moment in the cockpit, to lose sight of the plane your flying formation on is a cardinal sin and knowing there is an aircraft very close to you but not seeing it is, well, bad. When that happens a good pilot would do the smart thing and pull up and left, being able to see in that direction and knowing it was clear. But this moron decided to try and find the lead plane by dropping his nose to see if he could find it again. Well mission accomplished, he found it all right.
The rest of the event is nothing short of a miracle. The lead plane lost it’s right wing immediately and the jumpers hanging onto it were unhurt and managed to get clear. The jumpers in the chase were almost killed by the lead planes propeller and subsequent fireball and also got clear. The pilot of the lead plane, who was now flying an aircraft with only one wing, managed to get out and use the emergency chute. Unbelievable. But great footage!
I’m just very thankful I didn’t have to go to 11 funerals last week.