The National Transportation Board says pilot error, spurred by inadequate training, was the probable cause of a spectacular crash of two light planes over Superior in November 2013.
The NTSB, in releasing its final report on the crash of two planes carrying nine skydivers and two pilots, said the pilot of the trailing plane simply didn’t leave enough space between the aircraft as the parachutists were about to jump.
In its concluding analysis, the NTSB said the probable cause was “the failure of the pilot who was flying the trail airplane to maintain separation from the lead airplane. Contributing to the accident was the inadequate pilot training for formation skydiving operations.”
Gary Androsky, owner of Skydive Superior and the planes involved in the crash, told the News Tribune Tuesday that he had not seen the final report and would not comment on the NTSB findings.
The Nov. 2, 2013 crash was caught on helmet-mounted cameras by plummeting parachutists involved in the accident in a video that went viral worldwide. The skydivers had to take evasive action to avoid being struck by falling wreckage and debris. Many people on the ground reported witnessing the crash.
No one was seriously hurt.
Mike Robinson, a skydiving instructor in the first plane, explained, “The thing to remember was it was an airplane crash, not really a skydiving accident. It was skydiving that saved all our lives.”
Robinson pointed out that it’s been nearly two years since the crash and the skydivers have moved on from it.
“We always knew what happened and we weren’t quite sure why and I’m not sure we totally know why. There were a lot of dynamics in play, I think,” Robinson said. “The bottom line for us is that we’re just really happy we all survived OK and no one on the ground was injured.”
The two light aircraft carrying skydivers conducting a tandem jump collided over Superior at dusk on that Saturday, causing one plane to break into pieces and scatter debris across a swath of the southern part of the city.
All nine of the skydivers aboard the two planes already were jumping or preparing to jump when the collision occurred at about 6 p.m.
The lead plane - a Cessna 182 - broke into three pieces, but its pilot managed to parachute to safety before it crashed, as did his four passengers. Five divers jumped from the second plane - a Cessna 185 - before pilot Blake Wedan of Superior made his way back to the runway at Richard I. Bong Memorial Airport.
According to the NTSB report, dated July 23: “Both pilots flew the airplanes in a rectangular pattern until they reached the jump altitude of 12,700 feet mean sea level. The 182 pilot established a jump heading and visually confirmed that the 185 was to the left side and aft of the 182. The 182 pilot then called out ‘door open’ and jumpers ‘climbing out.’ Subsequently, the four skydivers on board the 182 climbed out onto the airplane’s right wing strut and right wheel step. Almost immediately, the 182 was struck by the 185. The 182’s windshield was shattered, and the airplane entered an uncontrollable descent. During the descent, the right wing separated from the airplane, and the right wing fuel tank exploded. The 182 pilot exited the airplane and parachuted safely to the ground. The 185 pilot reported that ‘when it was time for the skydivers to climb out, the two planes began to drift together and in seemingly no time at all, the two were colliding.’ After the collision, the skydivers on board the 185 jumped from the airplane as it inverted; the pilot was able to recover the airplane and land.”
The report went on to note that “even though none of the pilots stated that the trail airplane should be flown higher than the lead airplane, a video taken of the flight showed that the trail airplane pilot flew the trail airplane higher than the lead airplane until impact.”
The NTSB notes that the Federal Aviation Administration does not provide any guidance to pilots on how to fly skydiving formation flights nor does it require skydiving operators to provide skydiving pilot training or skydiving formation pilot training. But the NTSB said information is available, including a guide from the United States Parachute Association, that offers safe following distances.
“If both pilots had received adequate skydiving formation flight training, they might have had a consensus about how the formation flight should have been flown. If the trail airplane pilot had received such training, he might have been more vigilant about maintaining adequate lateral and vertical separation from the lead airplane during the flight,’’ the NTSB said of the Superior crash.
Androsky said Skydive Superior continues to operate. He said money raised by selling rights to the crash video have also been used to buy a used plane and to donate to local charities.
Robinson said the donations are a way to enrich people’s lives. “We all feel very fortunate to have survived it.”
News Tribune reporter Lisa Kaczke contributed to this report.