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Crash Course

First hand account of a skydiver plane crash – thankfully no-one was badly hurt. Aussie author Morgan Mackay suggests that as skydivers we should address aircraft emergency training…

Caravan crash
Caravan crash

One sunny California day I found myself, a would be AFF instructor, with 17 skydivers strapped in, load 12 ready for takeoff… a busy day full of jumping, packing, briefings and debriefings. As a group of friends we had flown an examiner interstate to put us through our paces and see us worthy of our AFF ratings. The course was challenging, the days long and hot, our examiners pushing us on every jump.

On days like these I welcomed the aircraft ride, a brief 15 minutes to catch my breath, run through the dive in my mind and recheck my gear. We took off uneventfully like we had many times already that morning. Climbing through 1,000 feet the jumpers began taking off their seatbelts, sweating in our nylon suits, we eagerly anticipated this moment on every load.

Fuel spray

I watched the jumper by the door as he lifted the roller, a cool rush of air, a taste of the moment of freedom soon to come. He closed it again, pointing at a few drops of liquid on the Perspex. ‘Chinese Whispers’ as the message was relayed to the pilot. There was fuel spraying down the side of the plane. We peered out of the small Perspex windows, the source of the leak unknown.

The engine noise changed and I felt the thrust of the turbine reducing, the plane banked to the right. I instinctively buckled my seatbelt for landing. Someone probably spilled some fuel when refueling or left the cap off. It seemed logical that the pilot was turning around immediately to land and check it out. I checked my alti 1,880 ft. High enough to get out, but maybe not with 10 people in front of me. Besides everything seemed to be under control, the engine was still running.

We came out of our 180, then an uncomfortable silence as we began descending. “Are we gliding?” someone asked, more silence. I could see the airport out my window, we were on base leg for runway 260 but we were a long way out. I willed the plane for better glide just like all those times coming home from a long spot under my parachute.

Too low to get out

The plane slowed down and the airport rose higher in my field of view. I looked at my alti, we rapidly descended through 1,000ft, too low to get out. I turned to my friend on the other bench, “We aren’t going to make the airport.”

“We aren’t going to make the airport??!!” He blurted back. I said nothing, he tightened his tandem passenger’s harness. I stared fixatedly out the window, I couldn’t see any big green fields, just houses, hi voltage power lines and the freeway. A cacophony of beeps rippled through the plane as a 17 audible altimeters shrieked their frantic warnings. Trees came into view. “Alright we’re doing this”, “Relax”, “Hang on” punctuated the silence.

We passed over a row of treetops, fifty feet over a field. It seemed like forever and most of the precious green field passed until we finally slammed down, bouncing a little. I could feel the pilots attempts to apply the brakes in the loose dirt. We were fully loaded and going fast. Everyone was hanging on tight to the person in front of them….

The Crash

“Open the door, open the door” someone yelled. A stand of trees rushed past at astonishing speed followed immediately by a loud bang. everything went black. I was in a washing machine bouncing around colliding with other bodies, the sound of crushing metal all around.

We came to rest, everything was still black. I was in a tangle of bodies. I realized I was upside-down. Yelling and beeping were everywhere. My mind was filled with fear of burning. Liquid was spraying somewhere outside. I tried to find my seatbelt latch, it was twisted and I was upside down I couldn’t get it. I struggled for a moment. Then remembered slow is smooth and smooth is fast. Click!…

I fell to the floor, bodies fell on top of me, upside down under people on top of people all tangled up. Everything still black. I struggled to my feet I felt like a tortoise righting itself. I could see, there were people all over the floor, I had to kneel and step on them until I found some standing room.

“There is no fire, relax” someone yelled, I looked to the front, there was liquid spraying on the windows, the front of the plane was total chaos. We crawled and scrambled out of the plane. Wrapped in tangled wires and impaled by steel stakes, it was upside down in a vineyard. Broken sprinklers making little fountains everywhere. We helped each other over the wing, slipping on the aluminum surface, lubricated by jet fuel. We made it to a road. I had no idea where we were.

Thankfully everyone was wearing seatbelts and no-one was seriously injured
Thankfully everyone was wearing seatbelts and no-one was seriously injured

The aftermath

A lady came up to a group of us, “You hit our truck!”

“What, with our plane?!”, I replied. We found the rest of the skydivers standing around in someone’s driveway, it seemed everyone was alive and well if a little disorientated. The pilot had a bloody nose. A policeman arrived, we were corralled together. He confirmed the story, “The plane landed in the field over there, hit the road, clipped the back of the pickup truck, went under the power line and then flipped over in the vineyard. Is that ok with everyone?” We murmured our agreement. “Ok you can go now”.

We started walking. A resident pulled over and offered us a ride. We got back to the DZ a few minutes later. “Did you guys land off?” “Why are you still packed?” Skydivers were preparing for the next load, the plane was late. “Na the plane crashed” I replied. “Is it ok”?

“Na its f**ked”.

We caught up on events whilst someone went inside to tell the owner. Just a moment later we saw him drive past in the tug. Less than 5 minutes late he drove back past towing a Twin Otter. “We are going to combine load 12 and 13… 10 minutes”, echoed over the PA system…

The fuselage was almost completely intact accept for one point where the wing had snapped at the attachment and started penetrating the side.
The fuselage was almost completely intact accept for one point where the wing had snapped at the attachment and started penetrating the side.

Lessons learned

I don’t hold all the answers. Or even all the questions but here are some of my thoughts from the experience…

Seatbelts save lives

Seatbelts save lives

Seatbelts save lives, a reasonably recent addition to jump planes, they are still not used in all drop zones in all countries. Many people are dubious about their worth in jump planes. However the force in our relatively low speed incident was surprisingly vicious, can you imagine being slammed into by seventeen 100kg sacks of potatoes during an accident? That becomes several tons of force when you multiply it by the G-forces of your sudden stop. Without everyone wearing seatbelts, I’m certain the outcome would have been different.

Seatbelts should be fitted

Knowing which seatbelt is yours needs to be part of aircraft briefings, benches can be long and people can pick up the wrong seatbelt in a rush, leaving the person at the end of the bench without one. I have jumped at DZs on five continents and unfortunately there are plenty that don’t have properly configured jump planes. It’s up to us as instructors and skydivers to demand high safety standards when we travel, for work or play. Otherwise they won’t change. A seatbelt specially made for skydiving can be purchased for under $100 and fitted in a few minutes to existing points in the aircraft with no modification. It shouldn’t matter if the plane is rented, there is no excuse.

Lucky escape
Lucky escape

Brief aircraft emergencies

The usual dz briefing on aircraft emergencies doesn’t equate to much more than “wait for instructions from the pilot.” In our situation there wasn’t the time to wait for instructions from a pilot busy trying to land a heavily loaded plane in a populated area. Maybe aircraft evacuations should be practiced as part of safety days.

  • What specific situations should we exit and should we stay?
  • Who makes the decisions? Is it up to the individual?
  • How do we get as many people out at a safe altitude as possible without upsetting weight and balance?
  • Just how bad do things have to be before I send my level one AFF student out on his reserve?
  • How do I know when that is the situation?

Loadmaster

Who sits opposite the pilot? Some DZs allocate an experienced instructor to be load master every load and he sits there to act as the interface between jumpers and Pilot. An experienced jumper up the front could be useful to help make the call of who should get out (if anyone) based on the seriousness of the situation.

The door

The door remained shut throughout the incident and when upside down the disorientated jumpers took a while to open it. In some dzs the door is locked open for any kind of landing to prevent this problem. However one of the jumpers at the door couldn’t get his seatbelt back on in time. With an open door he could have been thrown from the plane during the crash. ‘Door open or shut for landing?’ – this is another point to discuss.

Who sits by the door?

Who sits by the door? Do you make sure an experienced jumper who knows the dz and procedures is there every load? Do you make sure he’s not wearing headphones, or speaks the same language as everyone else?

Teach crash drills

There are ample studies and actual tests that show the correct attachment and brace position for a crash when wearing a single point restraint, this could be taught and displayed at drop zones.

We have all thought about these things as individuals and we chat about them around the fire. But we have never practiced them as a group. We practice every other emergency procedure over and over again. Maybe a variety of aircraft emergencies could be drilled in real time on the ground, just like we drill for the multitude of tandem emergencies as instructors.

I hope this article makes you pay just a little bit more attention to the other part of your skydive.

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