Fire in the Sky: How 11 Skydivers Survived a Mid-Air Collision

After a terrifying mid-air collision, 11 jumpers scramble to escape their planes. A story of survival against all odds.

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Fire in the Sky: How 11 Skydivers Survived a Mid-Air Collision

Every drop zone has a sunset load: the last trip of the day, as the evening chill settles in. At Skydive Superior, in Superior, Wisconsin, that flight is special. Jumpers come from all over North America to dive above Lake Superior, the king of the Great Lakes. On a clear day, it's a deep sapphire, bright against the greens and browns of the Duluth hills behind it. From 3,658 metres, the sunsets are spectacular, brush strokes of light resting on the horizon line.

Skydive Superior, 54 years old and the longest continuously operating drop zone on the continent, was busy on Saturday, November 2, 2013. Wisconsin's late-fall blizzards had held off, leaving the day full of open sky for the jumpers who frequented the three-airplane hangar, working as coaches or instructors, helping pack rigs or preparing the daily schedule.

For first-time jumpers, skydiving is a thrilling novelty: they anticipate an elevator sensation-their stomachs riding up into their throats and plummeting once their canopy unfolds. Dedicated divers know otherwise. It's weightlessness, soaring through the air before landing as lightly as stepping off a last stair and feeling solid ground beneath your feet. That Saturday, nine of Superior's most experienced divers and two pilots were saving the sunset load for a formation jump, a rare chance for all of them to go together. This is their story.

Matt Fandler: I drive up early in the morning from the Twin Cities and am flying the plane by 11:30. It's overcast, but the weather gets better and better as the day goes on.

Sarah Perrine: I almost decide not to jump. I don't have the money to do it whenever I want, so unless it's going to be a cool one, it's not worth it. But a formation load with nine jumpers? That's not something we get to do every day.

Skydiving assaults every part of a human being-emotionally, physically. Humans aren't built to jump out of planes. To compensate, jumpers have a saying: plan the dive, dive the plan. So they do, every time. This day was no different. On the blacktop outside the hangar, the group assembled to practise what's called a dirt dive, going through the motions of what will happen in the air while on terra firma. They decide who will pack into which plane, a Cessna 182 in the lead or a smaller Cessna 185 that will trail behind. At the agreed-upon 3,658 metres, they'll unload.
Daniel Chandler: Two weeks ago, a plane of jumpers went down in Belgium and everybody died, all 11 on board. Eleven, just like us. I can't shake it. "Can we go over the emergency procedures one more time?" I ask the others in the chase plane.

Matt: Dusk is starting to fall as we reach altitude. I pull off my aviators, tuck them into the pocket on the left-hand door, then lean over slightly to swing the right-side door up, like I always do, so the jumpers can climb out. A minute later, a propeller smashes through my windshield and it shatters, thousands of Plexiglas pellets piercing my face, hands and thighs.

Daniel: I hear my girlfriend, Trish, scream from inside the plane. Out in the air, standing on the wheel like I am, you can't usually hear voices. I know something is wrong seconds before I'm slammed between two planes. Pinned between our wing above and Matt's wing below, I'm certain I am going to die. Windows crack and burst, a ball of fire rips around me, and I hear the screech of the prop cutting metal, grinding into the fuselages. Our plane nosedives. Hold on. Hold on. I'm clutching the strut with one arm, legs splayed, and I know I have to hold tight or I'll fly back into the other plane, and that'll kill me. Five seconds pass, and I can't hang on any longer. I let go.

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Sarah: This isn't really happening. It's a joke, right? My hip smashes into Matt's plane, below the back window, and I notice a hand pinned between the two planes. It's mine. That's not good. Our door, hundreds of pounds of aluminum, slams down just as the fuel from the detached wing of the lead plane ignites. Everything flashes orange, and heat explodes across my body, through my jumpsuit, helmet and gloves.

Daniel: I backfly away from the plane-usually you'd leave face-first, but I'll take what I can get. I'm alive. And then it hits me: Matt's still in his plane, which is on fire and spiralling toward the ground at 230 kilometres an hour. I chase the wreck, hitting 336 kilometres an hour. I keep hoping he'll come hurtling out, alive, and I can help him make it to the ground. At the drop zone, we like all of our pilots to get some dives under their belts, and I was Matt's instructor on his first two. They weren't good. Just as I catch up to Matt's plane, the left wing falls off, a wall of flames spinning up and barely missing me as I dodge. The fuselage turns into a torpedo, launching toward the ground at 483 kilometres an hour. Matt's dead. He must be. My mind goes numb. Pew, pew, pew! I realize my death alarm is going crazy. It's the audible altimeter in my helmet-it beeps once at 1,372 metres, twice at 1,067 metres, and if you don't pull your rip cord by 549 metres, the altimeter goes nuts. It's the only reaso I remember to pull, and my canopy unfurls in the sky. I'm awake in a nightmare.

Matt: Instantly, confusion sets in. What do I need to do? Level the airplane. I grab the yoke and pull back as hard as I can. No response. I need to get out. I unbuckle my seatbelt and turn to face a jagged hole where the door ripped off with the wing. I take a step and fling myself from the plane.

Mike Robinson: It's the longest 45 seconds, this freefall. I squint and make out three or four other para­chutes against the darkening fields below. I know the others in the lead plane jumped in time, but I'm afraid for the chase divers. "Please don't die, please don't die," are the only words coming out of my mouth. When I make it to the ground, my red-white-and-blue canopy deflates, and Amy's sobs fill my ears.

The nine divers and one pilot, Matt, made safe landings not far from where they'd planned to touch down. Detritus from the splintered lead plane fell across the landscape without injuring bystanders. But the chase pilot, Blake, was missing-no one had seen him since they'd ejected. Several minutes passed before the divers, gathered on the ground, heard the guttural chug of a sick plane's last breaths. Blake was alive-and preparing to land.

Matt: I remove my parachute and wave at an ambulance driving down the runway, my face dripping with blood. It doesn't stop. Finally, I get the fire marshall's attention and he radios the ambulance. Hopefully they can stitch me up here at the airport. 
I just want to go home.

Daniel: I grab Matt by the shoulders, easing him into the ambulance. His face is streaked with blood, like contorted veins bursting from his skin.

Mike: The reporters show up right away and don't let up for days and days. Later that night, we get some beers and sit around the floor of the hangar in disbelief.

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Matt: They bring me in as a trauma level one, which seems excessive. I'm wheeled into the emergency room, and doctors begin to poke and prod at me. My parents drive up from the Twin Cities after one of the cops calls my dad. "What happened?" my mom asks, before starting to cry. In the aviation community, you hear "mid-air collision" and you think explosion, tragedy, deaths. My dad's been flying for more than 30 years-he's never heard of anything like this. The doctors have been picking shards of Plexiglas out of my hands, face and thighs for an hour. Finally, at 1 a.m., I'm allowed to go home. Two days later, I still can't really sleep.

Sarah: I've had too much time to think. Most of the others have already jumped again. I went back up, twice in one day, as soon as possible, but it was painful. I have a partially torn rotator cuff, which has made things difficult-and very real. It also feels real when I look at my medical bills-by far my most expensive dive to date.

Daniel: A week after the crash, I rent a plane. I need to get back in the sky-I don't want to be afraid to fly or to jump. Trish and I go diving, re-enacting the positions we were supposed to jump on that sunset load. After the collision, I was black and blue. I ended up with a broken ankle and a break in one of my ribs. I'm haunted by what happened. I see it when I close my eyes. It consumes my dreams. I lost my income and my hobby. I lost everything.

Mike: It doesn't seem possible to be in a mid-air crash and have everybody come out of it alive. It's not a miracle that some of us survived, but it is a miracle that everybody survived.

LEAD PLANE

Pilot: Matt Fandler, 23. All the men in the Fandler family are pilots; he started working at Skydive Superior after being recruited away from another drop zone.
Far hang jumper: Barry Sinex, 54. A long-time businessman, Sinex woke up one morning and realized all of his adventures were old ones. "I wanted to get out and wake myself up a little," he says.
Strut jumper: LaNaya Bonogofsky, 31. "I'm more terrified of spiders," Bonogofsky said when Matt Lauer asked her on the Today show whether she'd jump again after the crash.
Step jumper: John Rodorigo, 27. An experienced skydiver whose girlfriend, Sarah Perrine, was riding in the chase plane.
Door jumper: Mike Robinson, 65. Robinson, a retired civil engineer, is the drop zone's safe-ty and training advisor. He's made more than 900 jumps since his first in 2001.

CHASE PLANE

Pilot: Blake Wedan, 27. Wedan screamed to the jumpers in his plane to get out once he realized the aircraft had collided. He later landed the Cessna to cheers from relieved divers.
Under strut jumper: Daniel Chandler, 32. Laid off from his human resources job when the recession hit, Chandler became a pilot and skydiving instructor.
Far hang jumper: Sarah Perrine, 31. Perrine came to skydiving after a divorce. The first time she jumped, she was so scared she kept her eyes squeezed shut the entire way down.
Door jumper: Trish Roy, 27. An accountant and Daniel Chandler's girlfriend, Roy was one of six involved in the crash to get commemorative tattoos.
First inside jumper: Amy Olson, 30. "We have a saying in skydiving: I'd rather be on the ground wishing I was in the air than in the air wishing I was on the ground."
Second inside jumper: Chad Ebling, 29. Ebling says he'll never forget getting to hug his fiancée, Amy Olson, after landing safely that day. The pair plans to celebrate their wedding this August by skydiving at Superior. It will be a sunset load.