By the Eleven of Us
We all have our reasons for skydiving—fun, exhilaration, fear, adrenaline—but in the end it’s family that binds us together. Who likes doing a solo skydive? Why do we all respond, “What?” to, “Hey asshole!” and have the compelling need to fist bump everyone within reach before we dive out of a perfectly good airplane? The Androsky family has operated the drop zone for more than 50 years in Superior, Wisconsin. It was started by Chuck Androsky and half a century later spans three generations and now includes all of us, their extended family of skydivers as well.
Family would soon take on a whole new significance for all of us. At our little Cessna drop zone, perched on the south end of beautiful Lake Superior, our family was spared the heartache that others have not been so fortunate to experience when our airplanes collided at 12,000’ and exploded in a fireball.
Getting our pilots up to 12,000’ usually takes a little extra encouragement, if you get the drift, but the sunset was so dramatic after an exciting day of skydiving that Blake and Matt needed little more than a smile. Our flight was made up of three young couples who meet at the drop zone, two who had a little more “practice” at life, and LaNaya, whom everyone loves. Sarah got to chase the base while Johnny got stuck in the base … again. Chad and Amy sat nestled in the rear of the 185 intermingling extremities with Dan and Trisha while Sarah squeezed in there somewhere. LaNaya, Mike, Johnny and Barry were in the lead 182. We all were studying our dive flow on the way up: Make a round then track. By the time we reached altitude we finally had it down.
Barry climbed out as far hang in the lead 182 aircraft. LaNaya sat facing rearward on the strut, Johnny was student and Mike took grips in the door. On the chase aircraft Dan swung out under the strut on the 185 and perched himself on the wheel to allow room for the others on the step. Sarah was out next taking the far hang.
As Trisha began to climb out those immortal words, “Holy fuck, holy fuck!” followed by Amy’s, “What the fuck?!” were the first indications that the skydive was not to go as planned. Then a blood-curdling scream came from Trisha when she suddenly came to the realization they might be a little closer than normal to the lead aircraft.
In a heartbeat the planes collided in a tangled mess of wings and things.
The right wing of the trailing 185 wrapped down behind and below the right wing of the 182, squishing Dan between the 185’s strut and the top of the center wing of the 182. The landing gear of the 185 ripped through the left wing flap of the 182. All Dan could hear as he hung onto the strut, while being squished between the two aircraft, was the chopping of the propeller inches behind his head as it ate the 182. He was thinking “I’m still here, hang on, don’t let go.” He would later be torn from the strut while in an inverted dive.
Sarah was thrown off the strut and was bouncing between the aircraft. As her ass went through the rear window of the 182 and her hand was pinned between the strut of the 185 and the wing of the 182, she struggled with reality and make-believe in her head.
Trisha, now positioned in the door, was thrown sideways through the breach between the aircraft, catching sight of a terrifying explosion engulfing the two aircraft.
As the right wing of the 182 broke off from the impact, LaNaya lost her seat on the strut and went tumbling into open air on her back. Barry felt the impact and decided this might be a good time to abbreviate the count and release his grips on the group and the strut. Johnny was shoved off the step when the gripped group was lurched by the impact from above. Mike decided to follow them from the doorway.
Back inside the 185 Amy and Chad, now jostled in the rear of the aircraft, witnessed the right wing of the 182 fold back across the windshield of the 185. The teeth of the 185 ripped through the fuel cell of the 182’s right wing as it folded over the windshield of the 185. The fuel was ignited with explosive force by the flame now erupting from the smashed muffler of the engine. The ensuing flash from gallons of vaporized 100LL avgas engulfed both aircraft, filling the 185’s cabin with intense heat. Amy braced herself while videoing Dan, who was now pinned by the door against the strut. Once Dan felt the aircraft invert and the door release him he decided it was now time to be thrown from the wreckage. Amy followed suit, diving out of a now near vertical aircraft in an inverted dive. Chad was anxiously waiting for his turn behind Amy for the same inverted dive exit maneuver but gave pause, thinking about Blake who was now strapped in the pilot seat. All they could hear was Blake screaming, “GO! GO! GO!,” considering the safety of everyone else before he refocused his attention on the fact he was in an inverted dive in and aircraft probably on fire at 12,000’.
Meanwhile, back in the 182, Matt was trying to regain control of the aircraft, now in a straight-down dive with one wing. Windshield glass had just seconds earlier sprayed down on him, gouging his face and hands like a thousand knives. He tried to pull up with all he had but to no avail. Matt, a student skydiver, had made it through category B in AFF and was now abruptly preparing for an advanced category C as he unbuckled his seatbelt and made a mad dash for the door. Stepping on the instrument panel and gripping the breach of the doorway he dove headfirst out as the remaining wing departed the now lawn-dart looking aircraft traveling at more than 200 knots straight down.
His mind now focusing on the category C dive plan, he remembered his instructors advising him to arch. Matt then proceeded to freefall without an altimeter while watching for other canopies so he knew when to open. Dan from the 185 and Barry from the 182, both AFF instructors, were in high pursuit of the flaming aircraft, realizing Matt’s inexperience might require some assistance should he extricate himself from the fireball wearing his round emergency parachute. Barry watched Matt freefall in a perfect arched stable position and in full control. He could swear he saw Matt do a practice pilot-chute deployment prior to executing a perfect deployment of his reserve.
Once that was completed both Dan and Barry focused on the lawn dart streaking toward Earth, concerned about where it would impact and thinking they may need to land with it if it crashed in the wrong place. Thankfully, they soon realized, it was going to land on the sparsely populated airport grounds. Then they deployed their parachutes.
As our parachutes sniveled open we were all frantically counting parachutes, looking for nine canopies plus the two round ones from the pilots. “One, two, three, four,” turn around, “five, six, seven, eight. Where’s the ninth? Oh above me … Where’s the second round canopy?”
Just after opening you can hear Mike on his video, “Please don’t die. Please don’t die.”
We never did make even the first point but everyone managed to land in the general vicinity of the landing area. Amy landed, fell to her knees and sobbed. We were all bewildered, each turning this way and that looking up and around. However, Chad did swoop all the cones and this would later help us all to reflect on who we are: skydivers.
“Where’s Blake?” everyone was screaming from the ground looking skyward in anticipation that we would spot Blake under parachute. We were all panicking watching still flaming parts of aircraft land all around us. “Where’s Blake?! Where’s Blake?!” everyone hollered. Our hearts sank in fear for our brother as the minutes passed.
Blake recovered his aircraft from its inadvertent attitude and was talking to Duluth approach. “Duluth approach … This is skydive one … We have had an incursion.”
Blake was also counting parachutes but while he was quietly descending in his crippled aircraft we were all on the near edge of collapse as we contemplated his fate. As the sound of a sick and choking plane came into earshot we all realized at the same time, “He’s still flying.”
Quickly we all hopped into the “Hoot mobile,” our beloved drop-zone pickup donated by a fallen comrade. We rushed to the runway in case Blake blew the landing. Later Blake would realize it was one of his better landings.
Back inside the hangar we all bounced around like pinballs, hugging each other, grateful for all of our safety. Some cried, some just sat, but we all were awe-struck at what just occurred. Gradually, we all ended up sitting by the tail wheel of our now only remaining and partially destroyed 185 aircraft. The good news was we finally formed our round.
As we contemplated our ordeal and were thankful that everyone was safe, we were realizing skydiving is over. With no plane and saddened hearts we were all bummed out. Then inspiration hit. No one had looked at the videos yet as they were all tucked away, most of us refusing to relive the drama again so soon. But slowly the GoPros began to emerge from the lockers and we all started to realize the miracle might not be over. Everyone was safe. All the parts of the aircraft must have already landed, harming no one on the ground and we had it all on video. HD-quality video!
Discussion ensued while deep consideration was given to our brothers and sisters in skydiving who had not been so fortunate. We concluded that ours was a story that could help all of us in the skydiving community deal with the heartache of tragedy by celebrating with us in our survival.
Each one agreed to give their video in a selfless act to save our drop zone and our beloved Androsky family who had just lost everything. I think it was best said in an obscure post in the days following the accident by one of us on Facebook ,“My friends. My family. We live. We don’t just survive, we LIVE …”
Thank you everyone for your thoughts and prayers,
About the authors: Chad, Amy, Dan, Trisha, Sarah, LaNaya, Mike, Johnny, Barry, Blake and Matt are jumpers and pilots at Skydive Superior in Wisconsin. On Nov. 2, the planes they were jumping from collided at 12,000’. Everyone survived and the group donated all footage and subsequent royalties to the drop zone and charity. They have raised enough money to fully replace one Cessna and are working to raise more. Merchandise and more information at www.miracleeleven.com.