A Cessna 182L, the lead airplane, and a Cessna 185F, the trail airplane, collided during a formation skydiving flight in Superior, Wis., resulting in one minor injury.
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.”
The four skydivers on board the 182 climbed out onto the right wing strut and right wheel step. Almost immediately, the 182 was struck by the 185.
The 182’s windshield was shattered, and the plane entered an uncontrollable descent. During the descent, the right wing separated from the plane, 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.
During post-accident interviews, the pilots of both airplanes and the operator’s chief pilot reported that, before the flight, they briefed that the trail airplane would be positioned on the left side of the lead airplane.
However, each of the three pilots differently described the expected lateral and vertical separation between the trail airplane and the lead airplane.
The 182 pilot described the trail position as 20 to 30 feet aft of the lead airplane on a 45° bearing and lower than the lead airplane.
The 185 pilot described the trail position as one to two airplane lengths (about 26 to 52 feet) aft and left of the lead airplane and at the same altitude as the lead airplane.
The chief pilot described the trail position as three airplane lengths (about 78 feet) aft and left of the lead airplane and slightly lower than the lead airplane.
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 FAA 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. The skydiving operator did not provide its pilots skydiving formation flight training, and it did not keep records of pilot training nor was it required to do so by the FAA.
The United States Parachute Association published an article titled, “Formation Flying 101: A Guide for Jump Pilots” that provided guidelines for skydiving formation flights, including, in part, that the trail airplane should be within 100 feet of the lead airplane; however, it did not specify that the trail airplane should be lower than the lead airplane.
The article did state that altitude separation is the No. 1 way to avoid a collision and that the trail airplane pilot has only one thing to do — hold position relative to the lead aircraft and never lose sight of it.
It is essential that pilots flying skydiving operation formation flights have adequate training to conduct the flights properly and ensure the safety of their passengers. 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 determined the probable cause as 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.
NTSB Identification: CEN14LA036A
This November 2013 accident report is provided by the National Transportation Safety Board. Published as an educational tool, it is intended to help pilots learn from the misfortunes of others.