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Terminal velocity: When airplanes and skydivers collideTerminal velocity: When airplanes and skydivers collide

(MIA05LA096)(MIA05LA096)

Air Safety InstituteEvery year in the United States, people voluntarily toss themselves out of perfectly good airplanes more than 3 million times. Most of these jumps occur in the vicinity of airports, so it’s not surprising that those falling humans sometimes collide with aircraft. Below are two accounts of man and machine meeting in midair—with two very different outcomes.

On April 23, 2005, a de Havilland DHC-6 Twin Otter was substantially damaged when it struck a skydiver under canopy above Deland Municipal Airport in Deland, Fla. The aircraft was entering the downwind leg for Runway 23 when the collision occurred. The pilot was able to land safely, but the parachutist was fatally wounded.

Shortly after 9 a.m., the Twin Otter released 14 jumpers southwest of the airport at 13,500 feet msl. The aircraft descended to the northeast and approached the airport for landing. The pilot said he saw some parachutes on the ground and some in the air. Believing he had accounted for all of the jumpers, the pilot crossed over Runway 23 and began a left turn to enter the traffic pattern’s downwind leg.

As the pilot banked, he saw a flash of colors, felt an impact, and sensed a drag from the left wing. A witness said the airplane was about 600 feet agl at the time of the collision, which severed the skydiver’s legs at the knees. The parachutist was able to make a controlled descent following impact but later succumbed to his injuries. The pilot landed the damaged airplane without further incident. The NTSB cited the pilot’s inadequate visual lookout as the cause of the accident.

Collisions between skydivers and airplanes don’t always favor the machine, however. On Nov. 21, 1993, a freefalling jumper collided with a Piper PA-28-161 Cherokee at 5,700 feet msl, crushing its vertical stabilizer. The parachutist survived the impact, only to witness the crippled airplane spiraling out of control. All four people on board died when the aircraft struck terrain.

The Cherokee had departed Red Hook, N.Y., at 1 p.m., destined for Bedford, Mass. About an hour into the flight, the aircraft was passing over Northampton Airport in Northampton, Mass. Above and ahead of the Cherokee, the pilot of a Cessna 210 with five parachutists on board had just issued a “one minute to jump” advisory to Bradley Approach Control, which ATC relayed to all aircraft on the approach frequency. The Cessna pilot also transmitted the same announcement on the Northampton common traffic advisory frequency (CTAF). The Bradley Approach controller failed to warn the Cessna pilot of a VFR target in the vicinity of the jump airplane.

The first jumper exited the Cessna and entered freefall. After about five or six seconds, he saw the Cherokee “coming right at me.” The skydiver’s foot struck the aircraft’s tail. He managed to deploy his parachute and watched as the Cherokee spiraled toward the ground, “going in totally out of control.” Witness reports and wreckage investigation revealed that the aircraft’s damaged vertical stabilizer had separated in flight. The NTSB faulted ATC for failing to provide required traffic information to the jump pilot, whose inadequate visual lookout was also cited as a factor in the crash.

Fortunately, encounters between skydivers and aircraft other than the jump airplane are relatively rare. Still, reports of near misses abound (including one captured in this brief but dramatic YouTube video; be advised, the clip contains strong language). Awareness and avoidance are the keys to safety. Drop zones are depicted on sectional charts (with a parachute icon) and listed in the Airport Remarks section of the Airport/Facility Directory. Moreover, jump activities are typically conducted under a notam that includes the location, altitudes, and time or duration of the activity.

To determine if a jump area is currently active, pilots should listen for ATC and CTAF advisories. For operations in controlled airspace, pilots of jump aircraft are required to communicate with the ATC facility that has jurisdiction over the affected airspace at least five minutes prior to jump operations. In addition, when jump aircraft are operating at or in the vicinity of an airport, pilots are also encouraged to make CTAF announcements—typically a call of “Jumpers away!” with appropriate altitude information.

The AOPA Air Safety Institute recommends that pilots consider avoiding active jump zones by at least five miles. When this isn’t possible, or when landing at an airport where skydiving operations are taking place, use extra caution and vigilance—keeping a wary eye out for those who prefer to fly without the benefit of a perfectly good airplane.

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