Two small airplanes carrying skydivers collided over Superior at dusk Saturday, causing the lead plane to break into pieces, with debris falling across a swath of southern sections of town.
Only minor injuries were reported among the 11 people aboard the planes. The mid-air collision and its aftermath were seen by numerous witnesses in the Twin Ports.
“We were just kind of lucky that we were at the point where we were out of the airplane,” said Mike Robinson, a skydiving instructor who was one of four jumpers on the first plane, a Cessna 182. “If we’d been back in the rear of the airplane when they collided it might have been a little bit different.”
All nine of the skydivers aboard the two planes were already jumping or preparing to jump when the collision occurred at a height of 12,000 feet above the Superior Menard’s, Robinson said.
The four jumpers aboard the lead plane - the one that broke apart - landed without incident. The pilot of that plane used an emergency parachute to also jump safely, Robinson said, but he sustained some cuts and was taken to an area hospital for treatment.
Robinson didn’t know the pilot’s name but said he was from the Twin Cities and went by the nickname “Tweak.”
“He may need some stitches, but he’s not seriously hurt,” Robinson said in the Skydive Superior building as other skydivers quietly packed their gear.
The five jumpers aboard the second plane, a Cessna 185, also jumped while pilot Blake Wedan of Superior landed safely at the Superior Airport without incident in spite of damage to its propellers, Robinson said.
“The pilot did a great job being able to land it,” he said.
Both planes are owned by Skydive Superior.
All nine of the jumpers were veteran skydivers, Robinson said. Many, like him, are instructors at Skydive Superior.
“It requires a really strong comfort level to be able to do this,” said Robinson, who has been skydiving for 12 years.
He said the accident, which occurred just before 6 p.m., developed during an ordinary run with the second plane closely following the first.
“We don’t know for sure yet but what we think happened was the trail plane got caught in the wash of the wing and caused them to bump,” said Robinson, 64, of Gnesen Township.
Both wings came off the first plane, he said. The fuselage ended up in the Head of the Lakes Fairground, one wing landed off an airport runway and the other, which caught fire, may have landed in or near Nemadji Golf Course, he said.
Most of the skydivers landed in the area of the airport where they would normally land, Robinson said. The pilot was using an older, round parachute that he couldn’t steer
Everyone remained calm through the experience, he said, although he had never had such a close call. “And we’ve done these kinds of jumps hundreds of times.”
“It was more of a matter-of-fact thing,” Robinson said. “We were just kind of lucky that we were at the point where we were out of the airplane. If we’d been back in the rear of the airplane when they collided it might have been a little bit different.”
There were no reports of any injuries on the ground. The jumpers could see parts of the plane falling above them as they descended, Robinson said.
“We’re in free fall, so we’re falling about 120 miles an hour vertically down,” he said. “But then we open our parachutes, and now all the sudden they’re falling faster than we are. … Fortunately, everybody kept it together so they just avoided (the debris).”
Braydon Kurtz of Superior was duck hunting along the St. Louis River when he witnessed the collision.
“We heard a boom and looked up and there’s a fireball and smoke,” he said.
Kurtz said he saw two planes - “one was circling down and one was going down straight.”
Mike Plaunt was at his home in Superior’s Billings Park neighborhood, where he often watches skydivers and hears their planes. On Saturday evening, the engine noise he heard was unusual and drew his attention.
“I went outside and looked and could see six parachuters and a drop plane, and then there was something spiraling down. I couldn’t identify what it was ... it had a trail of smoke and I had never seen that before.”
There was a point of light with the smoke, and Plaunt’s initial thought was that perhaps one of the skydivers had dropped a flare.
Seconds later, Casey Trachsel of Superior was driving with relatives on Tower Avenue near the Head of the Lakes Fairgounds when “we heard a loud buzzing sound coming really close, and we saw a gray object torpedo into the ground.”
What fell from the sky didn’t look like a plane, she said, in the couple of seconds between when they heard the noise and saw the impact. After the fuselage hit the ground, she said, the front end of the plane was crushed, embedded into the earth.
“It doesn’t seem real,” she said about an hour after witnessing the crash. “I’m still kind of in shock.”
Superior Fire Department Battalion Chief Vern Johnson said fire crews initially dealt with numerous reports relayed from eyewitnesses. The first call came in at 6:05 p.m.
“We had all kinds of rabbits we were trying to herd out there,” he said. “We were all over tarnation out there in case anyone needed medical help or if something was burning.”
It was the second incident this year involving Skydive Superior. Two skydivers were rescued after they landed off the shore of Lake Superior during the Lark O’ the Lake Festival in July.
Roland Herwig, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Agency in Oklahoma City, said Saturday night the National Transportation Safety Board had been notified about Saturday’s incident.
“All aspects of safety involved in this will be investigated,” he said.