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John Lundy, Forum News Service, Published November 02 2013

Planes collide over Superior; all on board OK

SUPERIOR, Wis. – Two light aircraft carrying skydivers conducting a tandem jump collided over Superior at dusk Saturday, causing one plane to break into pieces and scatter debris across a swath of the southern part of town.

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 about 6 p.m. The lead plane broke into three pieces, but its pilot managed to parachute to safety before it crashed. The second plane landed without incident at Richard I. Bong Memorial Airport, according to interviews with officials and one of the skydivers.

No serious injuries were reported.

“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,” Robinson said in an interview at the airport complex.

The pilot of that plane used an emergency parachute to also jump safely, Robinson said, but he suffered some cuts and was taken to an area hospital for treatment.

Five divers jumped from the second plane – a Cessna 185 – before pilot Blake Wedan of Superior made his way back to the runway.

“The pilot did a great job being able to land it,” Robinson said.

It was not immediately clear what turned an ordinary recreational run into a harrowing collision.

“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,” Robinson said in the Skydive Superior building as other skydivers quietly packed their gear.

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.

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 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 Administration 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.