It was Mike Robinson’s 937th skydive and his very first “freak” accident.
One moment, the 64-year-old skydiving instructor was clinging to a plane over Wisconsin on Saturday at sunset, ready to jump with eight others. All nine were on two Cessnas cruising in close formation, with all but two jumpers already outside the fuselage, preparing to leap.
The next moment, the planes collided in midair. A wing on Robinson’s plane was severed, his Cessna caught fire, and everyone plummeted toward the earth from 12,000 feet.
Perhaps the freakiest thing is that everyone lived - and no one was seriously hurt.
The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating why the two Cessnas owned by Skydive Superior of Superior, Wis., collided. One of the Cessnas limped home, landing safely with serious damage, but the other fell to the ground in pieces, Robinson told the Los Angeles Times in a telephone interview Sunday.
The nine jumpers were friends and colleagues who were regulars with Skydive Superior and highly experienced, Robinson said. That day, they had flown up for a formation jump out of the two Cessnas. A group of four was to leap out together before the second group of five was to join them.
But the trailing Cessna came down on top of the lead plane, said Robinson, who was in the lead plane, where all four jumpers were clinging to a strut connected to the wing and preparing to let go.
“We were right below the wing that got ripped off, and it was on fire right when it bumped the airplane,” Robinson told The Times. “We were just thrown in the air at that point.”
The pilot was stuck in the flaming, tumbling Cessna, plunging toward the ground. He wore an emergency parachute.
Then the other wing tore off and the plane flattened out into a slow enough spin that the pilot could unbuckle his seat belt, leap out of the plane and pull his parachute, Robinson said.
The jumpers weren’t out of danger yet, however. The severed wings were falling slower than the skydivers, so the jumpers had to get as far from the wreckage as possible before opening their chutes, he said.
“We went off as fast as we could to get away from that debris,” Robinson said. “They [the wings] were falling slower than we were, one on fire, one not. We were very concerned we didn’t get hit by those wings when they came by us when we opened our parachutes.”
Ultimately, Robinson and the other jumpers from his plane - plus the five jumpers from the other plane - were able to open their chutes between 3,000 and 5,000 feet, he said. Despite the chaos, they landed in their planned drop zone.
The pilot from the destroyed Cessna hit the grass safely at Richard I. Bong Airport in Superior, where the other Cessna landed safely, Robinson said.
FAA spokesman Roland Herwig told the Associated Press that debris from the lead Cessna landed on airport property and on an adjacent retail area. No injuries were reported.
The jumpers had some bumps and bruises, and the pilot who had to leap out hurt his hand, but everyone was otherwise all right.
Skydive Superior won’t be putting on dives anytime soon. Both its planes are out of commission, and the surviving plane needs expensive repairs, said Robinson, a contracted instructor for the company who lives near Duluth, Minn., about five miles away.
Despite the scare, Robinson plans to keep skydiving.
“Everybody, we all love the sport so much, we’re committed to it,” said Robinson, a retired Minnesota Department of Transportation engineer. “We understand there are risks, but it’s got so many rewards to us. This was a real freak experience. It’s not at all the norm that we would expect.”