The Clouds in Our Heads—On the Lake Erie Tragedy and the False Security of Technology

On August 27, 1967, 16 skydivers died on the same load.
what has come to be known as “The Lake Erie Tragedy” resulted in more fatalities than any other skydiving-related accident since (with the exception of the 1992 skydiving plane crash in Perris, California, which also killed 16 people). This month marks its 50th anniversary.

The story of the jump reads, predictably, like a multi-factorial, perfect-storm, watching-through-the-fingers nightmare. It started when 20 jumpers took off from Ohio’s Ortner Airport in a converted World War II twin-engine B-25 Mitchell bomber. Eighteen of them exited on the first pass at 20,000 feet, the group spilling out together in an enthusiastic tumble from the bomb-bay doors, the world below them an unbroken mantle of cloud. Two jumpers exited on the second pass at 22,000 feet using bailout oxygen bottles.

The last two jumpers landed uneventfully at the Ortner airport drop zone. The rest ended up about 13 miles north-northwest of the drop zone, eight miles offshore in the squally waters of Lake Erie.

In the first minutes, a small fishing boat happened across two of the jumpers: Bernard Johnson, 30, and Robert Coy, 29. Johnson later testified that there was total cloud cover over the area at 6,000 feet. The group had popped out of the clouds at 4,000 feet to discover nothing under them but a churning void of water. Johnson and Roy were the only survivors.

Four days after the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board convened a hearing to determine the causes of the accident. During the two days spent in that stuffy room, all the principals testified: the pilot; the controller at the Oberlin Air Traffic Control Center, who testified that he had a visual of the B-25 on his radar screen that showed it in the right place; the two survivors; the two who successfully made the second, higher jump without incident; a USPA rep, who, according to the article “Into Choppy Waters” by Jim Cox (October 2003 Parachutist) made “a persuasive, diagrammed argument that the controller could not possibly have had the right plane on the screen.”

By the end of September, the verdict was in: The NTSB report stated that the pilot was at fault for dropping jumpers when he “could not determine his position over the ground by visual means”; that the air traffic controller made an incorrect radar identification of the B-25, likely confusing it with a Cessna that was simultaneously circling the airport where the DZ was based; and that the jumpers themselves “erred in electing to jump in view of the existing cloud coverage.”

Multi-factorial? Yes. But one factor could have easily saved 16 lives that day: the decisions of the individual skydivers not to jump at that time. (The next day, as it turns out, was a perfect bluebird.)

False Security
When new skydivers hear about this tragedy, they reliably have two reactions: shock, of course, heightened by empathy for what the dead must have gone through in those last minutes of their lives. The other reaction is relief. After all, those guys were jumping in 1967, under round parachutes and without the benefit of GPS. Thank goodness we’re out of those dark days, right? What a consolation it is that such a thing could never happen again.

Au contraire.
Technology has filled myriad gaps in our sport, sure, but it can’t fill them all. If you have a bunch of jumps under your belt, it’s very likely you’ve seen something similarly eyebrow-raising in your skydiving career. If you haven’t, you will.

Take this jump, for instance:
It was Friday afternoon at the Lost Prairie Boogie in Montana. They’d had some weather for the past couple of days, so everyone in camp was antsy.

To understand what happened, you first have to know that load organizer Johnny Gunn, an eminently experienced and respected organizer, instructor and world-level competitor, is not the kind of guy who regularly makes mistakes. Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. In both military and civilian contexts, he has spent the last decade dispatching “literally thousands and thousands” of people from airplanes, with no bad spots on his watch. Gunn’s flawless record was a point of understandable pride. He’s a consummate professional. So was the pilot involved. There was clearly a functioning GPS device in the plane. There were no visibility issues.

As the sun was sinking low that day, a very mixed bag of jumpers asked Gunn to organize a tracking dive for the sunset load. A very big mixed bag: including Gunn, 22 jumpers’ worth

.“As we were climbing up to altitude,” Gunn remembers, “I had this feeling. Everything was kosher—well within the FAA limits as far as cloud clearances and everything else—but, for whatever reason, I got everybody’s attention and said, ‘Hey, guys, we’ve had some nasty weather and it could be weird out there, so if you see me roll over, wave off and pull, please do the same thing.’”

If you’ve been to Lost Prairie, you know that the sight picture can be a little confusing. The boogie is run from a very small private airstrip. At the head of the next valley, there’s a very similar private airstrip.

“I had asked the pilot to give us the green light a little bit earlier,” Johnny says, “because I know what I’m doing. I’ve been organizing for a long time. I planned for us to get out at the leading edge of the runway; that way, at worst, we’d be scattered all over the wide-open valley and not be north of the drop zone.”

“I looked out, and for the first time in my career I spotted what turned out to be the wrong runway,” he says as he winces.

No One Looked
Everyone exited with him. As far as anyone can tell, no one else in the group of 22 looked before piling out.

“So there I am, leading on my back with somebody I trust next to me. I remember giving him the thumbs up, looking for assent. ‘We’re good, right? You know where we’re at?’ Two or three times, he gives me the ‘I don’t know’ [look]. I was like, ‘Wow, this is weird,’ so I rolled over to my belly to check it out.

Immediately, I saw what had happened. I knew immediately that we were screwed, that nobody was going to make it back. So I rolled back, waved off and pulled at about 8,000.”

The group was over Montana’s steep, forested terrain when the jumpers pulled. Everyone landed in meadows.

“Everybody—even the younger jumpers who had something like 80, 90 or 100 jumps—did exactly as I told them to on the plane,” Gunn says. “Thank God. It gave everybody the time to be able to make a decision and pick an out.”

Spoiler: This particular story ends well. No one sustained even a single injury (even though a very experienced jumper on the load had a spectacular cutaway that spun up his reserve). Every jumper was retrieved and delivered back to camp in less than an hour, and to everyone’s credit, nobody was slinging blame (though Gunn was beating himself up mightily). Every jumper on the load took responsibility for getting out without looking.

“Just talking about it gives me goosebumps,” Gunn says.

Not an Anomaly
It should give any other skydiver goosebumps, too—especially because this story is by far not the only one of its kind. Just last year, in fact, this author herself witnessed a belly formation and a couple of tandems get out of a plane miles out over the Pacific. Any skydiver past AFF would swear that they’d double-check the spot on a jump on which they’d need to hit a narrow beach on a 1.39-square-kilometer island 30 miles off the mainland. No one did. Luckily, there were enough boats in the area to scoop up all those who landed in the water in time.

The fact is this: The presence of GPS isn’t a guarantee that you aren’t getting out over a mountain, the ocean, the city of Tokyo (yes, this happened) or a 9,910-square-mile lake. If you need any more convincing, listen to Chris Schindler, D-19012, who has dropped skydivers on more than 3,000 flights over decades.

“GPS is cool,” Schindler says, “but you must understand its limitations. The GPS might fail, or the pilot may fail to read it correctly. In every case, you need to look down and verify that the aircraft is on the jump run you expect.”

The sport of skydiving is a sport of personal responsibility. Sure, the pilot may be having a very bad spotting day; the GPS might be on the fritz; the organizer might be hustling everybody out; there might be a pile of clouds between you and the earth below (especially if you travel to jump in other countries, in most of which jumpers are considerably less concerned with cloud avoidance than in the U.S.). In the face of all that, one thing and one thing only can you meaningfully rely on, regardless of the variables: the simple choice to look for yourself. The most dangerous clouds, after all, are the clouds in our heads.

A comprehensive article about the Lake Erie tragedy, “Into Choppy Waters” by Jim Cox, appeared in the October 2003 issue of Parachutist and is now available online at
parachutistonline.com/intochoppywaters.pdf. 

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jsharp
Tue, 08/08/2017 - 23:27
I just read Annette O’ Neil’s article about the 16 jumpers drowning in Lake Erie on August 27, 1967.  She mentioned my reporting of that tragedy and the later story I wrote about that terrible day, “Into Choppy Waters,” published in the October 2003 issue of Parachutist.
 
Since my story can now be read online, I must ask your editors, once again, for a correction on the name of the Oberlin, Ohio air traffic controller who was found negligent for confusing the blips on his radar screen, believing he was observing the converted former B-25 bomber carrying the jumpers, when, in fact the blip was a Cessna which was circling over the jumpers’ drop zone at Ortner airport at 12,000 feet.
 
In my original manuscript, I wrote, three times, that the controller’s name was Engel Smit.  For some unexplained reason—and without checking with me beforehand—an editor changed the controller’s name to “Smith.”  I wrote the editor requesting a correction, but never received a response.    
 
In memory of the 16 jumpers who needlessly lost their lives on that Sunday afternoon fifty years ago, and also to never forget those others who may have somehow inadvertently contributed to that deadly event, I request that Parachutist please acknowledge that the air traffic controller’s name was Engel Smit.
 
Thank you.  
Jim Cox
C-385
 

Jennifer Alexander
Thu, 08/10/2017 - 14:39

Is anyone planning a commemoration of this tragedy on the 50th anniversary --

Webmaster
Mon, 08/14/2017 - 11:20

Jennifer, there is no event that we're aware of. The DZ no longer exists. Let us know if you hear of anything.

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