The Story of the Miracle Eleven

Tag: Feature, January 2014

photos courtesy of Skydive Superior LLC

The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation of this crash is ongoing and the agency has not yet determined the cause.

It was an idyllic Saturday for skydivers all over the Midwest. Every drop zone in the region was jumping all day in the unusually warm and sunny fall weather. Skydive Superior in Wisconsin took full advantage of that day’s unseasonable weather, flying load after load of smiling jumpers in its Cessna 182 and Cessna 185. As the sun was starting to set, the jumpers raced to get on the last load of the day. Little did they know that it could very well have been the very last of their lives.

The nine skydivers on the two planes planned to jump together, the perfect end to a perfect day. After deciding who would be on which plane, LaNaya Bonogofsky, Mike Robinson, John Rodorigo and Barry Sinex climbed into the 182 lead plane piloted by Matt Fandler. Dan Chandler, Chad Ebling, Amy Olson, Sarah Perrine and Patricia Roy stuffed themselves into the 185 chase plane piloted by Blake Wedan. Both planes taxied out and took off into the beautiful pink skies, climbing together all the way to 12,000 feet over the gorgeous Lake Superior panorama. They chatted and laughed during the long flight, enjoying one another’s company. As they reached altitude, they all got up on their knees and made their final gear checks, and five of them turned on their video cameras to record the jump.

Fandler radioed from the lead plane to Wedan in the chase plane to notify him that it was time for the jumpers to climb out, which everyone did fairly quickly. Chandler (who is also a pilot for Skydive Superior) was first to climb out of the 185 trail plane, and he flipped under the strut to prepare to exit. At the time, everything seemed OK. Chandler said, “The next thing I heard was a blood-curdling scream from Trish [Patricia Roy], and I was pinned between the two planes when the 182 exploded. I saw the wing come off the 182, the 185 inverted, and I released from the strut.” It had only been about 16 seconds since the jumpers had climbed out.

Perrine had also climbed out of the 185 before the planes collided. She said, “My body collided with the back window of the 182, and all I could see was my hand stuck between the two planes. Somehow, I got off.” Roy, who was following her in the door said, “I was able to get a foot on the step and my hand on the strut when I saw the other plane coming at us. I tried to push Sarah out, but I got thrown back into the plane before I could do anything. I then got thrown out of the plane, and all I could see was a big flash of fire.” The 185 had torn into the fuel tank in the 182’s wing, and the fuel had ignited.

Olson, who was also in the 185, said, “The pilot, Blake, yelled for us to go! I was able to climb out and track away from the two planes and debris.”

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In the 182 lead plane, the jumpers had climbed out and were preparing to launch as the collision occurred. Bonogofsky said, “Just as we were about to leave the plane, I remember being knocked off. I was back-to-earth, and all I saw was a huge ball of fire above me.”

Rodorigo was also knocked off in a back-to-earth position and said that he “ … watched both planes together when the 182 started breaking apart.” Robinson described seeing “a fireball right above our heads.”

Fandler was piloting the 182, and as the planes collided, his windshield imploded and the Plexiglass shards bloodied his face and badly lacerated one of his hands. Despite his injuries, he leapt into action and tried in vain to gain some control of the aircraft. However, he soon abandoned the effort. As he leapt out the door in his pilot’s rig, a Strong Para-Cushion with a 26-foot Mid-Lite round canopy, the second wing sheared off the 182. Fortunately, Fandler had made two AFF jumps, so he had some familiarity with freefall. He reported, “I got out and arched as hard as I could and deployed.” He then watched what remained of his airplane fall away. It was the third jump of his life (and not your standard Category C skydive) but he even managed to keep his ripcord.

Now in freefall, the jumpers had to contend with fiery airplane parts raining down around them. Ebling, who had been in the 185, said that after exiting from the stricken plane he “ … made a quick scan of the debris to ensure that all of the jumpers were conscious.” Robinson, who was underneath both flaming wings of the 182 said, “The goal was to observe the debris and track away from it.”

Once everyone had tracked away to a safe place in the sky, they each deployed, most of them higher than usual. Independently, they all counted the canopies around them, and each jumper was relieved to see eight other sport canopies and Fandler’s round. Ebling, who had recently become a rigger, had packed Fandler’s pilot rig. It was his first save.

Remarkably, everyone landed on the airport. Fandler, who performed a PLF under his pilot canopy, shed his gear and ran to check on his colleague. Everyone was worried about Wedan; they did not see a second pilot’s canopy and knew that his plane had sustained significant damage and had inverted during the crash. But soon, they were rushing to the side of the runway to watch him land the crippled 185. Chandler chased the exceptionally efficient local emergency crew, who had already arrived on the scene, off the runway to allow the plane to land. Although the 185 had significant damage to the propeller, the right wing and the lower right side of the fuselage, Wedan brought the plane in for a smooth landing. “Actually, I think it was one of my better landings,” he said.

As Fandler went to the hospital to get 25 stitches in his hand, the rest of the group went back to the hangar, shed their gear and exchanged handshakes, hugs and tears. They had just been through a nightmare and had survived. The three couples on board—Olson and Ebling, Chandler and Roy, and Perrine and Rodorigo—breathed a particular sigh of relief when discovering that their partners were OK.

Although darkness had set in, it was time to figure out where the debris from the 182 had landed. All hoped it had not come down in the nearby neighboorhood or its shopping area. They went out to make a difficult search in the dark and found the 182’s right wing at the end of the runway. Although it was still on fire, it had landed in a swampy area, and the fire did not spread. They also found the left wing on the airport, as well as the fuselage, tail and engine, which landed close to the FBO building and made a crater more than 4 feet deep. In the dark, it was difficult to find any more wreckage, but they didn’t hear any sirens and the telephone didn’t ring. In the morning, they found the 182’s door on the 11th hole of a nearby golf course. Miraculously, no one was hurt by the falling debris and there was hardly any damage to property on the ground.

The jumpers soon realized that their dramatic story would not go unnoticed. The local media arrived within an hour of the crash. The group appointed Robinson, an AFF instructor and the DZ’s Safety and Training Advisor, as its spokesperson. Reports featuring Robinson appeared in national television and newspaper outlets the very next day, complete with photos of the wreckage. The DZ’s main phone line began ringing off the hook with more than 300 media inquiries from all over the world, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile and Great Britain.

The jumpers knew that the media exposure could help them get another aircraft and reopen the DZ. NBC picked up on the story and negotiated for exclusive rights to the video, and all of the jumpers who had video footage donated their files. NBC also invited the jumpers and pilots to fly out to New York City to appear on the “Today Show” and tape a “Dateline” special. The night after the crash, the group headed to the Big Apple. When the airline pilot heard the group was on board, he announced to the cabin that they were present and promised to keep the wings on the aircraft. (He also directed the flight attendants to provide the group free drinks.)

It was a whirlwind trip. The group arrived in Manhattan in the wee hours Monday morning. They spent the day in negotiations with NBC and other media outlets, and then bright and early on Tuesday, they appeared on the “Today Show.” Everyone was remarkably composed throughout the interview with Matt Lauer. When he asked the group who would jump again, they all raised their hands, and Bonogofsky quipped, “I’m more afraid of spiders!” which got a huge laugh from the anchors and cameramen.

Skydive Superior is close to making a deal on a new aircraft, and the DZ will require any pilot to have made at least one skydive (and preferably be an AFF graduate). The Androsky family, represented by Drop Zone Operator Gary Androsky, commented, “Our family has been running this place for over 50 years. We have enjoyed providing the facility where so many skydiving families have started and continue to grow. This accident will not stop us.” The family is planning to open the DZ for business this winter.

More first-hand accounts of the crash can be found at miracleeleven.com, a website set up by the survivors to tell their stories.

About the Author
FEATURE20141-1Merriah Eakins, D-22063, is the USPA North Central Regional Director. She traveled to Wisconsin following the incident to offer her assistance to the drop zone and the jumpers involved.

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