Features | Apr 01, 2020
Skydiving-Related Aircraft Accidents

Randy Ottinger

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The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating all of the jump plane-related accidents mentioned in this article and has released only its Preliminary Report (the initial report) and in some cases its Factual Report (the second report that contains additional information gathered during the investigation). After completing its investigations, the NTSB will issue a final report for each accident, which will determine the accident’s probable cause.

In 2019’s sole fatal jump plane accident, 10 skydivers and their pilot perished in a horrific crash of a King Air 90 on June 21 at Dillingham Airfield in Mokuleia, Hawaii. According to the NTSB Preliminary Report, “A parachute instructor at OPC [Oahu Parachute Center] observed the boarding process and watched as the airplane taxied west to the departure end of runway 8. He could hear the engines during the initial ground roll and stated that the sound was normal, consistent with the engines operating at high power. When the airplane came into his view as it headed toward him, it was at an altitude of between 150 and 200 feet above ground level and appeared to be turning. He could see its belly, with the top of the cabin facing the ocean to the north. The airplane then struck the ground in a nose-down attitude, and a fireball erupted.”

The much-anticipated NTSB Final Report on this accident may still be up to a year away. Undoubtedly there are important lessons to be learned from this, the deadliest jump plane crash since a 1995 Beechcraft Queen Air crash that killed 12.

Three accidents resulted in no injuries to skydivers or their pilots:

  • A Cessna Caravan sustained substantial damage during a landing accident after dropping skydivers over the airport. According to the NTSB Preliminary Report, “Review of a witness video recording revealed that during the landing, the nose landing gear contacted the runway first, followed by the main landing gear, and the airplane bounced.” The nose landing gear then collapsed before the propeller struck the ground and the airplane came to rest.
  • A Cessna Caravan sustained substantial damage during a landing accident after dropping skydivers over the airport. According to the NTSB Factual Report, “After the skydivers departed the airplane, the pilot returned to the airport and made a normal approach to land on runway 24. When the airplane was about 10-15 feet above the runway, he thought he encountered a sudden downdraft and the airplane just ‘dropped’ out of the air and landed hard on the grass runway. The nose landing gear fractured off as the airplane slid to the right side of the runway and crossed the asphalt parallel runway. The airplane then contacted a small tree on the right wing that spun the airplane around. The left wing then contacted the ground and bent the last three feet of the wing tip up.”
  • A de Havilland Twin Otter sustained substantial damage to its left wing spar during a takeoff collision with an aircraft that had just landed in the opposite direction. According to the NTSB Factual Report, neither pilot recalled hearing radio transmissions on the airport’s Common Traffic Advisory Frequency. In its Meteorological Information section, the safety board described the accident site as having night visual conditions.

Since USPA is not the investigating authority for aircraft accidents and the NTSB Final Reports are not yet available, the information above simply relates the known facts. However, it’s clear that even appropriately rated commercial pilots must receive thorough training prior to flying skydivers. That training must include aircraft-specific systems, preflight inspections, weight-and-balance considerations and proper fuel management. Because pilots, skydivers and drop zone operators are jointly responsible for compliance with Federal Aviation Regulations Part 105, it’s essential that pilots understand and comply with all sections of the regulation.

Piloting a jump plane is among the most demanding of flying jobs, with multiple takeoffs and landings in a variety of conditions and with a variety of loads, as well as the need to refuel often throughout a day. Pilots should fly every flight professionally. A variety of resources—the USPA Skydiving Aircraft Operations Manual and Jump Pilot Training Syllabus, a Flight Operations Handbook and the articles “Formation Flying 101” and the Federal Aviation Administration’s “Aircraft Control After Engine Failure on Takeoff”—are available under the Governance tab at uspa.org. Jump pilots and skydiving aircraft operators should use these resources as part of a proactive safety-management system.

NTSB reports and data summaries are located in the Aviation Accident Database at ntsb.gov.

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