Skydivers and pilots jump to safety after Wisconsin mid-air collision
Eleven instructors and pilots in two planes escape injury after wing is torn off lead aircraft in collision as they were ready for final jump
Skydiving instructor Mike Robinson's plane was at 3,600 metres when a second plane carrying other skydivers smashed into his aircraft, ripping off a wing.
But all nine skydivers aboard the planes survived when they baled out mid-air, parachuting to safety as flaming debris plummeted around them.
None of the skydivers or the two pilots sustained serious injury in Saturday afternoon's crash in the US state of Wisconsin near Lake Superior. The pilot of Robinson's plane ejected and parachuted to safety too, while the pilot managed to land the badly damaged second plane.
Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration were in the area on Sunday and the cause of the incident was still being investigated, said FAA spokesman Roland Herwig.
Robinson, an instructor and safety adviser for Skydive Superior, said that the skydivers had gone up for their last jump of the day - called the "sunset load" - and the two planes were flying in formation.
All of the skydivers were instructors or coaches and had hundreds, if not thousands, of jumps under their belts. It was Robinson's 937th jump, and his fourth of the day.
"We do this all the time," Robinson said. "We just don't know what happened for sure that caused this."
He and three other skydivers were in the lead plane, and all four had climbed out onto the step at the side of the Cessna 182 and were poised to jump. The plane behind theirs had five skydivers on board, three in position to jump and two more inside the plane, at the ready.
"We were just a few seconds away from having a normal skydive when the trail plane came over the top of the lead aircraft and came down on top of it," he said. "It turned into a big flash fireball, and the wing separated."
"All of us knew we had a crash. ... the wing over our head was gone, so we just left," he added.
The three skydivers who were on the step of the second plane got knocked off upon impact, Robinson said, and the two inside were able to jump.
Robinson, 64, who lives north of Duluth, in the US state of Minnesota, watched as the wreckage of the plane he'd been in spiralled downwards and broke into pieces.
"Looking around, we're seeing the wing that came off. We're seeing it's on fire, and there are just parts of the airplane floating in the air with us," he said.
"We were falling faster than those parts ... so the concern was that we get away from the crash area."
Robinson said the skydivers had parachutes that allowed them to steer themselves away from the falling debris and towards the planned landing spot. They opened their parachutes between 900 and 1,500 metres and landed safely.
The pilot of the lead plane, the one that broke apart, used an emergency parachute that cannot be steered, Robinson said.
He landed elsewhere and suffered minor injuries that required medical attention. The pilot of the second plane landed the aircraft safely.
Robinson said his group was lucky. "It might've been a lot worse," he said. "Everybody, to a person, responded just as they should, including the pilots."
Despite the scare, Robinson said he would not hesitate to skydive again. "Whenever the clouds and winds allow us to be up, we'll be jumping," he said, although now the company is without an aircraft.