'We were so lucky'

A local plane crash received national exposure Monday on the "Today" show. NBC correspondent Kevin Tibbles traveled to Superior to cover the story of how 11 people survived a mid-air collision 12,000 feet above the city Saturday evening.

Two FAA investigators Sunday examines the wreckage of a plane that crashed in Superior Saturday after a midair collision with another plane. Both planes were carrying skydivers. No one was seriously injured in the incident. Steve Kuchera/

A local plane crash received national exposure Monday on the "Today" show. NBC correspondent Kevin Tibbles traveled to Superior to cover the story of how 11 people survived a mid-air collision 12,000 feet above the city Saturday evening.

"Any time two planes collide in the air it's a potential disaster for everybody involved," said Mike Robinson, one of the skydivers planning to jump Saturday with Skydive Superior. "So we were all very, very lucky."

The mid-air collision between occurred when the trailing plan got caught in the lead plane's tailwind and hit the top of the lead plane, clipping the wings off and sparking a fireball, Tibbles reported. The segment gave Skydive Superior about two minutes on the national stage and included an interview with Ron Goble, who was at the Upper Deck Restaurant near the airport when the crash occurred.

"For all 11 of us to walk away from something like that relatively unscathed is a minor miracle," said Dan Chandler, 31, one of the nine skydivers who -- along with two pilots -- survived as one plane broke apart and plummeted to the ground, and the other limped back to Richard I. Bong Memorial Airport with a damaged prop.

For the moment, Skydive Superior is out of commission, with the collision having destroyed its Cessna 182 and damaged its only other aircraft, a Cessna 185. Instructor Barry Sinex, one of the skydivers who planned to jump in formation Saturday, estimates it will take about $150,000 to resume local skydiving operations.


'We were so lucky'

The two aircraft -- with four skydivers and a pilot in the lead plane, the Cessna 182, and five skydivers and a pilot in the trailing plane, the Cessna 185 -- collided above the southern part of Superior at about 6 p.m. Saturday.

"The chase plane must have got caught in the burble," said Mark Androsky, whose family owns Skydive Superior, describing the air turbulence behind a moving airplane.

Chandler characterized the turbulence as "an area of dead air that basically renders all your control surfaces useless."

Chandler, who was in the Cessna 185, said that all the occupants of the disabled lead plane, including the pilot, managed to exit within five to 10 seconds of the collision. Its occupants were making final preparations to jump when the crash occurred .

Sinex said he and Robinson, another instructor, stayed with the Cessna 182 until their pilot had safely exited the plane before following him.

"We wanted to sweep up the rear just in case he had any trouble with his chute," Sinex explained.

Androsky said he insists his pilots be prepared.


"We make sure everyone wears a parachute whenever we go up," he said. "Some of the pilots don't like it, but that guy was sure glad to have one when this happened yesterday."

Androsky said the pilot of the Cessna 182 made a hard landing with his emergency parachute and was "pretty scratched up," but should make a full recovery. He said the pilot, who is from the Twin Cities and whose name has yet to be publicly disclosed, required about 25 stitches.

"We were so lucky. You can replace an airplane," said Androsky.

Blake Wedan , the 26-year-old pilot of the chase plane, managed to solo land his aircraft at the Superior airport despite a damaged prop; the five skydivers on his plane jumped to safety.

After jumping, the skydivers had to take evasive action to avoid being struck by falling wreckage and debris, said Robinson, 64, one of the four skydivers in the lead plane.

"I was screaming at people to watch out for the falling wings," Sinex recalled.

The fuselage of the Cessna 182 landed at the Head of the Lakes Fairgrounds along Tower Avenue; other pieces fell across the southern portion of Superior, but did not appear to cause any damage or injuries. The collision and its aftermath were heard and seen by numerous witnesses in the Twin Ports.

Braydon Kurtz of Superior was duck hunting along the St. Louis River when he witnessed the collision.


"We heard a boom and looked up and there's a fireball and smoke," he said.

Kurtz said he saw two planes -- "one was circling down and one was going down straight."

Mike Plaunt was at his home in Superior's Billings Park neighborhood, where he often watches skydivers and hears their planes. On Saturday evening, the engine noise he heard was unusual and drew his attention.

"I went outside and looked and could see six parachuters and a drop plane, and then there was something spiraling down. I couldn't identify what it was ... it had a trail of smoke and I had never seen that before."

There was a point of light with the smoke, and Plaunt's initial thought was that perhaps one of the skydivers had dropped a flare.

Investigation continues

Robinson said both pilots were cooperating with investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board but would not be speaking to the media.

"I think they've been advised not to make any public statements at this time," he said.


Federal investigators were at the Superior fairgrounds on Sunday, inspecting the wreckage of the Cessna 182. The investigation could take several months to complete, according to Tony Molinaro, FAA spokesman for the Great Lakes region. Investigators will look at the planes and any parts, pull flight and maintenance records, talk to pilots, passengers and witnesses and check if there are any radar tapes. Such investigations are common, Molinaro said, and are standard procedure for all aircraft accidents. If anyone finds what they believe is a part from one of the planes, they should contact local law enforcement.

The complete "Today" report can be viewed online at the show's website, .

Telegram reporter Maria Lockwood and Tribune reporter John Lundy contributed to this report.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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