Mike Robinson was at 3,600 metres, just seconds away from his last jump of the day, when a second plane carrying other skydivers struck the aircraft he was in, sending them all tumbling toward the ground.
None of the nine skydivers or two pilots sustained serious injury when the two planes collided in midair Saturday evening in far northwest Wisconsin near Lake Superior. Authorities still didn't know Sunday what caused the accident.
'It turned into a big flash fireball and the wing separated.' - Mike Robinson, skydiving instructor
Robinson, an instructor and safety adviser for Skydive Superior, said he and three other skydivers were in a lead plane Saturday, and all four had climbed out onto the step to jump. The plane behind theirs had five skydivers on board, three ready to jump and two still inside the plane.
"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 on impact, Robinson said, and the two inside were able to jump. The pilot of Robinson's plane jumped to safety, and the pilot of the second plane landed the aircraft safely at Richard I. Bong Airport, where it took off.
Robinson, 64, who lives north of Duluth, Minn., watched as the plane he'd been in spiralled downward 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 we get away from the crash area."
Robinson said the skydivers had parachutes that allowed them to steer themselves away from the debris, and toward the planned landing spot. They opened their parachutes between 3,000 and 5,000 feet and landed safely.
The pilot of his plane had an emergency parachute that cannot be steered, Robinson said, so he landed elsewhere. He had minor injuries and was taken to the hospital.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Roland Herwig said the lead plane broke into three parts, with debris landing on the airport property and an adjacent retail area.
Robinson said everyone involved was meeting Sunday with the FAA.
"We do this all the time," Robinson said. "We just don't know what happened for sure that caused this."
Recently, a skydiving accident in Belgium claimed the lives of 11 people. Part of the aircraft's wing broke minutes after the plane took off from an airfield on Oct. 19, sending the plane into a spiralling nosedive. The parachutists, nearly all between the ages of 20 and 40, were celebrating a birthday and weren't able to jump out. The cause of that accident was being investigated.