Worst Civilian Skydiving Accident
August 28, 2007 6:17 AM   Subscribe

Leaping Through the clouds 40 years ago yesterday, 18 experienced recreational skydivers took off in a converted World War II B-25 flying at 20,000 feet, intending to land at Ortner Field in Wakeman, Ohio. Expecting to free fall and then pop their chutes at 3,000 feet, after passing through the clouds at 4,000 feet, they instead plunged into Lake Erie, five miles from shore. FAA rules then and now bar skydiving through clouds, for obvious reasons. The plane's pilot wasn't rated to fly the craft but he also received bad information about his location from an air traffic controller in Oberlin: the controller mistook a Cessna observing the jump from a couple of miles away for the B-25. Two skydivers, one of whom had used his Styrofoam-lined helmet as a flotation device, were saved from the waters by a passing boater; 16 skydivers drowned. Oddly, one skydiver had told people the night before that, given a choice, he would take drowning as the way to go. He did not survive. The tragedy remains the worst recreational skydiving accident in history. (Sub. required.)
posted by etaoin (20 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
posted by mert at 6:55 AM on August 28, 2007

Speaking as a skydiver, that's yet another clear case of survival of the fittest. Not a sport to fool around with. Nice obit tho.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:07 AM on August 28, 2007

Air Darwin, flight 041, now disembarking. Watch your step.
posted by bashos_frog at 7:27 AM on August 28, 2007

I will never fully understand recreational skydiving. I just can't see how any amount of fun is worth that much risk.
posted by cerebus19 at 7:28 AM on August 28, 2007

My father once told me two things fall from the sky: birdshit and fools.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 7:39 AM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wow. And they all had a nice long time to contemplate their imminent drownings as they fell through 4000 feet and saw only blue below. Kinda like MeFi.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:45 AM on August 28, 2007

Actually, skydiving is fairly safe. In 2005 there were 2.2 million recorded jumps and 27 fatalities. Some of those are suicides. Most are experienced jumpers using very fast, very small parachutes who knew the extra risks they were taking on. Still, even using the raw numbers, that's only one death per 81, 481 jumps. Not bad odds, and it really is amazing fun, nothing quite like it.
posted by jedicus at 8:05 AM on August 28, 2007

The article says there were 20 jumpers, and 4 survivors. 2 of them dropped later and landed on dry land.
posted by mkb at 8:20 AM on August 28, 2007

18 went into the lake from one jump. The other 2 had chosen to drop from a higher altitude and thus were spared because the plane changed course. They were unaware of the accident until they landed on the field. You can count them if you want but I was focused on the accident and the 18 who went into the water. There were also a handful of people who overloaded the plane while it was still on the ground and had to remove themselves and thus lived. By the way, I had intended to post this on the anniversary and trusted the Huron Historical Society to get its facts right. But it was wrong--it said it occurred on Aug.28.
posted by etaoin at 8:38 AM on August 28, 2007

Pardon my really stupid question, but why did they all drown?

It was late August, so it shouldn't have been a hypothermia issue. Did the chutes land on top of them and they couldn't get out from under them? Did they have trouble detaching them? Were they wearing a lot of heavy gear? It just seemed to me that they should have been able to swim/stay afloat for quite some time and they didn't seem to.
posted by flarbuse at 8:48 AM on August 28, 2007

It all confuses me; I didn't realize the aim of skydiving was to go down as fast as possible then only pull your chute at the last available moment - I always thought the attraction would be floating down for as long as possible and enjoying the view along the way. I assume there's some limit on height above which you can't open your chute then? Maybe I've just got different priorities.
posted by Jimbob at 8:49 AM on August 28, 2007

It's not entirely clear to me why this counts as a skydiving accident at all. When I think of skydiving accidents I think of dangerous landings, failed chutes, and stupid acrobatics close to the ground.

Calling this a skydiving accident is like attributing stadium trampling to the game being played.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:54 AM on August 28, 2007

Pardon my really stupid question, but why did they all drown?
One of the links mentioned the skydivers hurrying to remove heavy insulated clothing (need for the high-altitude jump).
posted by exogenous at 8:55 AM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

flarbuse, from the articles it seems that parachuting does involve quite a bit of heavy gear, used for insulation. And the parachute itself is no small thing--it's a huge object that's going to immediately catch the waves, drag you down and you gotta deal with your panic at landing in the middle of a huge goddamn body of water with no land in sight.
posted by schroedinger at 8:56 AM on August 28, 2007

Another skydiver here.

I have a bit more than a thousand jumps. I do have water training, but only one water landing (intentional). I have been jumping for six years. A lot of things have changed in the last 40 years. The gear is a lot lighter and more controllable. Attitudes have shifted a lot as well. The whole "pull low" mentality is gone for the most part too -- but was very present 40 years ago, when low pull contests were quite common.

With modern gear it's easy enough to loosen things and swim out of your harness and out from under your canopy once you've hit the water. I suspect that without training and with the bulkier gear available in the 1960's, this wasn't such an easy feat -- for one thing, the reserve is on the back now with everything else rather than on a belly band -- there is only one strap to remove and two to loosen to get out now.

I've spoken with European skydivers who do not get water training, and they're pretty much clueless other than sitting in the water waiting to be rescued. Water training is part of the US "D" license requirement. If you sit out in the water long enough in your gear -- you get waterlogged and drown. Long enough is not very long at all.

Things are a lot safer now. I've ridden down a plane more than once rather than jumping through clouds to land gods know where. But I will admit, I have jumped though them if I know the area and the pilot has GPS.
posted by MarcieAlana at 9:37 AM on August 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

I love skydiving and if I could, every morning I would roll out of bed and fall 10,000 feet through clear cold air, pop my chute, and land in my kitchen. I would save a lot on coffee.

But coming down over a huge body of water would be a terrifying and helpless feeling. By the time you could get out of harness, you'd be deep underwater. *shudder*

...and it is kinda creepy how one of the guys in the dropzone thread starts his recollection with "those were the days..."
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:53 AM on August 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

How is landing on water, compared to land?
posted by smackfu at 10:40 AM on August 28, 2007

Pardon my really stupid question, but why did they all drown?

Also, Lake Erie can be a real bitch, even on a good weather day. I have no personal experience, but just finished reading William Least Heat Moon's River Horse in which he travels across the entire United States (from East to West) using a boat. Lake Erie was probably the most harrowing part of the trip. She is extremely shallow, as Great Lakes go, and so it doesn't take much of a wind to make these huge waves.
posted by spock at 11:30 AM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

"It was late August, so it shouldn't have been a hypothermia issue."

I guess you've never been in one of the Great Lakes in August. The water gets just warm enough that you don't go instantly numb. Erie is one of the warmer lakes but any water below body temperature will eventually put you in hypothermia.

"It all confuses me; I didn't realize the aim of skydiving was to go down as fast as possible then only pull your chute at the last available moment - I always thought the attraction would be floating down for as long as possible and enjoying the view along the way."

We'll do that sometimes. It's called a hop-n-pop. But more typically, people have planned a freefall formation, and the usual two or three minutes of scenery under canopy is plenty. There are videos all over the web if you're curious. Here's one I shot myself that's an example of freefall formation and scenic canopy ride on the same jump. (Er, self-links are ok in comments, right?)
posted by Tubes at 11:33 AM on August 28, 2007

Wow. I'd seen this listed in various places before, but had no idea what actually happened.

I have to second Tubes although I've never once skydived. Part of the attraction must also be the whole experience of freefall, not hanging from a strap. Maneuvering through the air, the rush of wind doing weird things to your skin and hair, and all that. And yes, that bit of knowledge that if you spend too much time taking it all in and fail to pull your cord in time, you may expeditiously meet your maker.

If it's just hanging from a strap, may as well go to Coney Island.
posted by dhartung at 11:46 PM on August 28, 2007

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