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Skydivers know the dangers, jump as a family

Skydive Superior is located at the Bong Airport in Superior, Wis. Its hangar is seen here on Nov. 6. FNS Photo by Bob King
 SUPERIOR, Wis. — There’s only one thing better than jumping from a plane — adrenaline coursing through your body — to fall, then float freely through the open sky. And that’s doing it together, as a family.
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This shared passion is what binds the Skydive Superior community, even after the fiery midair collision Nov. 2 that sent one of their planes crashing to Earth. It’s also why mere moments after their brush with death that the group of nine skydivers say they crafted a plan to keep Skydive Superior alive using the footage in their helmet cameras, even as it sparked some criticism.

“This happened to all of us. We all survived together, and we want to continue to skydive. So this is about trying to replace what was lost that day,” said Trisha Roy, an accounting analyst for Essentia Health.

A few minutes of terror

The past week has been emotionally tumultuous for Roy, who said some of the video brought back a rush of vivid memories. Footage from her head-cam has been used extensively in television reports of the accident.

Roy, who has made 261 jumps in the 1½ years since she took up the activity, was in the chase plane, at the door and getting ready to jump from 12,000 feet, when the Cessna 185 came down on the back of the Cessna 182 it was following and sheared off the lead plane’s right wing.

She recalls the pilot, Blake Wedan, ordering everyone out of the damaged plane after impact.

“Go! Go! Go!” he shouted.

Roy obeyed, all the while fearing those would be the final words she’d ever hear from Wedan.

“Hearing the audio in that video was probably the worst part for me,” she said.

All nine skydivers and Matt Fandler, the pilot of the Cessna 182 who suffered facial lacerations from the plane’s broken windshield, landed safely. But Roy suspected Wedan had gone down with his badly damaged plane.

Just then, she heard the whine of an engine and saw a plane approaching. Roy held her breath, watching as it touched down safely.

“I was so completely relieved,” Roy recalled, commenting on his composure: “Blake has been a rock star through all this.”

Fandler, the other pilot, required 25 stitches but is expected to make a full recovery.

Barry Sinex, who also jumped to safety, said Fandler had made only three previous parachute jumps but deployed his chute flawlessly. Sinex said he ran to Fandler in case he needed any help, but he didn’t.

Not without danger

While many may consider skydiving dangerous, enthusiasts say they spend long hours training and take multiple safety precautions.

The Federal Aviation Administration continues to investigate the collision. Aviation records for both pilots are clean. Neither has any previous record of aircraft accidents or incidents, and neither has been cited for enforcement violations, said FAA spokeswoman Elizabeth Cory. Wedan has a record of multiple driving violations, which the FAA says are considered on a case-by-case basis, but it has not affected his flight status.

The day after the accident, Mark Androsky, whose father and mother founded the business that was to become Skydive Superior 53 years ago, said the chase plane may have gotten too close and then was pulled into the air turbulence created by the lead plane.

“It was just an unfortunate accident,” he said.

Androsky said he’s proud of Skydive Superior’s overall safety record.

But the operation has had mishaps, including most recently a jump at the Lark O’ the Lake Festival in July that landed two skydivers in Lake Superior, where they were safely recovered.

On Sept. 26, 2011, a skydiver was blown off course and broke her leg due to a hard landing.

FAA records show the company or planes registered to the Androsky family have been involved in two fatalities.

On Oct. 1, 2001, two skydivers collided in midair, knocking one unconscious and rendering him unable to deploy his parachute. He later died at a hospital.

On April 4, 1997, a Brainerd man got twisted in his parachute during a three-way jump and was unable to open his reserve chute until he was 100 feet above the ground. He died instantly upon impact.

Skydive Superior and others in the skydiving community say those incidents and all fatalities in the sport should be put into context with many thousands of successful jumps.

Ed Scott, executive director of the U.S. Parachute Association, said risk is inherent in the sport.

“Every time we go up, we carry in the back of our minds the fact that something could go wrong or not as planned,” Scott said, noting that’s why federal law requires skydivers to carry a second, emergency reserve chute.

Nevertheless, Scott said many variables are beyond an individual skydiver’s control, such as a mechanical problem or a sudden gust of wind that carries a person into challenging terrain.

Scott said news of the dramatic incident in Superior has captivated the interest of the worldwide skydiving community.

“I think everyone has to admit there was a certain amount of luck or providence involved,” he said. “I’m just glad they were all such experienced skydivers.”

Despite the dramatic and well-publicized close call in the skies above Superior, Scott said modern-day skydiving is safer than many people think.

Last year, 19 out of 3.1 million jumps performed nationwide resulted in a fatality, according to the U.S. Parachute Association. That equates to one death for about every 166,000 jumps.

This year has seen 21 skydiving fatalities logged to date, but Scott said, “We’re pretty proud of the safety progress we’ve made.”

Scott noted that in the 1970s, there were years when upwards of 50 skydivers died. He said that even as participation in the sport has grown, total deaths have continued to trend downward.

Keeping the family together

Members of this close-knit group come from disparate backgrounds, from an accounting analyst to a tech entrepreneur to a retired highway engineer. Once gathered together on the ground, they assessed the damage: No major injuries, but one plane demolished and the other with a mangled prop.

They pinned their hopes to footage that had been captured on five helmet cameras during the ordeal.

The idea?

Sell the exclusive rights to the dramatic video to the highest bidder.

Even though the batteries in his own head-cam had died, Sinex recognized the collective video his colleagues had shot probably was quite valuable. The nine skydivers that day were participating as customers of Skydive Superior, and the rights to the footage belonged to them individually, company officials said.

“I told them that if you let me, I think that maybe we can find a way to save our drop zone,” Sinex said, referring to the site at Richard I. Bong Airport where they stage their skydiving activities.

He proceeded to lay out plans for how they could shop the video around and use the proceeds to keep the local skydiving scene from disappearing.

Indeed, the very existence of Skydive Superior was placed in jeopardy by the accident, with the company deprived of all its working aircraft.

While Skydive Superior carries liability insurance for both aircraft, it did not insure the planes themselves. Such coverage would run around $10,000 per aircraft, more than the small, family-run company could afford, according to Androsky. Superior lawyer Toby Marcovich, who keeps his plane in Skydive Superior’s hangar and has advised the group, said self-insurance is typical and sensible.

“You’re better off financially to cover it yourself,” he said.

To resume normal operations, Androsky estimated it will take about $80,000 to repair the damaged Cessna 185 that survived the accident and another $70,000 to replace the Cessna 182 that now sits in mangled pieces, secured as evidence by the FAA inside an airport hangar.

Raising $150,000 with their story and dramatic video sounded like a tall order, and Sinex recalled that his colleagues were skeptical initially, but they were willing to give it a try. He said no one held out to derive any personal financial gain from the endeavor but instead all agreed to direct anything they could raise toward reviving Skydive Superior.

“They were all 100 percent behind the idea,” Sinex said. “Our local skydiving community is like one big family, and there was no question that we were going to stick together.”

“I’m overwhelmed that they would do this, that they would go to New York and share their video and their stories to save their drop zone,” Androsky said, describing the local skydivers’ efforts as an incredible act of generosity.

The skydivers sold their collective video to NBC for an undisclosed sum — reported by some news outlets to be in the neighborhood of $100,000. The exclusive footage has been featured on national programs ever since, airing on both the “Today” show and NBC’s “Dateline” last week.

In media circles ranging from The Washington Post to the Huffington Post, the deal has been called “checkbook journalism.”

“The negotiations were very clean,” Sinex countered, noting that the compelling video practically sold itself. “When they (NBC representatives) saw the footage for the first time, they actually gasped.”

NBC will retain exclusive rights to the video for the first two weeks. After that, the video can be offered to other potential buyers.

Sinex said broadcasters from around the world have inquired about purchasing broadcasting rights.

Even if the effort falls short of the $150,000 mark, Sinex remains optimistic enough money will be raised to enable Skydive Superior to resume at least limited operations by next summer.

“Nobody’s getting rich here,” he said.

All nine skydivers say they plan to jump again and again and would fly with both pilots.

Roy described being thrust into the national limelight as a strange and occasionally exhausting experience.

“Sometimes it feels like I’m watching some crazy movie,” she said.

Sinex said all the skydivers involved in the crash realize their current notoriety will be short-lived, but that’s fine with him.

“The best thing is that after our 15 minutes of fame, we can go back to skydiving,” he said.

John Lundy contributed to this report.