First Dive, Last Dive

I watch two skydivers plunge to their death.

It happened on Sunday, during our flight from Wenatchee, WA, to Phoenix, AZ. It was Day 2 and we were right at the end of our leg from Elko, NV, where we’d spent the night, to Mesquite, NV.

Zack was at the controls. Since Mesquite doesn’t have an AWOS or ASOS, he’d planned to overfly the field and check the windsock before coming in for a landing. I didn’t think there was enough wind to worry about it, but he was the pilot-in-command and I didn’t think there was any reason not to check the wind.

Until the jump plane made a radio call. He was at about 10,000 feet and climbing to release jumpers above the airport.

I called back and asked where the jumpers would land. After a second call, he replied that it was on the west side of the taxiway.

If there’s one thing I don’t like, it’s loitering with spinning blades anywhere near where there might be skydivers in the air. I suggested to Zack that we just land on the runway (which turned out to be Runway 19), which would keep us clear of the jumpers. With the runway now in sight, he made his radio call while I scanned the sky.

For the first time ever, I spotted the jump plane high above us. A moment later, three dots appeared. I told Zack I saw them. He looked but couldn’t see them — this didn’t surprise me because they were tiny specks more than two miles above us. They disappeared from view. I kept looking while Zack concentrated on the approach.

We saw two chutes a few moments later. A third appeared high above them.

The two lower jumpers seemed to be heading right for the runway in front of us. One of them was spiraling around and around. I’d seen jumpers do that before so it didn’t alarm me — at first. But when he didn’t stop spiraling or change course a few hundred feet above the runway, I knew something was wrong. His companion peeled off toward the landing zone.

I wasn’t very surprised when the spiraling jumper hit the runway. And didn’t move.

I got right on the radio. “Mesquite Unicom, you have a jumper crashed on the runway.”

Through the corner of my eye, I saw his companion overshoot the landing zone. He appeared to land on the golf course just beyond the airport fence.

I looked up. The third jumper was floating down towards us.

I looked ahead. People were running out to the runway.

Flying at Mesquite, NV

Zack and I looked back toward the crash site as I circled around the south side of the airport. I had my GoPro “cockpit cam” snapping photos every 5 seconds and this is one of the images it captured.

I asked Zack for the controls and he released them to me. I swung hard to the left, away from the runway and taxiway and landing zone. I dipped the nose down, pulled pitch, and got us out of the way fast. (Later, Zack told me I’d probably scared the folks on the golf course on that side of the airport; I honestly didn’t even see them.) Then I circled around to the south and came in from that side of the airport.

The pilot of the jump plane got on the radio. He’d been descending from 13,000 feet and needed to land. “Is there a jumper on the runway?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Don’t land a plane on the runway.”

“I’ll land on the taxiway,” he assured us.

A moment later, we were on the ground in front of the fuel pumps.

I got out of the helicopter and let Zack shut down. There were a lot of people running around and I wanted to make sure no one ran into the tail rotor — not that there was much of a chance of that.

I couldn’t see much of the accident from my position and, frankly, didn’t really want to. All I knew was that no one on the ground was moving. That couldn’t be good.

Over by one of the hangars, there were too many kids. I hoped they hadn’t seen the impact. I hoped it wasn’t their mother or father or other close relative that had gone down.

When the engine shut down, I heard the sirens. Within minutes, there were three police cars and two ambulances there.

We fueled up. Someone who works at the airport helped us. We were all distracted, all wondering about the fate of the jumper.

The facts came to our side of the field slowly, brought by one or two people who had gone over to learn more. They were doing CPR. It had been a tandem jump. The first chute had failed and had been caught up in the emergency chute, causing that to fail as well. The instructor was dead. The woman with him was someone’s grandmother. It had been her first jump.

One of the ambulances left. The police were taking statements.

We were ready to go, but I realized that our unique view of what had happened might be of interest to the police. I asked the airport guy what he thought. He told me to hop into the golf cart and he’d run me over to ask.

It wasn’t until we were nearly there that I saw the body on the pavement. He was lying face up. A woman was kneeling beside him, stroking his face. From my position, he looked as if he were sleeping, wrapped in the colorful fabric of his parachutes.

I turned away. No one wants to come face to face with death on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.

I talked to one of the cops. He told me to wait. I called Zack and told him to come over. I warned him that the victim was still there.

More news while we waited. The older woman was likely dead; they’d brought her to the hospital just in case she could be revived. A man who had tried giving her CPR had gotten blood on his mouth. I knew what that meant: serious internal bleeding.

They were waiting for the coroner before they could remove the other body.

A man and woman came by, obviously in shock. The man was supposed to go on that jump but had let the grandmother go in his place.

Eventually, the police came and gave us forms to fill out. They radioed our IDs to base and it was startling to hear a stranger say my name back over the radio. I wrote a concise report — much shorter than this — and handed it over. Zack handed back his. We walked back to the helicopter and started it up.

We talked a bit about it on the way south. I think Zack was more shook up than I was. But then again, it isn’t as if something like this is completely new to me. I think I’ve seen more than my share of violent death.

Postscript: I’ve always wanted to go skydiving. I joke that I’m waiting for my knees to get very bad first. Then I’ll jump before I get them replaced.

Has this changed my mind about skydiving? No. And it hasn’t changed my mind about waiting, either.

2 thoughts on “First Dive, Last Dive

  1. Having flown with you and made several airport landings, I know that the pilot definitely has to remain focused. The only thing I can say about this story is, thank god you weren’t alone. It is good you and Zach could be each other’s eyes.

    • Agreed. It was pretty shocking, but my approach to anything out of the ordinary is to just get the heck out of the way. Helicopters make this easy. If we were in a plane on final approach to landing, things would have been a little stickier.

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