All was going well last Saturday, September 28. It was a pretty day in Beaver Oaks, Oregon, and Skydive Inc. had put up about 12 loads. There had been no previous incidents, but we all know that things can change rapidly. And on that load, they did.
Rick Liston, Craig Wilwers, John Allen, and Chris Lattig were planning on launching a casual 4-way from the private DZ's C-182. All had been jumping together for a while, and all were very familiar with the dz. The pilot, Travis Marshall, was known to be a competent pilot, and very interested in ferrying jumpers. Marshall had sat through many weekends watching first jump courses taught by Ralph Hatley, the S&TA; of the dz, and always wore a bail-out rig. All participants were comfortable, and ready to make this last jump of the day a fun and memorable one...and, to top it off, there was a birthday party being readied on the ground for Rick Liston.
Reaching jumprun at an altitude of 10,500 feet, the jumpers knelt, moved forward, and arranged themselves at the door. The first jumper positioned himself, and Rick Liston moved to his position between the door and the strut with his back to the prop, sort of sitting on the strut with one foot on the step (the position is often referred to as the "crotch" position). The third jumper began moving into his position. No-one was dreaming, and yet, the nightmare was about to unfold.
According to Hatley, that was when Liston noticed his D-bag on the floor between his legs. He tried to recover the bag, but the lines began unstowing, wrapping around the strut. The lines snaked over the front of the strut, and they were wrapping around the gear leg when Liston released his main canopy and fell away from the plane. As he cut away, the canopy escaped from the bag, and part of it caught on the step, with the rest catching and snarling on the horizontal stabilizer and elevator. One of the jumpers grabbed his hookknife, and tried to cut the canopy away from the plane, but lost his grip on the knife and it went out the door. Liston deployed his reserve uneventfully. The other jumpers all followed suit and left the disabled plane, and, as they still had plenty of altitude, did not use their reserves but opened their mains. They all landed uneventfully at the dz.
But that's not the whole story. The rest of the story began when the jumpers left the plane, and the pilot was alone in a damaged and uncontrollable aircraft.
Travis Marshall had successfully struggled to maintain control of the plane to allow the jumpers time to exit safely. But he had never jumped before, and he knew he had to do it this time. As the jumpers left the plane and deployed, Marshall began to lose what little control he had of the C-182. The plane inverted, and went into a flat spin, pinning Marshall to his seat. Unfazed, Marshall shut down the plane, and notified air traffic control that he had an emergency. He then activated the transponders, climbed out of the pilot's seat, and, while the plane was still upside down and spinning, somehow managed to climb out onto the wing of the plane. Holding on to the wing, he clearly heard Hatley screaming "ARCH!!" in his head. So, as Marshall let go of the wing, he did the only thing he could do...he arched. Hard.
Upon leaving the plane at about 6,000 feet, Marshall fell a short distance, and then reached for the ripcord and deployed a round canopy. Trying desperately to remember how to manage the canopy ride, he was able to steer towards a clearing about a mile away from the dz. As he approached the ground, he got ready to plf as he had only watched people doing. But he must have seen enough of them, because he plf'ed, and stood up with nothing worse than a few bruises to show for his first jump. He gathered up his gear, and began the walk back to the dz.
During his walk back, he met Hatley in the truck. As Marshall climbed in, Hatley recalls, Marshall's first comments were "that was a hard opening", and "man, I threw the ripcord away." Hatley laughs as he recounts this, glee and disbelief in his voice that those were the concerns Marshall had. "Can you imagine? That's what he was worried about. Losing the ripcord!".
"Everyone was fine" states Hatley. "Every last one of them performed exactly as they had trained to do. I always tell my students and jumpers to identify the problem, react to the problem, and don't procrastinate. These men - well, that's exactly what they did. And they all walked away."
When asked if there was anything wrong with the aircraft, per the Oregon State Police's press release, he emphatically rejected that idea.
"Nothing wrong with the plane, nothing wrong with the parachute. The FAA has already cleared the rig Liston was wearing, and the plane was in fine working order. It got a parachute wrapped around the strut and the tail. That's enough to cause the crash! Everyone kept their heads and no one even got hurt. That's the important part. No one even got hurt."
Hatley continued, "the jumpers had gear checks before getting on the plane, and Liston's pilot chute was still in it's pocket when he first saw the D-bag. The only thing we can figure is the pin got knocked loose somehow. C-182's are crowded with 4 jumpers and a pilot. The pin was checked, and it was fine. The rig was checked, and it was fine. All we can figure is it (the pin) got knocked loose somehow. Sometimes, stuff happens. This was one of those times".
Hatley was gracious with his time, and thanked Dropzone.com for trying to get the story out to the jumpers. "While the mainstream media has been very good, and not sensationalizing this, it's also complicated for non-jumpers to understand how something like this can happen."
Hatley concluded with this comment: "remember that when something happens, it happens fast. Identify, react, and don't procrastinate taking action to save yourself. And have safe jumps!"