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Disaster, and the reflex that saved 10

By adminon - Read 1848 times

For 12 months the story has been told in bare bones: skydiver Simon Moline's chute deploys prematurely as he's exiting the plane over the Nagambie drop zone, the chute wraps around the tail of the plane and he is tangled in it, the tail tears off and starts falling, pilot Barry Dawson screams at the skydivers still on board to get out while he tries to control the plane. He barely gets out himself before the plane drops nose-first into the ground.

Pilot Barry Dawson: - Picture: Dominic O'Brien

Tomorrow marks a year since Moline died, since people started calling Dawson a hero. Back then they were turning up at Dawson's door at all hours wanting him to tell the story. He told a bit of it, but wasn't happy with all the questions because he hadn't really worked out how he felt. Elated, even surprised, to be alive; hurt because his friend was dead - that's all he knew.

Last week, the Australian Transport Safety Bureau released its investigation report on the accident. In short, Moline's reserve canopy was deployed prematurely (an extremely rare occurrence) when the pack holding the reserve canopy's pilot chute rubbed against the top of the Cessna Caravan's exit door.

Dawson had decided to wait for the report to come out before telling his part of the story in detail. On Friday night, two people who had been on the plane that day were coming over for a few beers - and he figured that was a good time to get a lot of the talking done about that Sunday over Nagambie.

"It was," he says, "a beautiful day. Blue sky, no clouds, virtually no wind. Maybe a southerly, five knots. Perfect for skydiving."

He was out at the plane by 7.30am, doing his preliminary checks. Matt Drinkwater, one of the members of Simon Moline's formation team, helped Dawson with his checks. The team, practising for a competition, was going up on the day's first run, the first of eight.

Dawson had known Moline for nearly 10 years. They began skydiving together about the same time at the Pakenham drop zone. "A good bloke. Very careful and very capable," says Dawson.

Moline's formation team comprised Drinkwater, James Boyle and Kath Hoffman. Their regular cameraman wasn't there and a friend, Simon Chaberka, was filling in.

In the Cessna Caravan, the skydivers sat in two rows, in safety harnesses bolted to the floor. On the team's eighth run, there were six other jumpers aboard, one a student.

On the approach to the target area, at 14,000 feet, the maximum height skydivers can climb to without wearing supplementary oxygen, Dawson called: "One minute", the signal for everybody to put on their goggles.

Soon after, Moline's team begin moving to the door, to get in position.

The formation team then made a ring, with Boyle on the right of the doorway, facing out. Drinkwater and Moline were facing into the plane, bent over, with their backsides stuck out - and with Moline between Boyle and Drinkwater.

Dawson couldn't see the team's exit positions. "All I know is I can feel them climbing out."

At this point, another climber, Craig "Crash" Bennett came forward, to thank Dawson for the flight. There was a bang and the plane went into a nose-dive. It was Moline and his canopy hitting the left horizontal stabiliser on the tail assembly.

"I didn't see it, but I heard it, and I felt it," says Dawson, "and I just knew that someone was over the tail. I didn't know it was Simon. I was just hoping they could get off, and trying to bring the aircraft up and level and from going down. We were still buffeting around."

Dawson shouted for everybody to get out.

Meanwhile, cameraman Chaberka was falling, with his eyes turned upward and locked on to Moline and the plane's tail. Chaberka saw the parachute canopy go past him and over the tail. He was a little below Moline as Moline was dragged from Boyle's and Drinkwater's hands by the chute. "I saw Simon's canopy get wrapped around the tail and then the tail twisting, 45 degrees to the right, before it snapped off. Simon was still hanging off the tail."

According to the ATSB's investigation report, 11 seconds passed from Moline's impact with the tail section to the tail section tearing away from the rest of the plane, with Moline still tangled in it.

In those 11 seconds, in a stable flying position known as "frog" or "box man" - flat to the ground with his arms arranged as if he was being mugged - Chaberka fell about 1000 feet. When the plane overtook him, he followed on, looking for sign of Dawson. "I hadn't seen Barry. All the way down I was calling, 'Get out, get out, get out.' "

The plane was falling and spinning. Dawson was in trouble. He recalls: "There were still one or two people in the plane when the tail separated. I think one of them was spat out at that point. As the tail snapped off, the plane whaled on to its back and Crash (Craig Bennett) got pushed up against the windscreen. I was saying, 'Crash! Get the f--- out'. But Crash wasn't sure whether to step on the instruments and damage the plane. That's what appeared to be going through his mind. But he got his foot on the panel and I saw him go over the seats like Superman."

Bennett left the plane at about 9000 feet. Meanwhile, Dawson had shut down the fuel pumps, the engine and, with one hand on the control column, calling "Mayday, mayday, mayday", he unbuckled his seatbelt and brought up his left leg to push off the instrument panel, as Bennett had done. But as soon as he let go of the controls, the plane started spinning, and Dawson's dash went nowhere: the G-forces slammed him face first to the floor, between the seats, breaking a rib.

"As I hit the floor, I heard the door go 'bang', the sound it makes when it's dropped . . . I couldn't even raise my arm up and I was trying to push forward using my legs but then my boot got stuck, my right foot, stuck in the seat belt."

Losing his new boot, Dawson hauled himself along the floor as if he was trying to climb a wall while glued to it, using the harness seatbelts as a hand grip. The plane was tilting about 45 degrees, then it would go vertical, then flatten out, then tilt again. "The G-forces would come on hard sometimes, and it was like when you're in a dream and you want to move and you can't lift your arm and I was just hanging off the harness belts until the Gs eased enough for me to lunge a little more toward the door."

Reaching the door, with one hand on a harness for support, Dawson found he couldn't raise the roller door more than a few centimetres with only one hand. He needed two hands for a clean lift. Desperately, he thought of throwing his canopy out of the crack. "That way I'd have been dragged out, but I probably wouldn't have survived it."

It was at this point, exhausted and frustrated, unable to see a way out, he thought of his daughter Crystal, only eight weeks old. "And I thought, 'There's no way I'm leaving my baby', and I just went sick."

Suddenly, he found he could get his arm out to the crook of the elbow, giving him better purchase on the door. When he had worked it up to his shoulder, he turned over on to his back and squeezed his head out. The plane was still spinning, falling, gaining speed. He was giving birth to himself, pushing himself out. When he got so the door was on his waist, Dawson had a look around to see which way was up and gave a final heave. As he slipped out (at about 1000 feet, says the ATSB report) and rolled over, he saw the plane hit the ground and burst into flames. By the time he pulled the ripcord, he was at about 600 feet, a second and a half from death.

After a perfect landing, Dawson saw Chaberka land and they met and hugged, with the plane burning behind them. Dawson was still thinking Moline was all right - hurt but alive. But then he and Chaberka watched him come down, tangled in the tail, in a paddock to the west. Soon after they heard he was dead. "The report says he probably died before he landed," says Dawso



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