On Sunday, August 21, 1983, a Lockheed Model L-18 Learstar operated by Landry Aviation, Inc. takes off from Arlington Municipal Airport carrying two pilots and 24 parachutists who plan to perform a complex aerobatic maneuver in which they all link together during free fall. While flying over the drop zone, the aircraft suddenly stalls and plummets to the ground. Fifteen skydivers manage to bail out before the crash, but the pilots and nine passengers are killed. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board will determine the probable cause of the accident was the failure of the pilot-in-command to maintain proper load distribution during the skydivers' exit procedure.
The Lockheed Model L-18 Lodestar, developed in the late 1930s and first flown in 1940, is an all metal, low-wing, twin-engine aircraft. During World War II the U.S. Army Air Force and U.S. Navy used the plane for transporting personnel and cargo, as well as for pilot training. Depending on the engines and cabin configuration, these transports were given a variety of basic designations -- C-56, C-27, C-59 and C-60A. A total of 625 Loadstars were built for the military by the Lockheed Aircraft Company.
After the war, the military Lodestars were declared surplus and most were sold at public auction. They were then overhauled and returned to civilian service as passenger and cargo planes. The aircraft was 49 feet, 10 inches in length, with a wingspan of 65 feet, six inches, and powered by two 1,200-horsepower Wright R-1820-76B Cyclone radial engines. At a cruising speed of 232 mph, the Lodestar had a range of approximately 2,000 miles. The airliner version had two pilots, one flight attendant, and accommodations for 18 passengers. The cargo version was able to carry a payload of approximately 8,000 pounds. Loadstars that were modified by the Pacific Aero Engineering Corporation in 1957 were designated Learstar Mark II configurations.
The Fatal Flight
At 6:10 p.m., on Sunday, August 21, 1983, a Lockheed L-18 Learstar, Registration No. N1116CA, took off from Arlington Municipal Airport with 24 parachutists, heading for a drop zone near Silvana, five nautical miles west of the airport. The pilot of the aircraft was Michael W. Peterson and the copilot was John F. Erik. The plane was owned by Command Aviation of Portland, Oregon, and had been leased to Landry Aviation, Inc., of Arlington, Washington, for use as a skydiving platform. When Landry Aviation put the plane into service, it was in cargo configuration with no seats, but had 24 safety belts, in two rows of 12, attached to the cabin floor. The aft-cabin entry door was removable, enabling the skydivers bail out of the plane quickly.
After leaving the airport runway, the Learstar climbed in a large circular pattern around the drop zone to gain an altitude of 12,500 feet for the mass jump. As the aircraft neared the drop zone (an empty field owned by dairy farmer Luther Moe), the skydivers moved to their pre-jump positions in rows along both sides of the cabin. The signal was given and the parachutists began bailing out of the aircraft. As the first group of jumpers exited the cabin, the Learstar suddenly rolled to the right, entered into a steep dive, rotated slowly a few times, and hit the ground in a near vertical descent. Sixteen of the 24 skydivers managed to bail out before and during the fatal stall, but the rest did not. All 16 parachutes deployed and functioned normally, but two of the 16 jumpers were seriously injured and one was killed after being struck by the horizontal stabilizer of the aircraft. Thirteen landed on the ground uninjured.
The Scene on the Ground
The Learstar crashed into a field owned by dairy farmer Richard McGuire, adjacent to State Route 530 and one mile north of Silvana. An intense fire ensued, but the flames were mostly confined to the crater made by plane's impact. The Snohomish County Fire Department in Silvana arrived at the scene within one minute of the impact and had the blaze under control within 10 minutes. Afterward, the Snohomish County Sheriff's Department and Washington State Patrol cordoned off the area to await the arrival of the Snohomish County Coroner and investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
Meanwhile, sheriff's deputies managed to mark the locations of 10 bodies amid the charred wreckage. An examination of the remains by the Snohomish County Coroner determined all were killed by blunt force trauma and that the impact forces of the accident were not survivable. The bodies were severely fragmented and no autopsies or toxicological examinations were performed. The parachutist who was killed when he collided with the horizontal stabilizer suffered a ruptured heart.
On Thursday, May 17, 1984, the NTSB's Bureau of Accident Investigations in Washington D.C., released its findings into the crash. The NTSB concluded that probable cause of this accident was "the failure of the operator and the pilot-in-command to assure proper load distribution during the jumper exit procedure" ("Accident Investigation Report," p. 20). One board member filed a concurring and dissenting statement concluding that there were several factors that should have been identified as probable causes of the tragedy. They were: "(a) taking off and operating the aircraft with the center of gravity beyond the aft limit; (b) operating the L-18 aircraft with 26 occupants when the maximum allowable, with one passenger exit, was 17; (c) the absence of a parachute-jump egress procedure that would maintain the aircraft's center of gravity within allowable limits; (d) operating the aircraft at an airspeed lower than would allow longitudinal control during the parachutists' exit; (e) attempting to perform a near simultaneous exit of 24 parachutists from a single doorway; and (f) continued operation of both engines at full power while in a steep nose-down descent" ("Accident Investigation Report," p. 22).
The board recommended that the FAA district-office inspectors conduct more oversight of parachuting operations to insure they are performing safely and in accordance with applicable federal regulations. Such increased surveillance would detect and hopefully eliminate many of the risk factors identified in the accident report.
Those killed were:
Robert G. Bandes, 24
Dean W. Bushong, 37
Marilyn S. Bushong, 30
Terence J. Cafferty, 38
John Fritz Erik, 32, copilot
Jamilee Kempton, 18
Mark W. Leverenz, 25 (killed by horizontal stabilizer)
Robert A. Lockwood, 34
Kenneth E. Newman, 27
Michael Warren Peterson, 37, pilot
James A. Schill, 31