The same plane that crashed Friday on Oahu’s North Shore had a very close call with skydivers aboard just a few years ago, flown by a different company in California’s Bay Area, and the plane sustained substantial damage. Always Investigating spoke with a survivor of the 2016 incident who had to bail out at more than 12,000 feet, as parts of the plane came apart.
The survivor, Achal Asawa, says he and others aboard still live with the shock of their close call. He asks how that same plane could fly again. I asked the same of federal regulators.
On July 23, 2016, 14 passengers and their pilot take to the air above California’s Bay Area area for a skydiving adventure. This is the same plane — a Beech 65-A90, tail number N256TA — that came to be operated by Oahu Parachute Center in Hawaii years later.
Video that Asawa shot aboard on a GoPro helmet camera shows that as the plane nears the Bay Area jump zone, it begins rolling and spinning.
“Stay put, stay put, stay put,” the pilot says as passengers cling to anything they can grab inside.
“Get the door open, get the door open,” the pilot commands.
The pilot then calls to evacuate the plane.
“Get out, get out, get out of the (expletive) plane,“ voices aboard holler.
“It was scary, when you think about life ending,” Asawa told Always Investigating, as he described his experience on the close-call 2016 flight. “You’re in a plane which is in a nosedive, and you cannot move your hands because of the centrifugal forces. It’s scary. There are a couple of people who actually get stuck on the door and there are other skydivers who are jumping over them. It’s chaos and people are trying to survive.”
As the skydivers parachute down, pieces of the airplane fall to the earth. All passengers and the pilot survived.
“Overall that experience traumatized a lot of us for a good number of months,” Asawa said, adding that he’s shocked and saddened to hear the plane went back into service here in Hawaii — the same plane in Friday’s deadly crash in Mokuleia.
“I’m extremely upset that this happened,” Asawa said, “and it’s just astonishing that with the service records with the NTSB the plane was still qualified as jumpable, as a fly plane.”
According to NTSB reports on the 2016 incident, when lining up for the drop zone the plane abruptly stalled, rotated nose-down, and barrel rolled downward twice. A jumper heard a loud bang, and spin-recovery efforts failed through 9 rotations. After passengers muscled through incredible G-forces to get out, the pilot remarkably got the plane to the ground. Airplane parts were found scattered in a field miles away.
Always Investigating asked federal regulators: How is it possible for that plane to be back in commercial service?
An FAA spokesman told KHON2: “The plane’s maintenance/repair history will be part of the investigation,” adding that added all commercial “aircraft must undergo inspections annually or every 100 flight hours, whichever comes first. Additionally, various aircraft parts must be replaced at certain intervals.“
“There has to be more accountability on someone’s part,” Asawa said. “The plane should not be in operation, and if it was then everything about the plane should be in operational mode. There shouldn’t be any part or anything on the plane which is wrong.”
In the 2016 incident, none of the 14 skydivers aboard was injured, having gotten out at a high enough altitude for a safe parachute landing.
Witness accounts of the Mokuleia flight’s takeoff Friday say it circled back low and shortly after takeoff. There was unlikely time or altitude for a safe escape
“Anything below 1,500 feet is usually considered danger,” Asawa said. “When you are in the jump plane the pilot is responsible for informing if people should jump or not, and if there is an issue with the plane the pilot informs if people should leave the plane or if people should stay put and not move.”
Eleven victims were aboard the fatal Oahu flight. A total of 15 were aboard the close-call flight in 2016. Asawa says the Mokuleia flight doesn’t appear overbooked.
“You can take more people in that plane,” Asawa said. “A King Air (the Beechcraft sries brand name for the Beech 65-A90 aircraft) is a decently sized plane. You can take about 16 people on that plane.”
Despite seating or bench capacity in a jump-plane layout, proper weight and balance are critical issues from start to finish.
“There are weight restrictions on each flight,” Asawa explains, “and when you are jumping out of a jump plane you also have to keep account of the center of gravity of the plane as people are jumping out.”
Weight, balance and center of gravity were topics in the 2016 NTSB incident investigation.
Asawa emphasizes the safety of skydiving, aviation risks aside, and points out Friday’s fatal crash was an airplane accident that had skydivers aboard, not a skydiving accident.
“This is a safe sport. Skydiving in and of itself is a safe sport,” he says. “We don’t just have 1 parachute, we actually have 2 parachutes.”
Asawa continues to skydive today, but has this advice before stepping foot on any recreational airplane:
“One should always look up reviews, one should always look up other people’s experiences when they go for skydiving. They should look up safety records of the drop zone and be more informed,” Asawa said. “Either NTSB or FAA should take responsibility of ensuring that people who are engaged in skydiving, people who are engaged in any sort of aerial activity, are doing so in a fashion which is well controlled and as controlled as possible and on planes which are well maintained.”
The NTSB itself just recently called for more safety measures for small-craft commercial operations after a spate of deadly incidents in Hawaii including the April Kailua helicopter crash, and recent plane fatalities in Alaska. A roundtable in Anchorage is coming up this fall.
The NTSB wants smaller operators to adopt — and wants the FAA to mandate — things major passenger airlines already do, like safety management systems, recording and analyzing flight data, and more pilot training.
We will continue to monitor the outcome of this fatal flight’s federal investigation.