Skydiving collision proves fatal
Two specks are falling from the sky, tumbling and twisting through the air. One man's head hangs limp inside a blue helmet as his emergency parachute opens. Another man collapses into the ground and screams: ''F---! Someone hit me! Someone hit me!''
It is a clear summer morning. Cars hum along the Hume Highway near Picton, south-west of Sydney. Above them is ''absolute carnage'' as a fatal midair skydiving collision leaves two men spinning madly towards the earth.
They barely knew each other before being brought into conflict some 2000 metres in the air. Minutes earlier, Scott Hingerty had chatted about his new Commodore wagon as the plane climbed steeply into the sky.
Everyone on board was in a good mood. Sitting nearby, Peter Farley waited nervously for the light in the cabin to go from red, to yellow, to green.
It was the first jump of the day for the group of 17 skydivers, who had travelled from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane for a weekend of wingsuit flying, an extreme form of skydiving.
The 17 skydivers wore regulation parachutes as well as special jumpsuits that have extra fabric between the legs and arms to help them fly forward as they fall, like a human sugar glider.
When the small Cessna plane hit 4270 metres before 10am, pilot Juraj Dubovinsky switched on the green light and opened the rear door. The wingsuiters jumped out in quick succession in the order they'd rehearsed. Hingerty, 39, was the last.
He is friendly and thickset; a rigger who weighs about 100 kilograms, he falls fast.
''When I'm falling out of the sky, I feel alive,'' he said.
The digital recording on his helmet-mounted camera was at 42 seconds when he jumped. It was Saturday, December 8, 2012. Thirty-nine seconds later, a brutal punch to his right side sent him into a spin.
‘‘I could not breathe, I couldn't see, I was blacking out,'' he said.
''My whole arm went tingly from my shoulder down to my fingers. My right leg I couldn't move. I thought my back was broken.''
He has watched the footage often enough since to know what happened then.
''I did one barrel roll - I was looking at the ground and all of a sudden I am looking at the sky and then the ground again.
I recovered and tried to open my parachute, and then I did three flat spins to the left.
''I said to myself, 'Scott, if you don't do something right now, you're going to die.'''
The earth from on high looks neat and tidy; conquerable.
''Down there you've got the hassle of work, the hassle of life, the bills, worries at home,'' Hingerty said.
''While you're falling out of the sky, you don't have a worry in the world.''
An experienced skydiver with more than 800 jumps, he took up wingsuiting in November. That December day, he was flying safely when Farley's blue-and-white wingsuit popped up in front of him and then disappeared, moments before the collision. Only later in the ambulance did he learn that it was Farley who had hit him and the man was dead.
While waiting for the cloud to clear that morning, the group had rehearsed the jump at Sydney Skydivers' centre.
The group's chief tutor, Hayden Galvin, had everyone practise the order in which they would exit the aircraft towards their assigned slot in the sky.
One of the other wingsuiters would later tell police he heard Hingerty ask: ''I have only three wingsuit jumps so far, is it okay if I come on this jump?'' Galvin replied: ''No worries mate, you will be fine.''
About half of the 17 flyers that day lacked the prescribed Australian Parachute Federation ''star crest'' qualification to perform jumps with more than 10 people, area safety officer Grahame Hill said. But no-one was asked about their experience or qualifications before they jumped.
Farley, 33, ''was out of his league up there'', Hill said.
''There was a bunch of people who had a duty of care to say something and didn't.''
Farley's close friend Andrew Ellard, who started skydiving with him in late 2007, said: ''Peter wanted to fly in formation that day and no-one will ever know exactly why he jumped. He was probably the safest skydiver I know. He took himself off a lot of plane-loads if he didn't feel confident in his experience to complete the jump, or if a person on there was too inexperienced for his liking.''
Tutor Roger Hugelshofer recalled taking Farley for his first wingsuit flight last September.
''He was a little bit shaky but he did all right,'' he said.
''When we jump we are very focused on what we do. I think we are all aware of the danger. We have all seen enough accidents in the past.''
On the day of the accident, Hugelshofer flew on his back towards the front of the formation. Forty-five seconds after jumping out of the plane, his camera shows two objects falling from the top left of the screen and out of view.
Alex Joannou sat next to Farley on the plane and they tried to chat over the roar of the 900-horsepower engine. He later told police how several jumpers flew ''violently'' in the sky, swooping in and out at speed. It was ''absolute carnage'', he said.
Hugelshofer remembers it differently.
''When I landed I thought it was a great jump. It was a perfect day, everything went well.''
Moments later, Hingerty slid into the drop zone screaming in pain, the right side of his body a mess of deep bruises. He and Farley had collided like two opposing forces. Farley was whip-thin and tall - about 180 centimetres - and built for speed.
''His build meant if he put his body in a certain position, he was literally a rocket,'' Hill said.
Hingerty was able to regain control in the air by arching his body and deploying his parachute.
''It's just fortunate, if I can call it that, that the bloke [Farley] hit is built like a brick shithouse,'' Hill said.
''If it had been somebody light-framed, there might have been two people dead.''
Hill has tracked Farley's path using camera footage from at least five of the other flyers.
''It was a relatively straight flight, but Peter was coming from behind, overshooting and coming back.
''Other people weren't flying as well as they could have, but they were just shunting each other. Peter was just at a very high speed - you look at it and go 'wow'.''
Sydney Skydivers director Phil Onis was watching the group's flight from the drop zone.
''They exited about two miles to the south, then they just started moving up in one flock.
''They were all supposed to fly in one straight line,'' he said.
''Peter seemed to have trouble controlling the wingsuit and his body.''
Onis saw that Farley's head was limp and hanging forward as he fell from the sky. As Farley passed 228 metres at speed, an automatic activation device in his pack opened his reserve parachute.
The wind carried the canopy over the highway and into a dump truck parked on a new housing construction site.
Senior first aid officer Jeffrey Richards was driving by with his window open when he heard a ''flapping sort of noise'' and saw a ''white thing'' 10 metres overhead.
By the time he reached the body, two skydivers had run over from the drop zone and started CPR.
Farley had no pulse and his tongue was swollen and blue. His neck seemed broken, Richards told police.
Whether Farley's neck snapped in the midair collision or when landing will be determined by the coroner.
Wingsuit world record holder and emergency doctor Glenn Singleman said the neck is vulnerable in any high-speed collision.
''These suits are travelling anywhere between 100kmh and 200kmh; if you collide with anything, things are going to break,'' he said, stressing he is not commenting directly on Farley's case.
''The human body is just not designed to impact with something at 100kmh and that's the problem with car accidents, that's the problem with flying a wingsuit, that's the problem with falling off a cliff or when rock climbing.''
Singleman said every wingsuit flyer knows two basic rules: Remember to open your parachute; and don't run into anything.
''You're taught from the very first jump that if you collide, you are very likely to die, so don't collide.''
An investigation by Detective Senior Constable Gareth Dorey found Farley died between 9.40am and 9.50am on Saturday, December 8.
His equipment was in good working order and the skies were dry and clear, with minimal wind. Farley's death was the ''result of an error he made'', he found.
But Hill, from the Australian Parachute Federation, said responsibility should be shared among several people.
Hill said Galvin, who declined to respond to Fairfax Media, was ''cavalier'' about his duty of care. The federation suspended Galvin from tutoring students until August. It suspended Hugelshofer for 90 days and Onis lost his instructor rating for 12 months.
Onis has banned wingsuit flying at Sydney Skydivers.
''We don't tell anyone skydiving is safe,'' Onis said.
''But if you take care and you stick within the limits of your ability, I think it's a great sport. It's when people start to sit on the edge that things go wrong pretty quickly.''
The federation is also likely to tighten the rules governing wingsuit flying, including an increase in the minimum standards for participating in the extreme sport, as well as higher standards for tutors and instructors.
''We need to have rules in place to stop people's enthusiasm overtaking their responsibility,'' Hill said.
On the afternoon of Peter Farley's death, his fellow flyers gathered by a river near the drop zone to remember their friend. Scott Hingerty spent much of the night in a hospital brace, not knowing whether his neck or back was broken.
He has rewatched the footage from that day hundreds of times.
''Every time I think how lucky I am to be alive. I'm not dead yet,'' he said.
This month he was back flying in a wingsuit.
''We jump out of a plane - worst-case scenario you hit the ground and you die.
''But it's freedom.
''People say we're crazy, they say, 'Don't you think about dying?' No, I think about living.''
Sydney Morning Herald