St Louis -
Like in a scene from a James Bond movie, Shawn Kinmartin found himself with fast-dwindling options as he struggled to control a skydiving plane after a jumper's parachute damaged the aircraft's tail.
The 21-year-old pilot and college student wrestled the Cessna 182 away from populated farmland south-east of St Louis and decided his only hope was bailing out - never mind that it was his first parachute jump.
“I thought, ‘What am I doing?' But I knew it was the right decision,” Kinmartin told The Associated Press by telephone on Monday, describing a shaky moment as he climbed out the plane door on Saturday, grabbed a strut and tumbled out at an altitude of more than 600m.
Kinmartin was being praised on Monday for his poise during the ordeal that unfolded on his fifth flight that day with four clients of Fly Free Skydiving, where the son of an aircraft mechanic had worked for a few weeks out of an airport in Missouri's Crystal City. Ultimately, the plane slammed harmlessly into a corn field, Kinmartin and the jumpers landed safely, and no one was injured.
Federal Aviation Administration officials say the plane became disabled after the last skydiver's auxiliary parachute accidentally deployed as the jumper left the plane. It damaged the portion of the tail section that controls the aircraft's climb and descent.
Up 3 300m, Kinmartin says he recognised trouble the instant the plane pitched upward. He feared the plane would stall, and he wrestled to get the nose back down.
Kinmartin radioed in his plight, and a sightseeing plane scrambled into the air with his boss to survey the plane's damage. The feedback confirmed Kinmartin's fears.
“I know things were getting bad, and I felt the controls getting less and less responsive,” he said. “At that point, (my boss) was recommending bailing out.”
Near a south-western Illinois town called Valmeyer, he set the controls and left the cockpit, already wearing a parachute his employer requires of his pilots on such flights.
Steve Riggle, manager of the small airport that's home to Fly Free Skydiving, said Kinmartin showed real calm under pressure.
“I would have to say I'd have given him really high marks,” said Riggle, 57. “The way he was talking on the radio, you could tell a little stress in his voice, but for the most part he kept it together.”
Soon to graduate from Southern Illinois University with degrees in aviation flight and management, Kinmartin credited his studies for prepping him for a possible midair emergency. But “none of them involved losing elevator control or jumping out,” he said, adding that his “nerves got to me” only when he was standing on the step before jumping.
Moments later, “I saw the aircraft spiralling underneath me, and once I knew no one was going to be harmed, at that point it was a relief. I had some fun, even if it was short”, he said.
Kinmartin, who has had his pilot's licence since he was just 18, said he has no plans to stop flying, despite the near tragedy.
“I can't wait to get back up there,” he said. “This is what I'm born to do. This won't stop me.” - Sapa-AP