PHOENIX — The pilot of a burning plane radioed into the tower to say, “fire on the wing, fire in the airplane,” moments before he bailed out of the aircraft in a parachute and it plunged into a suburban Phoenix home.
The harrowing scene unfolded Saturday during what was supposed to be a thrilling pyrotechnic skydive jump at a town fair.
But at some point, the single-engine Cessna carrying the skydivers caught fire. The skydivers jumped and landed at their intended spot while the pilot remained at the controls of the doomed aircraft.
“I’m having an emergency situation,” he said.
The tower operator asked him if he was able to land at nearby airports in Chandler and Mesa. No one responded until a Southwest Airlines pilot informed the tower: “That plane went down.”
By then, the pilot had jumped from the plane and parachuted to the ground in a field with burns to his body. The unmanned plane flew directly into a couple’s house.
Somehow, they got out safely with no injuries — and managed to take their pets with them.
The Associated Press could not reach Sharon and Peter LeBeau, but they told some Phoenix-area media Monday they were thankful for first responders and family and friends who had reached out to them.
“We are grateful to God to be alive,” said Sharon LeBeau, who lived in the home with her husband and dogs. “I’ve never seen so much compassion and kindness.”
The LeBeaus declined to answer questions about what they were able to salvage from the mostly destroyed home, but she said she was glad they were able to save the dogs, which she called “our babies.”
“It’s one of those things — you plan for the worst and hope for the best, but never expect something like this,” Gilbert Fire and Rescue Capt. Josh Ehrman said. “The family is very thankful for being able to walk away.”
Ehrman originally said the pilot tried to extinguish the flames while flying but later said his account was erroneous.
The plane’s wreckage was removed Sunday from the crash site, and a National Transportation Safety Board spokesman said no information was immediately available on the cause.
A preliminary report on the crash should be issued within a week or two, said NTSB spokesman Keith Holloway.
The pilot was hospitalized for treatment of burns, but details on his injuries were not available, Ehrman said.
Seth Banda, a spokesman for Constitution Week, said the Arizona Skyhawks Parachute Team has been performing pyrotechnic skydiving at the fair for about three or four years. He said the skydivers completed their jump and landed at their intended spot as expected.
Pyrotechnic skydiving is a niche market and only about 40 or so people in the country do it, according to John Hart, one of the leaders of Team Fastrax, which performs all over the world. The pyrotechnics vary but shows generally involve skydivers strapping fireworks or sparks to their legs and then jumping out of planes.
Hart says pyrotechnic skydiving has grown in popularity over the past 15 years or so, and his team and others regularly perform at major sporting events, Fourth of July celebrations and in Europe and China.
But jumping with pyrotechnics comes at a high risk since parachutes are flammable. Usually sky divers have to take larger planes than normal and jump in groups of four to six from at least 12,000 feet in the air so that they can safely deploy their parachutes without catching fire, Hart said. The explosives are usually linked via Bluetooth so that only one of the sky divers has to deploy the pyrotechnics, which all go off at the same time, Hart said.
Hart said that some shows require divers to wear up to 100 pounds of fireworks on their legs. Jumpers are equipped with stainless steel plates and a flame-retardant blanket around their legs in case of an explosion. Jumping with fireworks also requires special licensing and training.
The website and Facebook page for the Arizona Skyhawks Parachute Team is down.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kinetzer said the NTSB is leading the investigation into the cause of the crash, and he referred inquiries to the NTSB.
FAA online records list the plane as being registered to a Chandler business. A Tempe woman listed as being a contact for the business did not immediately respond to a message sent via Facebook.
Associated Press Writer Paul Davenport contributed to this report. Galvan contributed from Tucson, Ariz.