Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Mystery surrounds rare skydiving death

By DOUG CARDER, Herald Senior Writer | 8/11/2014

Monte LaMar saw nothing unusual about Brad Giffin’s departure from his Cessna Skylane 182 as he and another skydiver began their descent to a drop zone Saturday evening east of Ottawa, the experienced pilot and skydiver said.

“I watched Brad leave [the plane] and he was in good shape,” LaMar, with Skydive Gypsy Moths, which is headquartered near Wichita in Benton, Kansas, said.

Monte LaMar saw nothing unusual about Brad Giffin’s departure from his Cessna Skylane 182 as he and another skydiver began their descent to a drop zone Saturday evening east of Ottawa, the experienced pilot and skydiver said.

“I watched Brad leave [the plane] and he was in good shape,” LaMar, with Skydive Gypsy Moths, which is headquartered near Wichita in Benton, Kansas, said.

But something went terribly wrong for Giffin, 54, Wichita, as he and the other skydiver separated at about 4,500 feet to deploy their main parachutes, also known as canopies in the industry.

“The [younger skydiver] said that when he deployed his parachute he lost site of [Giffin], and that’s not unusual,” LaMar said.

The younger skydiver landed in the drop zone — but Giffin, an experienced skydiver who had logged more than 500 jumps, was nowhere in sight. Both men and LaMar were among those who had turned out for the grand opening weekend celebration of Skydive Lawrence, also known as Kansas Drop Zone, at 3196 K-68 just east of Ottawa. LaMar said he came out to support the event and that his skydiving flights were originating that day from the Ottawa Airport, 2178 Montana Road.

The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office responded to a report of a missing skydiver about 7:20 p.m. Saturday and undertook a search of the area along with first responders from the Lincoln-Ottawa-Harrison Fire Department and participants in the Skydive Lawrence event.

Flying low to the ground in his Cessna, LaMar spotted Giffin a short time later in a field about 1 1/2 miles east of the drop zone. The field was located east of Walmart Logistics distribution center on the outskirts of Ottawa. Giffin was pronounced dead at the scene, Rick Geist, Franklin County undersheriff, said. The Federal Aviation Administration was expected to join the investigation Sunday, Geist said.

From the position of the skydiver’s equipment on the ground and after an inspection of its condition, LaMar said he could not come up with an explanation for what happened.

“There have been a lot of inaccurate reports in the media saying that [Giffin’s] parachute didn’t open, and that’s not the case,” LaMar, a veteran skydiver with more than 7,000 jumps to his credit, said. “He never deployed his main canopy. There was nothing wrong with the gear. It was in good shape. He did try to deploy his reserve canopy, but he was too low to the ground — I would estimate under 300 feet, judging by where [the equipment] was. Normally, [the reserve parachute] would be deployed about 1,000 feet. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Jen Sharp, owner of Osage City-based Skydive Kansas, was not involved in the event, but said the description of Giffin’s jump sounded like it started out in typical fashion.

“We may never know what happened,” Sharp said.

Wes McCauley, one of the owners of Skydive Lawrence, declined a request for an interview.

Giffin was not equipped with a automatic activation device which is designed to open the reserve canopy at 1,000 feet if the skydiver is traveling at a certain rate of speed, LaMar said.

“He was a licensed skydiver, and it’s a personal preference — a lot of licensed skydivers do not use AADs [automatic activation device],” Sharp, who has logged more than 3,300 jumps, said. “We require [skydivers who jump with her Skydive Kansas business] to have AADs. We are human and it’s a high-speed sport — that’s why the automatic activation device was invented.”

Lamar and Sharp said most skydiving fatalities are not caused by faulty equipment. They agreed a combination “no pull/low pull” fatality — where the main parachute was not deployed and the reserve canopy was deployed too low — is extremely rare.

U.S. Parachute Association statistics support their conclusions. Most fatalities are caused “by human error,” according to the association’s website, with the majority being skydivers who turn too close to the ground and are then coming into a landing at a high rate of speed and are not centered under their canopies or a pair of skydivers who collide with each other’s canopies. Equipment failure was rarely the cause of a fatality, according to the association.

Sharp assured those who are interested in getting into the sport that it is safe.

Her Skydive Kansas company, which will mark its 20th year in operation in October, has never had a fatality, she said. Sharp emphasizes safety and education and requires skydivers be equipped with automatic activation devices. She also brings in national experts to talk with her skydivers about canopy safety, she said.

According to the U.S. Parachute Association, a person has a greater chance of being struck by lightning than dying in a skydiving mishap.

The United States recorded 24 skydiving fatalities in 2013 out of 3.2 million jumps, according to the association. The rate of skydiving fatalities has decreased each decade, from an annual average of 42 in the 1970s to an annual average of 22 this decade, according to the association’s statistics.

“My heart goes out to [Giffin’s] family,” Sharp said. “Fatalities are very rare in this sport.”

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