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Skydiver’s Near-Death Experience Points To Lax Industry Oversight

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Skydiver

Gerardo Flores during his skydive. (Photo courtesy Gerardo Flores)

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — A skydiving jump that went terribly wrong is shedding light on an industry with almost no regulations and the event was captured with a GoPro video camera.

It happened on Gerardo Flores’ 30th jump.Flores felt confident after two years of training at the Skydive Monterey Bay School.

But seconds into this freefall, he felt a jerk. “It just exploded, it just it yanked me to the side. Something went wrong,” he said.

His parachute had opened, on its own, at 13,000 feet. “One hundred things go through your mind. You are never supposed to open above 6000 feet!”

Talking to his camera you hear him thinking out loud, deciding whether to cut loose. “I said wait a minute if I pull right now, what if the reserve doesn’t open?” He doesn’t realize how much trouble he’s in.

He says all he remembers is seeing the drop zone way down below him .. then he passed out. Twenty minutes later, still unconscious, Flores miraculously crash-landed in the drop zone.

Teachers from the school rushed to his aid and were able to get him airlifted to a hospital. Click here to see his full recording of the jump.

Flores was unconscious for two weeks, suffering broken ribs and a lacerated tongue, but he survived. “The FAA said you are the luckiest man I ever met,” he said.

Flores didn’t feel so lucky when he read the FAA’s report. That agency investigates skydiving accidents.

The report found a “critical” velcro closing flap on the parachute casing was “completely worn.” Suspension lines were broken. And the parachute’s rigging had knots, prompting the inspector to note: “these lines should have been replaced prior to allowing this parachute to be placed in service.”

Download the Federal Aviation Administration report (.pdf)

Flores relived the terrifying moments when he finally heard back from investigators and saw footage from the camera that recorded his fall. Looking at the video he was filled with emotion. “Oh my god, I can hear myself choking. I could have died that day!”

Skydive Monterey Bay turned down a KPIX 5 request for an interview but in a statement told us Flores’ gear was “in proper working order” and that “improper use by the jumper” caused the accident. But after reading the FAA’s report an industry expert found cause for concern.

“My real problem was him wearing a video camera,” said Dr. Craig Stapleton. “It can be a distraction. The United States Parachuting Association recommends at least 100 jumps for a video camera.

Dr. Stapleton has clocked more than 8000 jumps as a member of the U.S. parachuting team. “It’s a dangerous sport. You’re jumping out of an aircraft in flight. That is part of the thrill that lures people to the sport.”

He says when you jump you take on the risk and the liability. And 99.99% of the time according to the latest statistics you will survive.

But after reading through the FAA’s report Stapleton admitted a worn-out main velcro flap on the parachute container is disturbing. “It covers that area where the deployment system is situated, so it makes it easier for things to run into that pin, to knock that pin that keeps the container closed,” he said.

As for knots in the rigging ropes: “Another disturbing issue,” he said.

So who’s checking the gear? It’s an FAA certified rigger, who can also be an employee of the company. “The FAA doesn’t really have a parachute department,” said Stapleton.

The agency can conduct random visits to schools but Dr. Stapleton says; “Essentially unless they bring a rigger to the drop zone and they pull every rig off the shelf, there isn’t any way to inspect them.

Bottom line: He says it’s self regulation, something he believes the industry does a good job at. That doesn’t reassure Flores.

“I put my trust and life on the line trusting the school. Now that I know that schools can actually do this, never again.”

POST SCRIPT

Skydive Monterey Bay sent KPIX 5 the following e-mail in response to this story:

“I haven’t been provided the FAA report but was in communication with the FAA Rep assigned to report the incident. Prior to Gerardo’s jump, the gear was certainly in proper working order. Due to the improper use and impractical execution of basic procedures, on behalf of the jumper, the jumper caused improper pre-deployment of his initial parachute. Due to unstable body position, the user determined that at no time after leaving the airplane of being in positive control of his flight maneuvers, or canopy-controllability check.

Gerardo pre-flighted his rental equipment and a 2nd pre-flight of his gear was done by his Jump-Master, while Gerardo was wearing it. We thought he had the leg straps cinched extremely tight to which he responded that he likes that parachute he has on and he felt comfortable in it. He was asked about his intentions or maneuvers he had planned for his dive. He declared that he was going to work on Tracking. He was informed to which direction line-of-flight was (very imperative information if practicing Tracking) and then he asked about working on canopy flight methods. He was advised to not try anything too radical below an altitude he doesn’t feel comfortable cutting away from. He agreed.

While on the same flight, I viewed him in free fall, in the distance, while I was videotaping a tandem’s skydive. It seemed like his canopy deployed at 10-12k feet. I thought, “well, we said to not practice too low but that’s a bit high”. I saw his landing under what most would call a fully inflated canopy. I thought I saw him just lay down after landing. We were by his side within a minute, he was unaware and non-responsive, then we called first response.

It was when the emergency team said they needed to “keep the camera” that I knew he tried to do something he was specifically told he was not yet qualified nor cleared for. It’s obvious by viewing his GoPro footage (contained inside a cut-out of a glove he created as a concealed apparatus to deceive his flight crew and jump masters) that he had no intention of working on Tracking or canopy flight methods. Gerardo has 30 skydives. He is a novice skydiver. He was told several times – not only should he wait until at least 200 jumps before taking responsibility of another piece of gear onto the skydive, but that cameras are not allowed with any rental equipment. Jumping with cameras are advanced procedures due to several safety reasons including but not limited to: snag-hazards, distraction, proper placement, installation & cutaway systems etc.

All Gerardo was cleared to do was to work on basic belly-to-earth flight skills, pull-procedures and canopy descents.

In summary, improper use by the jumper caused a minor incident of pre-deployment of his main parachute, to which he again responded incorrectly. New jumpers must appreciate the true distractive nature of an extra piece of equipment (i.e.camera). He never executed positive control of his descent. This would be like texting while driving … at terminal velocity. He did not have his “eyes-on-the-road” sort of speak. His experience has not been taken lightly by myself or my peers. Jumper’s ability to disregard instructors and flight crews at ours or any facility is disheartening, let alone scary. We are glad he is doing well. We wish he and his family well. It’s too bad jumpers feel like they need to take chances in an extreme sport that is thrilling in its own respects. Skydiving: no extra risks necessary.

– Jackie Behrick, Skydive Monterey Bay, USPA Safety & Training Adviser
Experience: 19 years in sport 8700+ jumps

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed)

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