Man who died skydiving in Pepperell, Mass. Saturday afternoon had jumped “thousands of times,” officials say 

  • The Twin Otter airplane used for jumps at Skydive Pepperell in Pepperell, Mass.  LEAH WILLINGHAM/ Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Sunday, October 29, 2017

The only word Concord native Chris Gagnon could think of to describe the death of his team member at Skydive Pepperell in Pepperall, Mass., on Saturday was shock.

“It comes and goes in waves,” Gagnon said.

The 60-year-old man who died skydiving in Pepperell last weekend was a veteran skydiver who had jumped out of a plane “thousands of times,” said Skydive Pepperell safety advisor and Franklin police Chief David Goldstein.

The man – who officials have not yet identified – was an independent videographer who was taking video as instructors and students jumped from the dropzone’s Twin Otter plane at about 10,000 feet.

Goldstein and Gagnon were both at the dropzone when the accident occurred, and said it was very sudden.

“I bent over to tie my shoe, and then I heard a scream,” Goldstein said. “I didn’t see a lot, I was really reacting more to people around me.”

The Pepperell dropzone is the closest one to New Hampshire, located just 45 minutes from Concord. It’s the location most regular New Hampshire skydivers choose to jump at, Goldstein said.

Goldstein said he began his day Saturday in Franklin at a prescription drug take-back day, but left early to make one more jump in Pepperell before the skydiving facility closed for the season last weekend. He was gearing up to take his jump when the accident happened at about 3 p.m.

Gagnon had also traveled to the Massachusetts dropzone from Concord in an unexpected trip with the hope of getting one last fall jump in.

Law enforcement officials are still investigating what happened to the jumper who died, but assume that the man’s death was a result of a parachute malfunction.

Goldstein said skydivers typically jump with a main parachute and a reserve parachute. Divers are trained on how to deploy the reserve parachute if something happens to the main.

Goldstein said the skydiver’s main parachute landed in a neighborhood nearby. The skydiver hit the ground on airport property, which made Goldstein believe that when something went wrong with the first parachute, the man disconnected from it, and was trying to use the reserve.

Goldstein and another skydiver, who is also a police officer, went to go find the man before Pepperell police arrived.

He described the deceased skydiver as an “incredibly friendly person, and an experienced skydiver.”

“He was a give-you-the-shirt-off-his-back kind of guy,” Goldstein said. “He was always here with a smile. He loved what he was doing – it was never work for him.”

Goldstein said he stayed at the drop zone until 7 or 8 p.m. Saturday night with mourning community members, and returned there Sunday for a debriefing.

“There were a lot of tears, a lot of hugging,” he said. “He’s a friend, a colleague. It’s a family there – we are very tight. Certainly any loss experienced is loss for all of us.”

Gagnon said it was therapeutic for the Pepperell skydiving family to be able to talk about their lost team member and share experiences on Sunday.

“It’s a great thing to have the skydive family all here,” he said from the dropzone.

The incident is under investigation by the Middlesex District Attorney’s office, the Pepperell Police Department, Massachusetts State Police and the Federal Aviation Administration.

Foul play is not suspected at this point, according to a statement released Saturday night by the Middlesex District Attorney’s Office.

Goldstein said the critical next step will be an investigation to see what went wrong with the man’s parachute. A United States Parachute Association certified examiner will check gear and make a determination about what happened, Goldstein said.

“Sometimes you never know, but we will certainly take every opportunity to find out,” he said.

Goldstein, 65, has been skydiving for almost 20 years. He’s jumped out of a plane about 1,500 times and said that he’s had to deploy his reserve parachute on two occasions.

The last time a fatal accident took place at Skydive Pepperell was in 2014. The U.S. Parachute Association estimates 3.2 million people skydived nationally in 2016. Of that total, 21 died as a result of the jump.

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, lwillingham@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)