The Death of Jim O'Brien

December 17, 2004
Jim O'Brien & Chris Wentzel
Chris Wentzel and Jim O'Brien at a Herd Boogie, Pottstown, PA   ©1978 Scott Gillis

Recent editorial comment in the Bridgeton News, my local newspaper, along with letters and emails to the editor of the paper dealing with the death of television personality Jim O'Brien, has prompted me to write this essay. Although Mr. O'Brien died over 21 years ago, his death is often a topic of conversation when the subject of skydiving is discussed locally. The public's love of Jim is understandable but the information provided by readers has been incorrect, incomplete and confusing to non-jumpers.

Jim O'Brien achieved media-star status in the Delaware Valley area because of his wonderful sense of humor and strong personality. Jim was the weatherman folks turned to both for the weather as well as nightly entertainment.

His love of parachuting was often a topic of comment during his weather reporting. His death was a huge loss to the sport of parachuting. I know very few people who did as much for the sport as he did.

After reading a number of comments in the Bridgeton News which I knew to be incorrect, I decided to investigate the issue by calling friends and ex-students of mine who jumped regularly at the drop zone in Pennsylvania where Jim died. I also used to find online information. Much to my surprise, the online references were just as wrong as the comments in the newspaper. It became obvious to me that most of the letter writers got their information from the Internet. What follows represents what I have discovered regarding Jim's untimely death.

Jim O'Brien died in late September, 1983. None of my jumper friends could state the exact date and neither could I, although I remember exactly what I was doing that day; much like I remember when I heard of President Kennedy's death and, of course, the World Trade Center attacks.  The date appears online as the 23rd and the 25th. One jumper has posted to a parachuting website that the date was the 23rd. I don't know which is correct.

As to the place of Jim's death, it was at United Parachute Club drop zone in Pennsylvania. The New Hanover airport was sold a few years ago to a developer of shopping malls. The United Club is one of the oldest in the country. I jumped at United in many parachute competitions during the late 1960s and early 1970s. I always enjoyed flying jumpers there often in my Cessna 182 after getting out of the drop zone ownership business. Most of the United club members, some ex-students of mine, have more than 6000 jumps.

All of the jumpers I've talked to, two who were actually there that fateful day, and many who heard the details from others who were there, pretty much agree on all the details which I will attempt to explain. My explanation requires background for non-jumpers; I apologize to those jumpers who happen upon this page.

Readers knowledgeable about ram air parachutes and parachute control or those who bore easily with excessive technical detail can skim the following section and jump ahead to the section which begins "...back to Jim's jump."

Jim O'Brien had about 600 parachute jumps. Not a terribly large number but he was certainly not a beginner. He was jumping a parachute which is known by jumpers as 'a square' although its shape is actually rectangular. The more technical name for the canopy is a ram air foil from the action of air being forced into it.

The canopy is airfoil shaped with multiple individual cells with openings into the cells along the leading edge of the airfoil. The canopy has a distinct curved upper surface and a lower surface to which lines are attached in such a way to create an airfoil with lift like an airplane wing. The leading edge of the airfoil is open and the trailing edge is closed.

During the opening sequence, air is rammed into the open leading edge. The force of air into the cell is much like what happens when a paper bag is filled with air. All the air cells fill quickly and the nylon material forms the shape of a wing. The air which is forced into the leading edge opening keeps the airfoil wing open above the jumper. As gravity pulls the jumper down the angle of the wing relative to the wind keeps the cells filled with air and the jumper glides to earth under the open canopy.

The parachute canopy is steer able with control lines which are attached to the outside cells at the trailing edge of the wing. The control lines extend downward from the trailing edge to a line keeper on the riser assemble which connects the jumper's harness to the suspension lines. The jumper reaches up to grab the control lines just after the inflation of the air foil wing. The canopy is steered by pulling down either the right or left control line to turn in that direction. Pulling down the control line severely distorts the trailing edge on the side pulled down. The wing distortion on the pulled side creates a significant drag on the pulled side and the other side of the canopy, which is not pulled down, moves forward and causes the jumper and wing assembly to rotate roughly along the vertical axis of the jumper and the canopy. Thus, pulling down a control toggle distorts the trailing edge on that side and the non-impeded airflow on the opposite side causes the turn.

The action of pulling down a toggle to turn for an extended length of time causes the canopy and jumper to turn in the direction of the toggle pull but also to begin an outward swing of the jumper's body away from the vertical. The farther down a control toggle is pulled, and the longer it is held down, the great is the swinging of the jumper's body away from the vertical. If the toggle is held down as far as possible, which is downward as far as the jumper can reach, for more than a few seconds the jumper's body begins to swing out of the vertical plane and the body moves toward the horizontal. With a sustained toggle pull in one direction the jumper's body begins an outward motion away out from the vertical and, with continual line extension, the jumpers becomes almost horizontal as well as spinning very fast downward.

The net effect of the actions I'm describing creates a fast downward descent of the jumper in a movement which is very much like a corkscrewing effect. Jumpers perform this extreme turn because it creates a rapid loss of well as providing a fun ride. Air show skydivers, such as the Golden Knights, have multiple smoke grenades of various colors, hanging on a line. As the jumper descends rapidly a 3-dimensional, multi-colored corkscrew of smoke. The visual effect is stunning but the jumpers are disoriented by the spinning.

One of the effects of the turn as described is that the jumper's perception of the ground is displaced: it is now viewed at his side and spinning excessively...rather than downward beyond his feet. Similarly, if the jumper is getting close to the ground he is probably looking for a landing spot as well as determining the wind velocity so he can create a landing approach into the wind. Ram air parachutes are almost always landed into the wind so that the forward drive, or movement, of the parachute is somewhat countered by the wind. Therefore, the jumper can control the landing such that a landing standing up is done regularly.

Back to Jim's jump.

Jim and a friend, Doug Sellix, both had perfectly good, fully operational canopies. Both of their canopies were fully open and neither jumper had any difficulty controlling their parachute. Both jumpers began the corkscrew maneuver described above in order to descend quickly. Many jumpers make 8-10 jumps a day and getting to the ground quickly means getting back into the air quickly. The spiraling, corkscrew is a very common thing to do to descend rapidly.

Unfortunately, in this case, either or both of the jumpers lost awareness of where the other guy was and they entangled with one another. The centrifugal force of the spiraling caused their parachutes to wrap around one another and collapse. One canopy completely and one partially. All accounts indicate that this took place at about 600 feet. (Most jumpers open at an altitude of 1500 to 2000 feet regardless of the altitude from which they exited the airplane.) Therefore, Jim and Doug had perfectly good, functioning canopies for most of their descent under canopy.

After the entanglement, which was noticed from the ground after the two guys were yelling at each other about what to do about their predicament. For what ever reason, Jim elected to do a cutaway. A cutaway is the disconnecting of the canopy assembly from the jumper's harness by the pulling of a ripcord for that specific purpose. The cutaway procedure is taught and practiced repeatedly during a jumper's progression through the various stages of learning the details of jumping.

Needless to say, knowing how close one is to the ground is of critical importance to a jumper. Altitude awareness... and constant vigilance in regard to it... is one of the most important things any jumper learns. But the act of colliding with another in the air and getting tangled up in each other's equipment could certainly take one's mind off the issue of altitude for some period of time. After Jim's cutaway he waited a few seconds before pulling the reserve ripcord. The reserve parachute opened immediately after his pull and was observed by many on the ground.

As a parachute deploys, the lines and canopy come out of the container as the lines begin to stretch out. Ideally, the canopy catches air and slows the falling jumper to the safe speed of the deployed reserve canopy. Unfortunately, in Jim's case, he impacted the ground before the reserve parachute was fully inflated.

The other jumper involved in the collision was able to get the entangled mess he had over his head opened enough to land without having to pull his reserve.

One jumper who jumped at United on a regular basis, told me that he had heard that Jim had nylon cord burns on his neck. The speculation at the time was that he was badly scrapped by the cords after his cutaway and the burns may have distracted him from the immediate issue of pulling the reserve rip cord. Again, this is speculation to explain the delay from cutaway to reserve pull. A jumper with 600 or more jumps would not wait long to pull his reserve without some reason.

Essentially, his delay before pulling his reserve--what ever the reason for the delay--is what contributed most to his death.

Some additional information and comments about this incident. Jim was not making a tandem jump. Meaning, he was not connected to another jumper with them both intending to land on the same, but much larger, parachute. Tandem jumps, with an experienced tandem master, is the way most people have been introduced to the sport over the last 15 or 20 years. Internet accounts incorrectly state that Jim was jumping tandem with a woman. In fact, tandem jumping was not done experimentally until the same year he died.

Various accounts in our local newspaper indicates that Jim jumped in the Bridgeton area. This is true. One of his instructor/jumpmasters was negotiating to purchase the crop dusting strip owned by Al LiCalzi. Both Jim and I spoke at various meetings in Bridgeton in favor of the facility in hopes that a drop zone could be opened there. I don't think Jim's death had any influence on the deal not going through. If I remember correctly, the issues were related to the price of the land and the amount of land they could use for the drop zone.

This essay was written in an attempt to bring some correct facts forward regarding the circumstances of Jim O'Brien's death.

In my research for this essay I found an interesting piece of trivia regarding Jim's family. His daughter, Peri Gilpin, plays "Roz Doyle" on the NBC sitcom, "Frasier".

See info about her here:

Links to some sources used. A number have totally wrong information.;search_string=Jim%20o%27brien;#1257116

Author's Experience

By way of background, I submit the following information to give credence to my comments.

I made my first military parachute jump in 1960 with jump school class 6-60 while serving with the 82nd Airborne Division at Ft. Bragg, NC. I made my first sport parachute jump in June of 1960 while a member of the XVIII Airborne Corps Sport Parachute Club. I became licensed as a Jumpmaster and an Instructor by the United States Parachute Association in 1972. I owned two parachute schools in New Jersey and one in Pennsylvania. I hold an FAA Commercial Pilots license and have 1500+ hours flying skydivers. I hold an FAA senior rigger license with chest and back certifications.

I also hold the world parachute record for getting sick while jumping out of an airplane at night. My whimsical account of that record attempt can be seen HERE.

Because of the many jumps I've made in Cumberland County--at my drop zone, various fire company picnics and at the Cumberland County Fairgrounds--I have been asked often if I was Jim O'Brien's instructor. I was not his instructor. I did make a few jumps with him--and a plane load of 30 other people--out of a DC-3.

Although I was not Jim O'Brien's instructor, I did teach a number of Cumberland County residents how to jump. I taught a course at the County College many years ago which had Tia Riviera, Lee Bonham, Anita Rokulis and Diane Beatty in the class. There were a number of others whose name escape me after 30 years! Although not in the college class, I also taught Cumberland County Freeholder Bruce Peterson and his brother, Greg, for their first jump. I taught retired Bridgeton Chief of Police John Bondi for his first jump. I taught John Cooper, son of long-time Bridgeton News photographer Gary Cooper.

The first two jumps made at my drop zone in Woodbine were made by Paul Merkoski, the current editor of The Press of Atlantic City, when he was just a reporter, and another reporter, Drew Strunk.

If you have comments or question regarding this document send mail to me HERE.

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© 2010 Bernard Sayers