The Death of Jim O'Brien
December 17, 2004
Chris Wentzel and
Jim O'Brien at a Herd Boogie, Pottstown, PA ©1978
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
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
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
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 Google.com 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
As to the place of Jim's
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
All of the jumpers I've talked
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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 altitude...as 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
One of the effects of the turn
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,
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
Unfortunately, in this case, either
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
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
one is to the ground is of critical importance to a jumper. Altitude
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
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
The other jumper involved in
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
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
pulling his reserve--what ever the reason for the delay--is what
contributed most to his death.
Some additional information
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
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
attempt to bring some correct facts forward regarding the circumstances
of Jim O'Brien's death.
an interesting piece of trivia
regarding Jim's family. His daughter, Peri Gilpin, plays "Roz Doyle" on
the NBC sitcom, "Frasier".
Links to some sources used. A number have
By way of background, I
following information to give credence to my comments.
I made my first military
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
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
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
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
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
regarding this document send mail to me HERE.