The stunning accident that claimed the life of a Navy SEAL and elite parachutist on Sunday during New York City’s annual Fleet Week was the SEALs' fifth jump death since 2013, a fatality that could renew safety concerns that have drawn the attention of the top brass at U.S. Special Operations Command in recent years.

Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Remington Peters died during a free-fall jump near Liberty Island in New York City after, the Navy said in a release, "his parachute malfunctioned." Peters' death was the first for the special operations community since five operators across the SOCOM enterprise died in jump accidents in 2015. That spike prompted the brass to call a temporary halt to all free-fall training while the command reviewed its procedures and re-qualified all its instructors and operators in the high-risk jumps.

For Navy Special Warfare, jump accidents have claimed as many lives as combat operations over the past four years. Since 2013, three SEALs, an explosive ordnance disposal technician and a cryptologic technician assigned to NSW have been killed in action, according to the Navy SEAL Foundation's website

In February, a Military Times review of jump accident investigations spanning 13 years involving Army, Navy and Air Force special operations personnel revealed troubling training shortfalls, lapsed jump qualifications, and a number of accidents and deaths at least partially attributed to overconfidence on the part of the jumpers or their trainers. Between 2011 and 2016, 11 operators from the special operations community died in jump accidents, a 60 percent increase over the previous five-year period, according to 13 years worth of records obtained and analyzed by Military Times.  

U.S. Special Operations Command officials told Military Times earlier this year that the 11 deaths over five years each had different causes and few common threads. 

This new deadly accident has left experts stunned and wondering, given the number of safety precautions in place and special focus on safety in recent years, how such an accident could be possible. Witnesses who spoke to local news stations said it appeared Peters' chute never fully deployed before he crashed into the Hudson River. If true, it would mean that neither his main chute nor his reserve chute managed to arrest his fall. And the reserve chute nearly always comes equipped with an automatic triggering mechanism that deploys the canopy if an on-board sensor detects a jumper is still in free-fall after a set altitude.

On top of the safety equipment involved, demonstration jumps are executed by only the best of the best – jumpers who have shown they can perform jumps with a level of precision that exceeds the expectations of their peers in the military free-fall world. And their jumps are monitored by both air and ground crews who can call off the jump at any time if conditions for the jump are not exactly right.

The challenge confronting investigators is the complicated task of determining how all those safety features and safeguards failed to prevent the tragedy.

"The level of planning that goes into these kinds of events is very meticulous, not just in terms of safety but the whole process – it lends itself to being very methodical and making sure you check off all the boxes," said Maxwell Ramsey, a former soldier and pro-rated jumper who worked with the now-disestablished 101st Airborne parachute demonstration team.

"The only thing safer would be to just not jump out of the airplane," Ramsey said.

Navy Special Warfare Command would not comment on any of the specifics of Peters' jump, citing an ongoing investigation, and could not immediately respond to a Navy Times request for details about what gear Leap Frogs typically use for their jumps.

Experts who spoke to Navy Times said the death was shocking.

"The Navy Leap Frogs is a premier, professional team and safety is number one in training and how they execute their demonstrations," said Geoff Reeves, a former Naval officer who served as the Leap Frog’s officer in charge a decade ago. "Skydiving is a high-risk activity. But given all the safeguards, I don’t know how something like this could have happened."

Reeves said he was anxious to see what investigators uncover.

Main canopy failures are extremely rare but can happen if: the jumper’s body is not in the proper arched posture; if the parachute is packed improperly (also very rare); or if the equipment rig is worn out or somehow defective.

In the event that a jumper loses consciousness during the dive – something that is a risk during the high-altitude jumps performed by special operators – a sensor that detects the altitude and rate of the descent is supposed to trigger the reserve chute as a last resort, another safety feature that almost certainly was installed in Peters' rig yet didn't stop Sunday’s fatal accident.

In 2013, Special Warfare Operator 3

rd

Class Jason Kortz died when his main chute became entangled around his reserve chute, causing both to fail. Investigators found that Kortz, who was performing his first live jump in full combat gear and didn’t get his body into the proper arched position, which caused a fatal loss of control of his descent.

But the Leap Frogs are made up of very experienced jumpers who have scores of successful jumps under their belts. In order to participate in demonstration jumps, skydivers have to maintain a "pro" rating.

According to the United States Parachute Association's website, the U. S. Federal Aviation Administration requires skydivers to earn the pro rating to perform jumps close to crowds.

"To earn the PRO rating, skydivers ... must demonstrate landing skills with the parachute they plan to use for shows and receive training on how to use flags and pyrotechnic devices," the website says. "The FAA allows PRO-rating holders to fly and land closer to crowds than jumpers who have not demonstrated these qualifications."

In the wake of the 2015 spike in free-fall deaths Army Gen. Joseph Votel, SOCOM's commander at the time, called off all free-fall jumps for three months while trainers and operators requalified and the command reviewed its safety procedures.

Peters accident is the first military free-fall death in the special operations community since Votel’s three-month stand-down, said Air Force Capt. Brian Wagner, a spokesman for SOCOM. There were none in 2016.

Votel's review also prompted the formation of the Military Freefall Working Group within SOCOM to review lessons learned from these episodes.

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News. Before that, he reported for Navy Times.

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