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Bad timing, poor planning cited in colonel's parachuting death on MacDill Air Force Base

Rescue worker pull a parachute out of the water after Col. James L. Merchant III plunged into Gadsden Lake on MacDill Air Force Base on Jan. 29. His body was found 55 minutes later.

Tampa Fire Rescue

Rescue worker pull a parachute out of the water after Col. James L. Merchant III plunged into Gadsden Lake on MacDill Air Force Base on Jan. 29. His body was found 55 minutes later.

TAMPA — Lackluster planning, miscommunication, bad timing and inexperience contributed to the parachuting accident that killed a U.S. Army colonel three months ago.

That's according to an internal review of the Jan. 29 skydiving accident that sent Col. James L. Merchant III plunging into 22-foot-deep Gadsden Lake on MacDill Air Force Base.

Merchant, 46, a career soldier who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, appeared to be alive when he first landed in the water, 944 yards north of the drop zone.

He swam briefly before disappearing underwater, where he was found after a 55-minute search. For reasons unknown, Merchant didn't use his life preserver, though investigators say it was in working condition.

Members of the Air Force and Army Joint Aircraft Accident Investigation Board found that those who planned the training mission used the wrong model of parachute and the wrong altitude when calculating how the skydiver's airdrop would play out given the actual wind speed and the size of the drop zone.

Additionally, the report says they didn't identify Gadsden Lake as a water obstacle within 1,000 meters of the drop zone. Had they done so, regulations called for equipping the lake with a manned safety boat in case a skydiver landed in the water.

According to the report, the red and green lights that signal when skydivers should jump fired later than they should have. This was important because well-timed signals ensure the last of the jumpers will land within the designated drop zone.

The green-light call was delayed four seconds and the red light was behind five to eight seconds, according to the report. As a result, Merchant, the last of nine jumpers, left later than he should have, adding 92 to 184 yards to his travel past the drop zone. Then, the report says, instead of turning into the wind, he was carried by it even farther, adding another 314 yards.

Investigators said both the unnamed flight navigator and Merchant were somewhat inexperienced. It was the navigator's second personnel drop, and the first had been two days earlier.

Also, the report indicates she might have been overloaded by her instructor who, the report says, "challenged (her) with multiple training objectives." The rest of the flight crew failed to back her up, according to the report.

Merchant went through airborne training in 1985 and didn't jumped again until Jan. 15, 2008. In the year before he died, he'd logged only five jumps, the report says. "Inexperience may have played a role in his running with the wind throughout the entire descent despite clear indications … he was in danger of going off the drop zone."

Maj. Heather Brennon, a spokeswoman with Air Mobility Command at Scott Air Force Base, said she was not allowed to say if anyone had been disciplined over the accident. But officials are working on recommendations to help prevent similar accidents, she said.

Merchant, known to his friends as "Bo," lived in Valrico. He joined Special Operations Command in 2005 and rose to chief of the operations division.

VIDEO: Watch the rescue attempt.

Bad timing, poor planning cited in colonel's parachuting death on MacDill Air Force Base 04/29/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 30, 2009 12:44pm]

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