Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Gators rally past Kentucky, streak hits 31


    LEXINGTON, Ky. — For the second week in a row, Florida found itself storming the field in a game that came down to the last second. A 57-yard field-goal attempt by Kentucky kicker Austin MacGinnis came just a few feet short of making history and snapping a 30-year losing streak, as the No. 20 Gators escaped a …

    Florida wide receiver Brandon Powell (4) scores a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Kentucky, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Lexington, Ky.
  2. Pen makes it way too interesting as Rays hang on for 9-6 win


    A couple of home runs provided the news pegs of the night for the Rays, but it was more topical to talk about what nearly happened as they hung on for a 9-6 win over the Orioles.

    Lucas Duda's three-run homer in the third inning was the Rays' record-breaking 217th of the season, as well as his …

  3. An attempt to project what Rays will look like in 2018

    The Heater

    BALTIMORE — We know what the Rays look like this year: a team that had enough talent but too many flaws, in construction and performance, and in the next few days will be officially eliminated from a wild-card race it had a chance to win but let slip away.

    Adeiny Hechavarria, high-fiving Lucas Duda, seems likely to be brought back.
  4. Trump fallout: Bucs' DeSean Jackson to make 'statement' Sunday


    Bucs receiver DeSean Jackson said Saturday that he will make a "statement" before today's game against the Vikings in response to President Donald Trump's comment that owners should "fire" players who kneel in protest during the national anthem.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver DeSean Jackson (11) makes a catch during the first half of an NFL game between the Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017.
  5. Kriseman invites Steph Curry to St. Pete on Twitter


    Mayor Rick Kriseman is no stranger to tweaking President Donald Trump on social media.

    Mayor Rick Kriseman took to Twitter Saturday evening to wade into President Donald Trump's latest social media scuffle