Recent Deaths Highlight Dangers of Military Free-Fall Parachuting

  • Several US troops, including Navy SEALs, have died in parachuting accidents over the past decade.
  • Despite the danger, parachuting is a valuable method to put forces on the ground for important missions.

Several members of elite US military units have died in parachute accidents over the past decade, including a Navy SEAL and a member of the Army’s parachute demonstration team who were killed in incidents this year.

While deaths in US military parachute operations are relatively rare, the fatalities highlight the inherent danger of what has become the go-to method for putting special operators and other US troops into the field for important missions.

Deadly accidents

Navy SEAL Naval Special Warfare parachute

Naval Special Warfare operators perform a free-fall jump in Alaska in September.

US Navy/MCS1 Alex Smedegard

On February 19, Chief Special Warfare Operator Michael Ernst, a member of a Navy SEAL team assigned to the East Coast, was killed during a free-fall parachute training jump in Arizona.

The incident, which likely happened during as part of a pre-deployment workup, is still under investigation, according to Naval Special Warfare Command. The command’s leader, Rear. Adm. Keith Davids, called Ernst “an exceptional teammate” who worked on some of the US’s “hardest challenges” while “selflessly mentoring” fellow SEALs.

Ernst’s death is the first fatal parachute accident in the Naval Special Warfare community since May 2017, but in the preceding four years, five active-duty SEALs died during training jumps.

Ernst’s death is not the only deadly parachute mishap this year. On March 13, US Army Sgt. 1st Class Michael Ty Kettenhofen died after being injured in a “hard landing” during a training jump in Florida.

Kettenhofen was a member of the Golden Knights, the Army’s elite parachute demonstration team, and had done more than 1,000 parachute jumps with the Army. The service has said the incident is under investigation.

“Ty will be honored and remembered as a Golden Knight, soldier, and friend,” the commander of the Golden Knights said in a statement.

Dangerous but valuable

Navy SEAL HALO parachute jump Alaska Arctic

US Navy SEALs conduct a high-altitude low-opening jump in Alaska in March 2022.

US Army/Sgt. Stefan English

The deaths and other military parachuting incidents, including a British special-operations parachutist falling through the roof of a California home in 2021, illustrate the risks inherent in military free-fall parachuting.

Despite that danger, however, free-fall parachuting is also extremely valuable as an insertion method for special-operations units.

Unlike static-line parachuting, in which parachute deployment is triggered by a line attached to the aircraft that the parachutist jumped from, personnel conducting free-fall jumps have to pull their rip cords to deploy their parachutes after jumping from the plane.

There are two versions of free-fall parachuting — high-altitude low opening, or HALO, and high-altitude high opening, known as HAHO — which are designed for different scenarios.

During HALO jumps, commandos jump from an aircraft, free fall, and deploy their parachutes close to the ground. Doing so is meant to increase their chances of reaching the ground in an orderly fashion and without detection.

During HAHO jumps, operators deploy their parachutes soon after exiting the aircraft and glide to the target, which can be up to 40 miles away. HAHO jumps allow the aircraft to stay far from the target, decreasing the likelihood it will be detected.

For both kinds of jumps, the commandos typically exit the aircraft at an altitude of about 25,000 to 30,000 feet.

Air Force parachute

A US airman conducts a high-altitude high-opening jumps from an HC-130J over Nevada in May 2021.

US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Alexandre Montes

Free-fall parachuting “gets us where we want to be without presenting a large signature to an adversary,” a former Navy SEAL officer told Insider.

Free-fall jumps can be used to put commandos on the ground for a variety of missions, including counterterrorism, special reconnaissance, and hostage rescue. Compared to other insertion methods used by US special operators, parachute jumps lower the operators’ chances of being detected as they approach the target.

Free-fall parachuting “is an important skill set and has become mandatory for a unit to be considered competitive even within” the US special-operations community, and it “offers decision-makers more options,” according to the SEAL officer, who was granted anonymity because of their current work with the government.

The Navy SEAL community — especially the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, formerly known as SEAL Team 6 — is well-versed in free-fall operations. Indeed, SEALs with DEVGRU, as the Development Group is known, have used free-fall jumps in at least two recent hostage-rescue operations.

In 2012, they parachuted into Somalia and rescued US citizen Jessica Buchanan and Danish citizen Poul Hagen Thisted, who were being held by pirates. In 2020, SEALs conducting a free-fall jump during a mission to rescue Philipe Nathan Walton, a US citizen being held in Nigeria.

Most US special-operations units have recognized the value of free-fall parachuting and have incorporated it into their training. Their embrace of the valuable but challenging insertion method is a significant change from the past, when only select units — such as SEAL Team 6 and its Army counterpart, Delta Force — consistently sent troops through free-fall training.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master’s degree in strategy and cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies.

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