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Chute to Kill

Looking west from this tiny airstrip tucked into the northwest corner of Palm Beach County, the horizon appears as a long, flat-topped ridge stretching north and south as far as the eye can see. At its closest, it approaches to within three-quarters of a mile of the airstrip's lone runway; at a height of 20 feet, it is the highest ground for miles. Actually a levee, the ridge was built to protect the nearby cane fields from the immensity of Lake Okeechobee beyond.

On October 23 this ridge was the stage above which the penultimate moment of Mike McDonald's life played to an audience of one. "When he reached the levee," recalls Harald Dahl, the lone spectator to the day's drama, "that's when I knew he was in trouble."

The two men, McDonald and Dahl, were hardly strangers; rather, they shared a particularly close connection: McDonald was a skydiver, and Dahl was the rigger who had packed his chute. McDonald had already jumped once that morning. But now, on his second skydive of the day, he had, in the jargon of the sport, "lost the field." That is to say, he had drifted too far downwind of his intended target, a circle of short-mown grass next to where Dahl stood watching.

As he crossed the levee, beyond which lay nothing but 730 square miles of shallow lake water studded with rocks, McDonald suddenly heeled into a 180-degree turn and faced back to the shore. "He was about 10 to 15 meters in the air," recalls Dahl, and facing an increasingly strong, gusting east wind that made the target as inaccessible as the moon. To Dahl it seemed as if McDonald was uncertain of what to do next, which way to turn. It was his 14th skydive overall but his very first solo jump.

Then, as Dahl watched, McDonald heeled again and rode the wind westward, out over the waves. Just before losing sight of the diminishing chute, Dahl saw it swerve left, as if McDonald were trying to avoid something, then swerve right again. Finally it disappeared altogether.

From the spot where Dahl witnessed McDonald's last jump, it's only a short walk in the opposite direction to the tiny office that serves as business headquarters of Skydive Palm Beach.

Today, two months after McDonald's death, the office is cluttered with the mementos of a lifetime spent skydiving: manuals, plaques, certificates, framed photographs of skydivers with arched backs linked in weblike formations. At the moment, however, owner Pat Dodgin's mind is far from the trappings of his own success that surround him. Now he's leaning back in his desk chair trying to figure out how he landed in such a God-awful mess. The echoes of McDonald's death continue to reverberate throughout Dodgin's world.

In an industry that averages 32 deaths a year nationwide (out of approximately 3.25 million jumps), McDonald's fatal plunge was the third in only 11 months at Skydive Palm Beach, says Glenn Bangs, director of safety and training for the United States Parachute Association (USPA), the industry's national accrediting body. That gives Dodgin the distinction of being owner and operator of what is statistically the most lethal skydiving business in the entire 350-member USPA.

It isn't that Skydive Palm Beach is one of the largest skydiving businesses; with an average 12,000 to 15,000 jumps per year, the company is actually on the smaller end of the scale. Many "drop zones," as they're called, do more than 50,000 jumps a year. Air Adventures of Clewiston, a medium-size drop zone in nearby Hendry County, does 20,000 a year.

Worse for Dodgin than the fatality statistics is the fact that he is now facing both an impending civil lawsuit and a criminal investigation stemming from McDonald's death -- not to mention open criticism from one of the most respected veterans in the world of professional skydiving.

The core of the controversy concerns the question of whether McDonald should have been allowed to make his first solo jump upwind of a lake on a day when other nearby skydiving operations, including one only 20 miles away, had shut down because of gusting winds. Bob Parks, the attorney representing McDonald's family, promises to take legal action and make Dodgin's life harder in the coming months: "[Skydive Palm Beach's] main line of defense appears to be the release that [McDonald] signed. If we lose at summary judgment, we're going to appeal it all the way up the line, because there appears to be unquestionable negligence involved."

"Are you nervous?" the tall, thin man asks with a smirk.He's squinting into the eyepiece of a video camera that's pointed at a fully outfitted, middle-aged skydiver-to-be standing rather stiffly in the center of the Skydive Palm Beach hangar. "Anxious?"

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Paul Belden

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