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Perilous moments in the sky

Many sky divers who lose friends in the sport make memorial jumps in honor their memory. In this 2009 photograph, sky divers at SkyDance SkyDiving in Davis, honor their friend and experienced diver Cliff Heller who died in 2006. At sunset on Saturday at SkyDance, sky divers will make a memorial jump in honor of Mridul Khan, 27, who died last weekend during a training jump.
Many sky divers who lose friends in the sport make memorial jumps in honor their memory. In this 2009 photograph, sky divers at SkyDance SkyDiving in Davis, honor their friend and experienced diver Cliff Heller who died in 2006. At sunset on Saturday at SkyDance, sky divers will make a memorial jump in honor of Mridul Khan, 27, who died last weekend during a training jump. Sacramento Bee file

Mridul Khan, 27, of Bangladesh was a young man with a brilliant mind and a yearning for adventure.

At Dartmouth College, Khan was a graduate student in computer science who published research on measuring human activity on cellphones. He worked to develop computer technology that would help the mentally ill. And he dreamed of digital innovations that would lift the lives of impoverished residents in his homeland.

Then, on Sunday, Khan died pursuing his other passion – learning how to skydive.

His life of promise ended on his 27th parachute jump at a skydiving school at the Yolo County Airport, weeks before he was to return to complete his final semester at Dartmouth.

Khan came to California, inspired by a childhood dream to parachute from a plane. He enrolled at the SkyDance SkyDiving academy, completed his student training and was working on obtaining a skilled skydiving license from the United States Parachute Association.

He was getting additional training – in aerial free-falling – inside a Union City wind tunnel that uses high-powered fans to simulate skydiving conditions. He called his parents in Bangladesh with stories of his feats.

“He said to his mom, ‘I’ve never had so much enjoyment in my life,’ ” said Khan’s cousin, Irene Al-Farook, of New Jersey.

But on Sunday, Khan apparently failed a critical test that skydivers are warned about and trained to pass.

Skydivers are taught that at some point, on some jump, their main parachute will malfunction. It won’t deploy properly. They will have to keep calm, in midair. They will have to pull the cutaway handle on their harness to release the main chute. Then they’ll have to pull another handle to activate the reserve chute, all while dropping fast.

“It can be a very overwhelming experience,” said Jason Payne, a veteran skydiver with more than 5,000 jumps – including six in which he had to deploy his reserve parachute. “You have to do things quickly and you have to do things right. If you do it wrong, it could be fatal.”

Khan’s death was a rarity in skydiving. The Parachute Association reported 24 fatalities nationally last year (and 729 injuries), out of an estimated 3.2 million jumps.

SkyDance SkyDiving, which hosts about 30,000 jumps a year, had two other skydiving fatalities in recent years. In August 2013, Andrew Cofer, 23, of Lodi suffered fatal injuries on impact after falling out of his harness in midair. In June 2009, Ken Knigge, 48, of Martinez died after his parachute became entangled with the chute of another skydiver.

Unlike in Khan’s case, people dying in parachute accidents tend to be experienced skydivers with an average of nearly 2,000 jumps. About 30 percent of skydiving deaths result from landings, either coming down too fast or hard, or striking obstacles on the ground. About one in five deaths occur as a result of equipment malfunction and a nearly equal amount from midair collisions of parachutists.

And, as seemingly in Khan’s case, fatalities can occur from a combination of factors – such as when parachutes fail to deploy and skydivers fail to undertake corrective measures in time.

Payne still remembers his first parachute malfunction, on his 14th jump. He felt a surge of adrenaline as his mind went from feeling, “Oh no!” to “when a voice in my head said, ‘Pull these handles like you practiced!’ ” in pre-jump drills on the ground.

Payne was one of Khan’s training instructors and had piloted some of the flights from which Khan jumped with other skydivers. He wasn’t there the day of the accident – when Khan may have panicked while grabbing the handles on his harness.

Ray Ferrell, the president of SkyDance SkyDiving, said it appeared that Khan may have pulled handles out of order. He said that caused his “main canopy (parachute) to spin” but not release and “the reserve chute not to come out of the container.”

Ferrell said fellow skydivers who had jumped out of the plane with Khan called emergency crews after touching down. One of the divers, a trained emergency medical technician, performed CPR. Another jumper, a nurse, assisted before authorities arrived and Khan was pronounced dead.

The fatal accident brought immense sadness to the skydiving community, in which Khan was viewed as an eager student willing to put in the work to become proficient.

“We have a tight community, a family, and everybody is upset about this,” Payne said. “He was one of us. He was getting through the training. He was making a big commitment to skydiving.”

At sunset on Saturday, SkyDance skydivers are planning to make a memorial jump in honor of Khan, a common tradition after parachuting deaths.

At Dartmouth College, Khan worked in the Neukom DALI lab in the computer science department of the Ivy League school in Hanover, N.H. While conducting research on technology applications, he also worked for a local startup company on developing a computer platform to serve mental health patients.

“Mridul understood Web development and was a natural leader on the project,” said Justin Anderson, Dartmouth’s vice president for communications. “His colleagues greatly enjoyed working with him and considered him to be smart, kind and easy to work with, in addition to being a strong programmer.”

Mohammad Al-Farook, Irene’s husband, said Khan was due to graduate in December. He said Khan, who got his undergraduate degree in computer science from North South University in Dhaka, Bangladesh, wanted to return to his homeland “to develop his own technology to help poor people who were less fortunate.”

“He was exceptionally talented and just a great kid all around,” said Mohammad Al-Farook.

A commercial pilot and flight instructor, Al-Farook said he considered skydiving too daring for his personal taste. But he said Khan was “very adventurous, and this was his passion. He found it exciting – and had been interested in doing this since he was very young.”

Al-Farook said he is coming to California to arrange for Khan’s body to be shipped to Bangladesh. In Khan’s hometown of Dhaka, he is survived by his father, Monzur Khan, mother, Dilafroza Khan, and younger brother, Mishal Khan, 17.

“His mother has cried so much,” said Irene Al-Farook. “We were so proud of him. He was a bright young man.”

Causes

  • No pull/low pull: Jumper did not initiate opening of the main or reserve parachute in time.
  • Malfunction: Jumper did not respond successfully to a main-parachute malfunction in time.
  • Reserve problem: Within normal operating parameters, the reserve system didn’t save the skydiver.
  • Collision: The skydiver hit someone or something (including aircraft) in free fall or under canopy prior to landing.
  • Landing: The skydiver died while attempting to land a fully inflated main or reserve parachute.
  • Other: Deaths that don’t fit into any of the other five categories.

Source: U.S. Parachute Association

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