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Sky-dive instructor in fatal parachute jump was uncertified, association says

Two men die in tandem skydiving accident near Lodi

August 2016: San Joaquin Sheriff's Sgt. Brandon Riley confirmed the deaths of two men during a tandem jump at the Parachute Center in Acampo.
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August 2016: San Joaquin Sheriff's Sgt. Brandon Riley confirmed the deaths of two men during a tandem jump at the Parachute Center in Acampo.

The instructor killed Saturday in a tandem sky dive with an 18-year-old student near Lodi was not certified, a violation of federal regulations, according to the national certifying organization.

The United States Parachute Association has no record of certification for Yong Kwon, 25, of South Korea, said Executive Director Ed Scott.

Kwon and first-time jumper Tyler Nicholas Turner of Los Banos died after sky diving from a plane operating out of the Parachute Center in Acampo. Authorities said their parachute did not open and the two hit the ground.

Under federal regulations, the instructor is responsible for packing and maintaining the main parachute used in a tandem jump.

The fatalities have raised new questions about safety at the Parachute Center. While there is no official count of fatalities, a review of news stories shows that at least 17 people have died flying out of the center since owner Bill Dause started there in 1981.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor declined to comment about the lack of certification because the agency’s investigation is pending. Gregor confirmed that USPA is the only national organization recognized by the FAA to certify instructors for tandem parachute jumps.

He said it’s unclear whether Kwon had a foreign license or whether the FAA accepts such licenses.

The FAA and USPA are conducting separate investigations of the deaths. The USPA has suspended Dause’s license pending the outcome of its investigation, according to Scott.

The FAA has received a videotape of the jump from Turner’s mother, who paid for it prior to the jump.

Dause said Tuesday of Kwon, “He was certified by an instructor. There’s been some confusion about that.” He then hung up the phone.

During a second phone call, Dause was asked where Kwon received training.

“I’m not sure about that. You’ll have to ask him,” he said before hanging up.

He previously said Kwon was a veteran sky diver with about 700 jumps, according to The Associated Press.

17 Number of fatalities associated with the Parachute Center since 1981, based on news accounts

USPA certifies tandem instructors only after they receive training from the association or a parachute manufacturer, Scott said. Neither the association nor the manufacturer has a record of Kwon receiving the training, he said.

Discovery of the unapproved instructor has heightened Scott’s concerns about the Parachute Center, he said.

“We’re unsure of his ability,” Scott said, referring to Kwon. “We want to know if there are others like him.”

Scott said he previously had no reason to question the center’s safety record. Nationwide, the vast majority of fatalities are the result of experienced sky divers making an error, he said.

The Parachute Center does not appear to have had an unusual amount of fatalities by first-time jumpers, especially since it has a busy operation open every day, he said.

In 2014, 24 people died in sky-diving incidents out of an estimated 3.2 million jumps, according to the USPA.

While Dause is licensed by the association, his business is not a member, Scott said. About a dozen of the roughly 240 sky-diving centers in the country are not affiliated with the association.

Dause has said he stopped paying membership dues for the center once the association raised them. But Scott said the association has no record of the Parachute Center ever being a member. He said the most expensive membership is $750 a year.

Sky-diving centers, including several in California, use association membership and certification in their promotional materials as proof of safe operations. “All of our instructors are USPA rated, many with over 2,000 sky dives,” Lincoln-based Skydive Sacramento says on its website.

Ray Ferrell, owner and president of SkyDance SkyDiving in Davis, makes safety a central part of his website, and notes that “high quality costs more. … If people knew what they were sacrificing for a cheaper sky dive at other drop zones, they would not consider it much of a bargain!” He charges $189 for a tandem jump, compared with $100 advertised at the Parachute Center.

Julia Drew, co-owner of Skydive Truckee Tahoe, said, “We use 100 percent USPA certified instructors. … We feel much more comfortable knowing that we are operating under industry standards.”

I’m not sure about that. You’ll have to ask him.

Parachute Center owner Bill Dause, when asked who provided training to instructor Yong Kwon, who died Saturday with an 18-year-old first-time student on a tandem jump

While under investigation for alleged state labor law violations, Dause said he checked to make sure center instructors are licensed.

The state Labor Commissioner’s Office found him in violation of the law for not keeping payroll records in 2013. When the Parachute Center was investigated for those violations, Dause told an investigator that he considered all of the instructors at the center to be independent contractors and not his employees, according to records filed in Stanislaus Superior Court. The investigator noted that instructors were listed on the wall of the center, including those going by nicknames including “The Russian,” “El Don” and “X-Box.”

A state administrative hearing judge disagreed with Dause’s argument, finding that the instructors were his employees, and thus he needed to keep payroll records for them. Dause set their working hours, the prices they charged and their working conditions, the judge ruled in approving a $10,500 fine against Dause.

In two separate cases several years ago, the FAA proposed fines of just under $1 million for alleged maintenance violations by Dause. In one case, the FAA alleged that pilots at the center flew a plane more than 2,000 flights over 19 months with critical equipment in need of replacement.

Earlier this year, Dause said the FAA dropped the fines. “They realized it wasn’t an issue,” he said.

FAA spokesman Gregor said Dause is wrong. Dause refused to settle the cases, so they were referred to the U.S. attorney’s office for prosecution, he said. The office declined to comment on the referral this week.

The fines came up in May when the FAA announced it was investigating an April airplane crash at the center. The plane carrying 18 people landed upside down in an Acampo vineyard. No passengers were injured. The pilot indicated a mechanical failure, according to FAA records.

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