On March 18, 2015, 29-year-old Navy SEAL Jason Kortz of Highland Ranch, Colorado, flew a parachute training mission 10,000 feet over the Perris Valley in southern California. It was his 33rd jump since enlisting as a special operator in 2012. Sadly, however, it was also to be his last – he died moments after jumping from the aircraft.
“Losing such a promising special operator is a tragedy, not just for his family and the Naval Special Warfare community, but also for this nation, [which] needs men of such uncompromising character in these uncertain times,” Captain Todd Seniff, commodore of Naval Special Warfare Group One, told the Los Angeles Times on March 19, 2015.
A Petty Officer 3rd-class with a master’s degree in business administration, Kortz had graduated from SEAL training in September 2014. The jump that killed him was his first high altitude, high open (HAHO) jump with heavy combat equipment. An investigation subsequently concluded that his death had been “preventable.” More than this, it appeared to form part of a disturbing trend…
Based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM or SOCOM) administers the Special Operations Component Commands of the United States Army, Marine Corp, Navy and Air Force. With authority over the nation’s elite troops, its role includes the planning and execution of high-stakes anti-terror operations.
But in recent years, SOCOM has been hit by a growing number of deaths in training accidents. Representing a 60 percent increase over the preceding five-year period, a total of 11 special operators died during training events between 2011 and 2016, including four SEALs who lost their lives in jumps since 2013.
Nearly half of the fatalities occurred in the year 2015, prompting a wide-ranging review of SOCOM’s freefall programs. The review included the retraining of all jumpmasters and a careful examination of program theory, procedures and equipment. SOCOM has since boosted its training safety measures. However, the investigators were unable to pinpoint a single underlying cause for the training deaths.
For example, the growth of SOCOM in recent years does offer one plausible explanation for the rising death rate. With more than 70,000 troops under its command, the organization has practically doubled in size since 2001. And since more special operators are participating in jump training, it logically follows that there will be more fatal accidents.
However, the deaths also appear to vary with the type of jump, suggesting that some forms of parachute training may be more dangerous than others. Indeed, all military parachuting appears to be inherently risky. “It’s not like a civilian skydive,” one special operations forces member told the Military Times. “There are all sorts of things that could happen.”
“…You are strapping 100 pounds of crap to you and jumping out at 20,000 feet with oxygen. Your rucksack can become unclipped and destabilize you, your oxygen mask can get ripped off – we had one guy who that happened to, who passed out until he descended to a point where there was enough oxygen in the air for him to breathe. It’s no joke.”
In fact, high altitude military parachuting – which requires the jumper to open a chute after leaving the plane, either at high altitude (HAHO) or (more dangerously) at low altitude (HALO) – was responsible for eight of the 11 deaths since 2011. By contrast, three deaths were attributable to static-line jumps, where a parachute activates straight after exiting the aircraft.
Meanwhile, faulty equipment appears to have been responsible for at least one accidental fatality in the same period. On June 23, 2014, Chief Special Warfare Operator Bradley Cavner was killed during a static-line jump when a blast of wind caused his reserve chute to deploy before he left the aircraft. He was sucked outside and slammed against the plane’s exterior with enough force to crack his helmet.
But one of the most significant factors contributing to parachute training deaths appears to be a culture of overconfidence in some parts of SOCOM. For example, in 2015, one airman apparently overestimated his ability to descend through the air as part of a group. After jumping with eight other parachutists from a height of 10,000 feet, he descended too rapidly and caused a mid-air collision, killing himself and one other.
Overconfidence was also a factor in a particularly reckless army jump near Hurlburt Field, Florida, in late 2015. Due to wind conditions, an aircraft carrying seven jumpers had been forced to track approximately half a mile east of its planned position. However, none of the jumpers adjusted for the change, exposing them to a number of dangerous hazards below, including jagged rocks and water.
Some of the jumpers managed to avoid injury. Others escaped with scrapes and cuts. However, one of the parachutists became entangled in power cables after attempting to steer clear of some rocks. He suffered electrical burns all over his body and may have suffocated in his parachute were it not for another jumper who managed to cut him loose.
Overconfidence appears to have been a significant factor in the death of Jason Kortz, too. In his investigation of the tragedy, Rear Admiral Brian Losey wrote, “Risk management decisions permitted Special Operator 3rd Class Kortz, an inexperienced parachutist, to participate in a complex jump before he was ready to safely do so. Controls intended to reduce the risk were ineffective.”
“Specifically, personnel did not adhere to air operations procedures, unauthorized equipment was worn, authorized equipment was improperly fit, and jumpers lacked adequate knowledge of emergency actions,” wrote Rear Admiral Losey. In fact, Kortz – who was wearing sunglasses – had tumbled out of control immediately upon exiting the aircraft.
Unable to stabilize himself, possibly due to badly fitted equipment, Kortz panicked, released his main chute and became instantly entangled in it. At the advice of the jumpmaster, who he contacted via radio, he cut it free and deployed the backup. However, this too became entangled. Instantly, Kortz plunged to the ground and died.
Speaking of the recent investigation into SOCOM’s culture of overconfidence, one retired special operations officer told the Military Times, “Being ‘special’ shouldn’t be an excuse to cut corners or accept needless risk in either training or operations… Attention to detail and adherence to safe operating procedures is even more fundamental to elite force operations than conventional units.”
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Commander Mark Walton, a spokesman for SOCOM, added, “Training deaths are tragic, and we mourn those who have been lost in training just as we mourn those lost in combat. Moreover, we pursue the lessons learned from both combat and training with equal vigor to improve the quality of mission-critical high-risk training; and the safety and protection of our personnel during training events and combat equally.”
Has SOCOM managed to curb the death rate of its parachutists? While 2017 does not appear to have been as tragic as 2015, fatal incidents continue. In May, a Navy SEAL fell to his death in the Hudson River after an apparent equipment malfunction. In October, Navy SEAL Commander Seth Stone died in Perris after his parachute did not open. It seems that more work needs to be done to ensure the safety of America’s special operators.