No change in safety, procedures expected after skydiver’s death

No change in safety, procedures expected after skydiver’s death
By Pierrette J. Shields
© 2010 Longmont Times-Call

LONGMONT — The death of a 38-year-old skydiver on Sunday will not prompt any changes in procedures or safety measures at Vance Brand Municipal Airport or Mile Hi Skydiving, according to airport officials.
Fellow skydivers, friends and family of Emily Berkeley of Englewood were still reeling Monday from the attorney’s death as reporters raised questions during a news conference about the safety of advanced canopy piloting, or swooping.

Berkeley, a professional-rated skydiver and instructor, was practicing the high-speed skydiving maneuvers Saturday when she apparently misjudged a final turn close to the ground and crashed.

She was first taken to Longmont United Hospital, but the severity of her injuries prompted doctors to have her airlifted to Denver Health Medical Center, where she died Sunday.

Vance Brand Municipal Airport has a 380-foot-long by 180-foot-wide swooping pond and course, which represented a major capital investment for the airport and allows the city to host international swooping competitions. Swooping courses are not common.
During competitions, skydivers using high-performance parachute canopies cut a sharp 270-degree turn about 200 feet off the ground. They use the momentum from the turn to swoop to the ground at speeds of up to 90 mph. The skydivers then skim the surface of the swooping pond, advance through obstacles and earning points by landing in designated zones.

Vance Brand Municipal Airport manager Tim Barth and Mile Hi Skydiving owner Frank Casares said skydiving and swooping, which is competitive and taken up only as skydivers become experts, are inherently risky activities. But, they said, nothing about the airport or the procedures the skydiving company uses could have changed the outcome of Berkeley’s jump on Saturday.
“When they jump out of the plane … and they are professionals in their field, it is up to them to land their parachutes safely,” Casares said.
Berkeley, an attorney who often spent weekends parachuting with her husband, Lee Hamilton, had nearly 1,500 jumps in the six years she had been skydiving, Barth said. She had been working with a swooping instructor on Saturday to improve her techniques.
That instructor was filming her jump when she crashed, Barth said, and it looked as though she misjudged her final maneuver and was too close to the ground to recover.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the accident, Barth said.
Dan Berkeley, Emily Berkeley’s uncle, said his niece is one of a multigenerational Colorado family with many local relatives.
He said his niece was gregarious and that skydiving was only part of her life. He noted that she leaves behind her husband, parents, sister, and many nieces, nephews, and cousins.
“She could meet somebody one time and they will forever remember how nice she was to them,” he said.

He said a young soldier who visited the family one Christmas still remembers her. She made sure the serviceman had a gift.

“She was always a welcoming person,” Dan Berkeley said. “She was always the first person to welcome new people in.”

Emily Berkeley attended high school in Denver, went on study at Lake Forest College in Illinois, then pursued her law degree from the University of Colorado.

“When Emily told us she was going to law school, we said ‘Is law school ready for you,’” Dan Berkeley said.
He said his niece loved children and dogs, especially Chihuahuas. An older Chihuahua, Dottie, is also among her survivors.

Barth said he considered Emily a friend.
“She’s really bubbly,” he said. “She lights up a room.”
Another swooper died at Vance Brand in 2006, but Barth said that woman’s death was not considered a swooping accident. He said her parachute malfunctioned after she jumped.

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