Fairbanks man dies in Palmer skydiving accident

A Fairbanks man died in a skydiving accident in Palmer on Friday, police said.

Skydiver James Howard, 64, of Fairbanks, died Friday evening. His parachute deployed late and he landed in the Matanuska River instead of the designated landing zone, said Lance Ketterling, chief of the Palmer Police Department.

Howard was participating in the Alaska Summer Solstice Boogie, Ketterling said, which was hosted by the Alaska Skydive Center in Palmer.

"We're mourning the loss," said Claudia Blydenburgh, manifest clerk with the Alaska Skydive Center. "He was a friend and a fellow skydiver. The skydiving community is very tight."

Officers' initial investigation found that Howard had jumped from a Cessna 208, and his parachute had a "low opening," which means it was deployed later than normal, Ketterling said.

"We haven't completed the inspections yet, so we don't know the reasons for sure," Ketterling said.

But the parachute deployment was low enough that Howard's backup chute deployed automatically, Ketterling said.

As Howard came down, he had two parachute canopies overhead, Ketterling said, and he landed in the Matanuska River. Ketterling said officers are still trying to figure out what factors caused him to land there.

Spotters with the skydive center saw that as Howard was coming down, he was outside the landing zone. The company deployed its Cessna 206, Blydenburgh said.

From the airplane, Alaska Skydive Center owner Shannon Jardine spotted the canopy in a side channel of the Matanuska River.

Jardine jumped from the plane, deployed his parachute and landed on the bank next to the river, where he was able to wade in and get Howard from the water, Blydenburgh said.

Palmer emergency dispatchers first got a call about the accident at 5:03 p.m.

Emergency medical services arrived at the scene after Jardine via boat and started attempting CPR, Ketterling said.

Howard was declared dead at 5:52 p.m., Ketterling said. The state medical examiner was at the scene but has not yet issued a report stating Howard's cause of death.

Howard was a licensed skydiver, Blydenburgh said. He had an A-license, which is the lowest level.

Ketterling said he could not recall any fatal skydiving accidents in Palmer during the 21 years he has worked at the police department. Blydenburgh said it was the Alaska Skydive Center's only fatality.

Laurel Andrews

Laurel Andrews was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News and Alaska Dispatch. She left the ADN in October 2018.