1997 Skydiving Tragedy

the ill-fated skydiving group at Pole just before their fatal jump
The group in a pre-jump photo at Pole. Back row from left: Ray Miller,
Hans Rezac, Michael Kearns, Trond Jacobsen, and Morten Halvorsen.
Kneeling in front: Steve Mulholland. Photo by David Martin

In early December 1997, six skydivers headed south from Patriot Hills (PH) on an ANI Twin Otter. Their plans were to skydive above the South Pole, and they'd shelled out $22,000 for the opportunity. Their venture was organized by the same group that would later coordinate the 1999-2000 "Millennium Expedition" to Pole.

The first part of their adventure had gone well...from their time camping out at PH where they worked out the details of the mission...to their landing at Pole at 0700 on 7 December. There they laid out a large orange square tarp as a landing target, and also posed for a "thumbs up" photo (above). The plan was to fly to 9,000 feet above ground level . From that altitude, the Austrian Hans Rezac (age 49) and the three Americans: Ray Miller (43, the trip's coordinator), Steve Mulholland (36, the jumpmaster), and Michael Kearns (39), would jump first and do a four-way formation during their 25 seconds of free fall. The two Norwegians in the group, Trond Jacobsen (32) and Morten Halvorsen (37) (in red in the above photo) would then do a tandem jump. A doctor and a field guide from PH accompanied the jumpers.

The aircraft took off and reached the eventual jump altitude (8,000 feet above ground level, or about 17,500 feet above sea level), and the first two jumpers left the aircraft and tumbled out of control. Kearns was the third to jump; after several failed attempts to link up with the others, he realized he'd already dropped below 2,000 feet, so he moved away and reached for his reserve chute ripcord. As he started to pull it, the chute was deployed automatically by his AAD. He then realized that the two men below him wouldn't make it. Then he landed hard.

He looked around and saw Miller, Rezac, and Mulholland had hit the snow while still in free fall positions. They'd all reached the ground about half a mile from the target. Only Mulholland's chute had started to deploy; it had not started to inflate. Meanwhile, the two Norwegians had jumped about 20 seconds after the first group, their descent went well, and they landed safely near the target, where a crowd of Polies was waiting and still watching for the other parachutes.

Kearns started to walk toward the jump area, and he was eventually met by people on snowmobiles who were searching for the missing jumpers. The station doctor, with members of the trauma team, located and recovered the bodies. The surviving jumpers were taken into the station to warm up...and by 1400 they and the bodies were on the way back to PH.

What happened? No one will ever know all of the details, but it is known that only Kearns and the two Norwegians were equipped with AAD's. Additionally, there had been an oxygen bottle aboard the aircraft, and during the ascent to the jump altitude, these three had partaken of the oxygen, while the other three jumpers had declined. The surface temperature at Pole was -25ºF with almost no wind...but the temperature at the jump altitude was close to -58ºF, and the wind chill produced by the free fall velocity may have been as low as -200ºF. The jumpers were most certainly disoriented by the lack of oxygen during the free fall...as well as the lack of visual references on the white snow surface.

The tragedy left its mark on the station and all who were there...including those who had been watching from the drop zone, a couple of others who emerged from the station just in time to witness three black dots in the distance fall to the horizon, and the doctor Will Silva, who was the only Pole physician to exhaust the station's supply of body bags. One of the dead, Steve Mulholland, had worked as a USAP carpenter in three previous seasons at Pole and McMurdo...and many on station knew him.

hero shot of Jacobsen and HalvorsenInterestingly, the two Norwegians Trond Jacobsen and Morten Halvorsen, who jumped after the others, did blog posts about the venture here (in Norwegian...use your favorite translator). [I fear that site is dead...here's the archived site.] They, unlike survivor Michael Kearns, landed amidst the crowd of Polies who were watching the event. At left, from the blog, is the Norwegians' hero shot taken before the jump by friend Sven Lidström who was at Pole as an AMANDA driller at the time. Sven was on the trauma team and was part of the group that went out with the ALE doctor and Tommy Barker to recover the bodies. Sven had met Steve Mulholland the previous season in New Zealand while doing the Banks Peninsula track.

Historical notes...the first parachute jump at Pole (well, 8 miles away) was by USAF TSGT Richard Patton, in November 1956. The first free fall jump was by VX-6 pararescue team member AE2 Jim Thomann on 23 December 1966...from 6,000 feet above ground level (earlier that season Jim was one of two jumpers to set the Antarctic free fall record of 7,000 feet above ground level over the Ross Ice Shelf). There were other jumps at Pole by the pararescue team, including this one I witnessed in January 1977. Reportedly, a Norwegian was the first NGO skydiver to jump at Pole in 1992, but I haven't located any details. And more recently in 2010, Michael Kearns, the only American survivor of this tragedy, was an unsuccessful candidate for Colorado's sixth US Congressional district.

More analysis details and information can be found in the references--which include a February 1998 Outside article (the photo at the top of the page originally accompanied this article); this 2011 article in Parachutist magazine which includes video links; the diary of Trond and Morten, the Norwegian tandem jumpers; this archived news article from the Findlay (Ohio) Courier which covered the death of area resident Ray Miller; pages 83-84 of Big Dead Place by the late Nicholas Johnson; and two articles from the 13 December 1997 Antarctic Sun--this front-page article by Alexander Colhoun, and this eyewitness account by Laurell Toeppen at Pole.