A dozen men leap from an airplane 12,000 feet above sprawling Arizona desert and move into close formation. Six of them attempt to link arms in a circle; the other six form an outer ring by grabbing the inner jumpers’ legs – a tightly choreographed maneuver in the sky.
Most of the SEALs jumping on March 28, 2013, at the Navy’s parachute testing and training facility had made hundreds of jumps. One of them, Chief Petty Officer Brett Shadle, had made nearly 1,000.
This one, though, would be his last.
Shadle, a 31-year-old veteran member of Naval Special Warfare Development Group, was killed last spring when he and another SEAL collided in the air. The other operator, an unidentified petty officer first class from the same elite unit that’s better known as SEAL Team 6, was badly injured.
A command investigation into the accident found nobody at fault. All of the equipment had been properly maintained; all of the pre-jump safety checks had been performed; all of the jumpers were qualified for the mission.
A series of unrelated and largely unavoidable events – a broken formation, a parachute that opened at an odd angle, decisions made in fractions of a second with little room for error – placed two highly trained commandos on a collision course.
The fatal accident, the third involving Virginia Beach-based SEALs since 2008 at a secluded desert training site, highlights the inherent dangers of everyday military free fall training, with jumpers moving through the air at more than 100 mph.
Said one former operator with more than 700 career jumps: “If you don’t get scared of jumping anymore, then it’s time to stop jumping.”
The investigative report, obtained by The Virginian-Pilot through the Freedom of Information Act, details the moments leading up to the accident – and a group of SEALs’ determined effort to save one of their own.
That day started like any other at the training facility near Marana, Ariz.
Shadle and his teammates completed their first training session before sunrise, a nighttime jump at high altitude while carrying combat equipment. It was a routine task for a SEAL with more than a decade of experience.
Around noon, Shadle and 11 others got back aboard a turboprop plane for what was his fourth jump of the day. The plan called for a high-altitude, low-opening, or HALO, jump. They were to exit the plane at 12,000 feet and move into the circle formation before splitting up and releasing their chutes, half at 4,000 feet above ground level and the others at 3,500 feet.
The jump began smoothly, according to statements from several participants and observers. Shadle was among the six who began to link arms. But as the others moved closer to grab onto their legs, something caused the formation to break apart.
Three SEALs, however, remained linked: One jumper, who had grabbed Shadle’s leg and the leg of the SEAL next to him, didn’t release his grip. A video recording of the jump shows the three men move into a feet-first free fall for about four seconds, causing them to momentarily descend faster than the rest of the pack. The three men quickly regained control and spread out.
The jumpers soon reached the designated breakaway altitude and began deploying their parachutes.
In a written statement, the last SEAL out of the plane said his parachute had just opened when he noticed two jumpers below him. They appeared to be a safe distance apart.
One was Shadle, and the other was a petty officer first class who had done about 150 jumps. The witness saw Shadle’s parachute open cleanly. A moment later, the petty officer first class pulled his rip cord. His canopy opened to the side, pulling him hard toward Shadle.
Both men reacted quickly. Shadle seemed to be turning hard right to avoid a collision; the petty officer first class told the investigator he turned the same direction. Then he blacked out.
He came to moments later and managed to steer his parachute to the drop zone before collapsing in the dirt. Shadle was drifting with the wind. The SEAL who had witnessed the collision from above steered his canopy toward Shadle.
“I closed the distance between us and saw that he appeared to be completely unconscious,” he said in his statement.
The SEAL followed Shadle as he drifted several hundred yards outside the drop zone. Shadle hit the ground forcefully. The SEAL trailing him landed about 100 yards away, then ditched his harness and sprinted toward Shadle.
It took him a few moments to find his comrade in the brush. Shadle was facedown and trying to speak. The SEAL quickly checked his vitals – no radial pulse, but he was breathing.
The SEAL removed Shadle’s harness and draped the canopy over a bush, so rescuers would spot it, then ran toward the drop zone for help. After 600 yards, he reached the facility’s barbed wire fence. He attempted to signal for help using a mirror, but it was too small.
He cleared the fence and flagged down a Humvee that was searching for them. He led them to Shadle, then helped care for him until civilian paramedics arrived.
A rescue helicopter took Shadle to a hospital, where he died. His death rocked the small town where he grew up, Elizabethville, Pa., and the special operations community in Hampton Roads.
Shadle, who made several deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, had earned multiple Bronze Star medals with valor after enlisting in 2000.
The officer in charge of Naval Special Warfare Development Group agreed with the investigator’s findings and recommended only minor changes to the training program, including measures to speed medical response at the jump site.
“Shadle was a loving husband, dedicated father, loyal friend and fierce warrior,” the commanding officer wrote. “He understood very well the risks associated with his duties and accepted them. Quite simply, he was one of the best.”