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Chuck Parsons - A Life Lived in Flight

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PEPPERELL -- Shortly after Ann Parsons saw her husband hit the ground while practicing a new skydiving move, she saw him do exactly what they learn in training: roll. "I thought, 'Oh my goodness, he's going to be sore tomorrow,' " she said.

But Charles G. "Chuck" Parsons, a 41-year-old Groton resident and noted nuclear physicist, would never regain consciousness.

Chuck Parsons

'A LEADER': Skydiving was just one of Charles Parsons' passions. A noted nuclear physicist, he invented many scientific devices, several of them patented.


After remaining in the intensive care unit at University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester for three days, his family decided to take him off life support Tuesday evening and donate his organs.

Witnesses to the Saturday accident said Parsons, an experienced sky diver, miscalculated the depth of an advanced move called a "hook turn," which involves spinning around 180 degrees at a low altitude and steering downward to catch speed.

"It was horrible," said Dennis Ducharme, a 30-year sky diving veteran who witnessed the accident from the ground at Pepperell Skydiving Center. "It was just plain horrible."

Ducharme said Parsons should have attempted the move at a higher altitude. Parsons was also experimenting with a new, faster type of parachute. Weather did not appear to be a factor, according to police reports.

A wake will likely be held Saturday at the Badger Funeral Home in Groton, and Parsons will later be buried in his hometown of Canton, Ohio.

Parsons, who moved to his Ames Road home in Groton four years ago, had owned his own company, Catenary Scientific, for the last eight years. He had invented many devices, several of which were patented.

"He was the most brilliant person I knew," said his wife, who is the head librarian at the Lawrence Library in Pepperell. "This will be a big loss to the physics community."

He formerly worked at Bedford-based Niton Corp., where he developed improved technology for measuring lead in lead-based paint. Ann Parsons said her husband was working on several other projects that would have benefited the field, as well as the community at large.

Parsons held bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees -- all in the field of physics. Her earned his doctorate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge.

But there was more to Parsons than sky diving and physics -- he loved just about everything, his wife said.

"He was passionately into to every facet of science and the environment," she said. "He could crawl under the car with you and repair brakes, and in the next minute talk physics with world-renowned scientists. He was a very special person."

His friends agree.

"He was a leader," said Chad Gronbach, a close friend and sky-diver. "He had a very large heart. He was someone who always went out of his way for someone else."

Gronbach, Parsons and three others formed a sky-diving team called Burning Daylight -- a team that Parsons put together two years ago, members said.

The team hasn't decided yet if it will remain intact. At the time of the accident, members were training for the U.S. National Skydiving Competition this fall -- the largest of several sky-diving competitions that take place throughout the year.

Parsons started sky diving about 20 years ago, but gave it up when he began school and his career. When he and his wife moved to Groton, she treated him to a tandem jump at the nearby Pepperell Skydiving Center for his birthday.

After that, she said, he was hooked.

Even though the sport eventually took his life, Ann Parsons said she's glad her husband did what he loved. Participating in the sport improved his life both physically -- he lost 60 pounds in the last year -- as well as emotionally, she said.

"He sky-dived the way he lived his life -- passionately," she said.

When Parsons took the sport up again in 1998, he earned his Accelerated Free Fall license, which is needed to jump alone. In all, Parsons had about 920 jumps under his belt.

The sky-diving community is very tight-knit, and news of the accident spread across the nation via e-mail almost immediately after the accident.

Those involved in the sport say it is generally not dangerous, despite its seemingly risky nature.

Paula Philbrook, vice president of the Pepperell Skydiving Center, said there are about 15,000 jumps a year at the center. Minor injuries such as twisted ankles are not uncommon, she said, but serious injuries are rare.

The center, located at Pepperell Airport on Nashua Road, has been open for more than 30 years.

According to the United States Parachute Association, there were 3.4 million jumps made in 1999 and only 27 fatalities. The percentage of death in other sports, such as scuba diving, skiing and flying, is much greater, according to statistics.

There are strict rules and safety regulations that each sky diver must complete before jumping, said Philbrook, who also knew Parsons well. Those who receive a license must complete a seven-jump training and safety course.

Friends said Parsons was a very safe sky diver, and always took precautions.

"He was very safety-conscious for himself and the people around him," Gronbach said.

"He was always full of smiles, a very happy man."



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