ELLINGTON -- As she hurtled toward the ground, the skydiver couldn't open her parachute. Her instructor, Robert J. Bonadies, dove toward her and pulled her cord. But some say it was too late for him to help himself.
Bonadies died Monday in the skydiving accident. The student and another instructor who jumped at the same time were not injured.
"Most people would say he was a hero," Don Semon, a safety and training adviser for the United States Parachute Association, said Tuesday.
Bonadies' death was ruled an accident Tuesday after an autopsy at the chief medical examiner's office. State police and the Federal Aviation Administration are investigating.
Family members and friends gathered at Bonadies home Tuesday, sharing memories and calling him a hero.
"His smile was contagious," said friend Bill Beaudreau. "He just made you feel good just being around him. I could just see him right to the end, putting his life aside to make sure this person lived, and that's what he did."
An electrician, Bonadies, 47, was also a father and grandfather. He had what one relative called "an infectious smile."
When it came to skydiving, he was as experienced as they come. He was president of Connecticut Parachutists Inc., a club based at Ellington Airport - about 6 miles from his Vernon house. He had been skydiving for more than 20 years. He completed 2,040 free-fall jumps - 254 in the past 10 months.
He also was a long-distance runner. He ran up Mount Washington and trained participants for charity events.
"He was a pretty active guy," said his brother-in-law, Mark Miller. "He loved his family. He loved his work. He loved to skydive."
That much is evident in a photograph of Bonadies skydiving. In it, he is smiling as he sails through the bright blue sky with a student harnessed beneath him.
Bonadies' relatives and friends at Connecticut Parachutists said he saved the student's life Monday.
Semon, who also is a member of the club, said Bonadies and another instructor were on either side of the student when they jumped at 12,000 feet from a Cessna 182.
When he saw that the student couldn't pull the handle to open her parachute, he did it for her, Semon said.
Mark Miller said Bonadies dove through the air to catch up with her.
"He maneuvered himself under her. He pulled her cord so her chute opened. He pulled his reserve chute. But he was too close to the ground," Miller said.
Semon, however, said Bonadies never got a chance to attempt to open either his main or reserve parachute. The police said when they found him, the reserve chute was open, but both police and Semon said it could have been forced out by the impact.
Meanwhile, television station WTIC reported Tuesday that Bonadies was not wearing a device that would have automatically opened his chute at about 1,000 feet. Although many skydivers choose to wear the so-called automatic activation device, Bonadies did not, WTIC reported.
All novice skydivers who are jumping with the Connecticut Parachutists group are required to wear the devices.
From the USPA Safety & Training Newsletter Vol. 2, Issue 6
Recently during a Category C student skydive, an AFF Instructor was killed after the formation funneled at the student's pull altitude. The two instructors and their student tumbled, and eventually one of the instructors released and deployed his main parachute at a low altitude. The other instructor continued tumbling with the student and deployed the student's main parachute just as the AAD deployed the reserve. The instructor reached the ground before he could deploy his own parachute. The student landed her bi-planed main and reserve without further incident. In situations such as this, altitude awareness is critical. Things happen very fast due to the increase in fall rate while tumbling, which only serves to add to the problems the instructor is already dealing with while trying to get the student deployed.
With this tragedy, Instructors are reminded of the protocol that has been established regarding students and pull altitudes. The AFF Syllabus of the Instructional Rating Manual lists the following guidelines regarding deployment problems:
a. The instructors must assure student main deployment by 3,500 feet to allow both instructors time to get clear and open by 2,000 feet.
b. No instructor should ever get above a student. Note: AADs often activate higher than the preset altitude.
c. The instructor(s) must ensure reserve deployment by 2,500 feet to get clear and open by 2,000 feet.
d. Under no circumstances should an instructor attempt to catch a student or remain with a student below the instructor's minimum deployment (2,000 feet).
e. The instructors must take care that one does not deploy the student's main while the other deploys the reserve.
(1) Only if the main deployment handle is inaccessible should the reserve-side instructor deploy the student's reserve parachute.
(2) Many systems have reserve-side instructor deployment handles to make deploying the main parachute easier for the reserve-side instructor.
USPA strongly encourages all skydivers, especially instructors, to use an AAD, which may have changed the outcome of this event. An audible altimeter can also serve to provide an additional altitude warning for instructors while working with students. Solo students, and instructors and students who are using tandem equipment must wear an AAD.