Capt. James Ahn stepped onto a small plane on the Olympic Peninsula with his Special Forces team almost a year ago and incorrectly rigged his parachute, setting him up for a challenging jump.
But that isn’t what killed the Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier.
An “unprecedented” manufacturing defect in his pack’s reserve parachute — the line he would pull if he needed a backup — had gone unnoticed during four years of use.
The combination of faulty parachute and other mistakes proved to be too much.
“Capt. Ahn likely misidentified which parachute had malfunctioned and lost what little chance he had to land safely,” wrote an Army investigator in a report obtained by The News Tribune through the Freedom of Information Act.
Ahn’s death Sept. 11, 2015, stunned the JBLM’s Special Operations community. His was the first parachute-related death for a local unit since 2005 and the ninth in the Army in the past five years.
The accident led to a 10-hour search for his body in the woods around Shelton.
It also prompted an investigation that concluded in a 409-page report that the defect that killed him went unnoticed by six professional inspectors from the company that manufactured the chute and at least 22 Army riggers.
The error was so obscure — the manufacturer neglected to stitch a 4-inch ring that guides parachute cords — that experts from the Army Safety Center took four days to identify it when they traveled to JBLM to investigate Ahn’s death.
He died while using an MC-4 parachute, a standard piece of equipment for Army Special Forces.
After the Safety Center pinpointed the defect, the Defense Department suspended use of its 10,000 MC-4 parachutes. None had a defect like the one in Ahn’s pack.
“The defect was unprecedented in parachuting and not obvious to the naked eye, but was deadly,” the investigator wrote.
Ahn’s death is marked at the 1st Special Forces Group headquarters, where his name is etched on its memorial wall. His name is the newest addition to a tribute that pays respect to Green Berets who died on battlefields from Vietnam to Iraq.
Away from the Army, loved ones described Ahn as an athletic, easygoing man dedicated to his church and his country. He coached a youth basketball team and was involved with youth ministries.
“I don’t know anyone who would have anything bad to say about him in any way,” said his friend, Kelley Marshall, who attended the Korean church with Ahn when he lived in Virginia. “Everything about him was good.”
Marshall was impressed by the example Ahn set for kids at the church and found his quiet, reserved demeanor surprising in light of his being a Green Beret.
He’s remembered by his former teammates as a dedicated Green Beret who embraced the unit’s charge to mentor U.S. allies along the Pacific Rim.
He volunteered for training events that were not required of him, and often excelled at exercises that were know to injure his peers.
“He really wanted to get the full gamut of experiences of the military and Special Forces,” Maj. Vincent Enriquez said. “He was very much dedicated, an absolute professional.”
Ahn grew up in La Crescenta, California, and learned Mandarin, enabling him to make connections and friends when he and teammates traveled to train with American allies in East Asia.
Sometimes, the connections got his teammates invitations to local parties.
“He had a big smile and would always grin ear to ear,” Master Sgt. Dan Linderman said. “He always found time to smile about something and made friends with our Asian counterparts. They latched onto him.”
One of Ahn’s favorite stories was about the time he and a Korean officer had to walk a long way to resupply. When they came to a road, they asked a Korean farmer for a ride and offered to pay him. The farmer declined the money and instead asked Ahn to speak English with his son.
Ahn and the boy happily chattered the rest of the way.
On a recent holiday break, Ahn took personal leave to fly back to visit some of the East Asian allies he met on training events.
“We do it because we’re professionals and that’s the military-to-military partnership we want to build,” Enriquez said. “James went above and beyond and saw them as friends. We got nothing but brave and positive reviews from people he worked with.”
After Ahn’s death, several foreign teams held services to pay their respects.
Before his fatal fall, Ahn participated in at least 50 jumps.
On Sept. 11, 2015, his team used a civilian-flown plane from Kapowsin Air Sports in Shelton. The company often works with Special Operations units at JBLM.
The team boarded the cramped plane at 10:50 a.m. They did standard equipment checks and prepared for the jump, which took place at 18,000 feet.
In freefall jumps, the jumper deploys the parachutes himself. The team planned to do so at 16,000 feet.
Ahn was ninth in line, making him next to last.
What he and his fellow jumpers failed to notice was that Ahn accidentally attached his ruck sack to the ripcord of his reserve chute. When Ahn jumped, the weight of the 39-pound pack immediately deployed the reserve parachute.
One of four lines connecting him to the chute broke loose due to the manufacturing defect.
Ahn likely believed it was his main parachute that was malfunctioning and didn’t realize he didn’t have the reserve chute as a backup.
He started spinning in mid-air. A jump master in the plane noticed Ahn was in trouble and tried to follow him down, but Ahn fell too fast.
To deploy a second chute, Ahn needed to jettison the malfunctioning parachute so the two canopies would not become entangled. He apparently used a knife to cut the three lines suspending him, detaching himself from the reserve chute.
When he went to deploy what he thought was the reserve chute, he would have been confused to find it gone, investigators said, and probably pulled the ripcord for the main parachute instead.
Unfortunately, he’d already separated himself from the lines connecting him to the main chute and it flew away.
“At this point, Capt. Ahn’s situation was unrecoverable and unsurvivable,” the investigator wrote.
When reserve parachutes are made, a 4-inch loop is temporarily held with hot glue to ensure it is folded properly before being permanently stitched.
Ahn’s parachute was never stitched.
Reserve parachutes are inspected every 120 days, and the one Ahn used was last looked over June 11, 2015. It was reinspected and repacked 15 times over 4 1/2 years, the report said.
“Any follow-on inspectors would have little suspicion of a manufacturing defect with each successive inspection,” investigators wrote.
On the morning of his last jump, Ahn cajoled teammates into posing for a photograph just before they boarded their plane.
He put on his best tough guy face. It matched the camouflage uniform, combat equipment and night vision goggles he and his nine teammates wore.
It was the last photo taken of Ahn.