Hawaii’s tight-knit skydiving community is mourning the death of a veteran instructor and his young student on Sunday. Tandem parachute instructor Greg Hunter, 44, and 18-year-old Margaret Jean Thomas of Papillion, Neb. were killed after falling 9,000 feet into a back yard on the North Shore.
A longtime skydiver, Hunter was also a commercial diver, boat captain, and scuba instructor. Thomas and her infant son were visiting her brother, who is stationed with the Army here. Thomas had received the skydiving jump as a gift, and Honolulu police say she had listed skydiving as one of her lifelong dreams.
Thomas and Hunter were one of several pairs of tandem parachutists who jumped out of a Cessna 402 owned by Drop Zone, one of three skydiving companies operating out of Dillingham Air Field. Hunter’s coworkers were unaware anything was wrong until the plane had landed. The pair crashed into the back yard of Fred Chuckovich, who lives on Mahinaai Street in Mokuleia.
While an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration is ongoing, the reserve parachute was reportedly out of the parachute pack but had not opened when the bodies were found. Skydiving enthusiasts have said the reserve parachute may have opened early or accidentally and gotten tangled with the main parachute, and a spokesman for the United States Parachute Association confirmed that something was out of sequence.
The reserve or backup parachute usually has a built-in mechanism to deploy automatically, depending on speed, altitude or air pressure. The deaths are the first ever since recreational skydiving took root in the islands nearly two decades ago.
The other two companies operating alongside Drop Zone are Sky Dive Hawaii and the Pacific Skydiving Center. Hunter was well-known and respected in the skydiving community, and friends soon plan to celebrate his life by scattering his ashes during a freefall jump at sunset.
According to Hunter’s online resume, he built, flew, and crashed his first hanglider at Mt. Alyska in Girdwood, Alaska, in 1972. He and his family moved to Hawaii in 1973, and he worked several jobs on Maui, traveling to several cities on the Mainland for outdoor activities training and returning to Alaska often over the next several years. In 1989, he started working as a tandem parachute instructor at Perris Valley Skydiving Center in California. Soon after, he designed and sold a custom skydiving helmet that housed a video camera and that has since become popular throughout the industry.
He moved the company, Head Hunter Helmets, to Hawaii two years ago. He resumed skydiving instruction this year, while working to develop yet another business, a JetSub submersible SCUBA boat.
“We do know that he pulled all of his handles, all but one drogue release, so he died doing everything he knew to save his student,” wrote Rob Warner, a former colleague of Hunter. “Greg went with honor.”