Sky diving lures man to his death Brothers infatuated with dangerous sport that has claimed elder

October 28, 1998|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

For months, Aaron Britton hand-picked the men who would be there for his 500th anniversary, fellow risk-addicts who would don parachutes and hurl themselves from an airplane into a stretch of Delaware skies nicknamed the "Drop Zone."

Joining him would be his younger brother, other sky-diving junkies and the pro who had taken him on his first free fall more than four years before.

Britton choreographed everything: the order in which they jumped, the formation the divers used as they came together in mid-air, the way they joined hands and formed a human circle before unfurling their colored chutes.

He planned it all -- except for one thing.

As the men unclasped hands and pulled their rip cords, Britton's legs tangled in the lines of his main parachute. He tried cutting the lines away so he could use his reserve chute. But that, too, tangled uselessly around his flailing legs.

So on Sunday, during jump 500, 28-year-old Aaron Britton plummeted 1,000 feet to his death, landing on the black pavement of Delaware Route 24, as his brother and his best friends watched from the sky.

On the opposite side of the Chesapeake Bay, after a church service in Annapolis, Britton's parents were pulled aside by their pastor and told simply of "an accident."

They rushed across the Bay Bridge to a hospital across the Maryland border in Seaford, Del.

Their son had been "dead on arrival," they were told.

The doctor would not let them see the body.

"We couldn't see him," said Aaron's mother, Dottie Britton. "It was that bad."

Aaron's brother, Brian, was nowhere to be found.

"The whole way back home, we worried about him," their father, Jim Britton said. "You've never seen two brothers closer. We knew what kind of shape Brian must have been in. They had always done everything together, including sky diving.

"Those two -- they started their risk-taking years ago," Jim Britton said.

Best friends

Born just 13 months apart, Aaron and Brian Britton were always best friends. And they were always a wild pair.

In the summer, the two skinny, brown-haired boys would sneak out the back door, creep onto the roof of the family's one-story Annapolis rancher and leap into the backyard pool.

It would nearly give their mother a heart attack every time.

"They were fearless," Dottie Britton said, two days after her elder son's death. "Especially Aaron. He'd even jump off that roof before he learned to swim."

Once, the boys lured their sister, Lisa, onto the roof, promising her the dive of her life. But as she peered into the pool, the little girl said to her brothers: "I can't do it."

"I remember asking them to help me down," she said, laughing and crying at the memory. "But they wouldn't. So in the end, I had to jump."

As teen-agers, the brothers started watching television shows about sky diving. "Mom, we're going to do that one day," they would tell Dottie Britton.

Four years ago, they did.

Their first time up, Brian and Aaron each jumped in tandem with a professional sky diver. They were hooked on the risky sport immediately.

"After that first time, they did it every weekend," Jim Britton said. "In fact, they even rented out an old airplane hangar over by the Drop Zone and dragged couches and futons in there so they could stay all weekend and never waste good jumping time."

"They assured us it was as safe as driving a car," Dottie Britton said.

Devoutly religious, the Britton boys told their parents about their views from the heavens.

"Oh, mom, to see what God has created from up there," Aaron would say. "You've got to try it."

Before Sunday, Dottie Britton had almost been convinced.

Incomparable adrenalin rush

The odds of a sky diving accident are high enough for most people to wonder why anyone would step from an airplane into thin air 2 1/2 miles above ground.

About 1 in 4,000 jumps ends in a fatality.

But the adrenalin rush is said to be incomparable. An average diver plummets 1,000 feet every five seconds at 100 to 120 mph, before the chute opening. Britton, authorities estimate, was traveling at least 60 mph when he hit the pavement.

"Could I have asked them to stop? I suppose," Jim Britton said. "But it would have killed them because they loved it so much."

The Brittons had always known the dangers: midair collisions, parachute failures, high and unpredicable winds, landing in traffic or rocks or electric wires.

The brothers had seen how wrong things can go several thousand feet above the ground. Once, a man they were jumping with tried to unfurl his chute, only to have it spiral, whipping above him.

The damaged chute slowed the diver -- barely -- and he hit a freshly plowed soybean field with a thud. The Britton brothers landed safely and raced to him, saying to one another, "There is no way he lived through that."

But then -- as seen on the videotape of the accident -- the unbelievable happened. The young man jumped up. "I'm alive! I'm alive!" he yelled. "Dear God, I'm alive!"

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