- Associated Press - Monday, October 10, 2011

LAS VEGAS (AP) - It was supposed to be a special birthday gift to a grandmother _ a family skydiving adventure with a veteran instructor who was one of the Elvis Presley impersonators who jumped from an airplane in the movie “Honeymoon in Vegas.”

But the tandem skydive ended in tragedy Sunday near the Nevada-Arizona border when two parachutes failed to open, sending 75-year-old Claudette Porter of North Las Vegas and instructor James Fonnesbeck to their deaths.

Porter’s husband, Jim Porter, said his wife had talked about skydiving for at least 20 years. Their granddaughter arranged the outing to celebrate Claudette Porter’s birthday last month.

“Things like that happen once in a while, and there’s just not a whole hell of a lot you can do about it,” Jim Porter said.

During the jump, the main parachute attached to Fonnesbeck and Claudette Porter did not fully deploy, and a backup chute became entangled with the main chute when the instructor deployed it, Mesquite police spokesman Jeffrey Smith said.

The backup chute had only partially opened before Fonnesbeck and Porter hit the runway at Mesquite’s airport, Smith said. Fonnesbeck died at the scene, while Claudette Porter died at a hospital.

Fonnesbeck, 60, was from Weston, Idaho, but moved to St. George, Utah, with his wife and became a skydiving instructor. He worked for Skydive Mesquite in Mesquite, Nev., about 40 miles from St. George.

Skydive Mesquite owner Brad Jessey said Monday he was still trying to figure out why the parachute malfunctioned, especially given Fonnesbeck’s nearly 11,000 jumps and his decades of experience as a diver and instructor. Jessey said Fonnesbeck had successfully jumped with other customers Sunday before going up with Claudette Porter.

“It just baffles me that it could happen to him,” Jessey said. “I mean, the one thing we all said about him was, `You know, he won’t die skydiving.’ Well, somehow it happened, and I have no idea how.”

Jessey noted Fonnesbeck was among the team of skydiving Elvis impersonators in the 1992 film “Honeymoon in Vegas,” starring Nicolas Cage and Sarah Jessica Parker. The movie shows Cage and members of the “Flying Elvises” skydiving at night onto the Las Vegas Strip.

Fonnesbeck’s Facebook profile page features photos of him and his wife jumping from a plane, holding hands in midair, and together on the ground with a deployed parachute.

“He loved doing it,” Jessey said. “It was obviously his whole life.”

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Mike Fergus in Renton, Wash., said investigators were looking into whether the parachutes had been properly inspected before the jump, and were also checking on the Cessna 206 airplane and its flying route.

He said federal rules require chutes to be inspected every six months. Backup chutes are required to be packed before jumps by an FAA-certified parachute rigger, while main chutes must be packed with at least the supervision of a certified rigger, Fergus said.

Jessey said the tandem jump was designed to last nearly seven minutes, with as much as 40 seconds of freefalling and five to six minutes of gliding over the Mesquite airport before landing.

The airport is about 85 miles northeast of Las Vegas.


Associated Press writer Michelle Rindels contributed to this report.


Oskar Garcia can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/oskargarcia

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