Jim Wigginton and Thomas Noonan III were preparing to do a tandem jump from 41,000 feet over Memphis, Tennessee, on Oct. 16 when Noonan’s foot got stuck as they headed out of the plane.
The pair, along with two solo jumpers, an oxygen manager, a videographer, a jumpmaster, and the pilot, were about to attempt to break the Guinness world record for highest tandem skydive.
“The first two guys exited,” Wigginton, 72, of Belleville, Michigan said of the solo jumpers. “Between Tom and myself and the gear we wore, we were about 500 pounds. We had to use our arms and scoot our legs to move. At 41,000 feet, what would be comparatively easy on the ground is really difficult in the air. We got about halfway, and he was struggling. I made it to the door. I was hanging out the door.”
Before the pair got to jump, the oxygen system that is required to use at that altitude malfunctioned, and suddenly everyone began to experience hypoxia, which means that there wasn’t enough oxygen present.
Noonan lost consciousness, one of the crew members began shaking, the videographer kept going in and out of consciousness and Wigginton, who was holding hundreds of pounds of weight with Noonan strapped to his back, also went unconscious briefly.
Most of the crew came out of hypoxia or regained consciousness, but not Noonan. He and Wigginton were pulled back into the plane and CPR was performed on Noonan until the plane could land. But shortly after landing, Noonan, 47, of New Smyrna Beach, Florida, was transported to a nearby hospital and pronounced dead. His cause of death has not yet been determined.
“We have done a number of high-altitude jumps, but things change substantially the higher you go,” said Wigginton. “So what you would do at 30,000 feet is not what you would do at 35, and 35 is not what you would do at 40. And 41,000 feet is sort of the limit physiologically of what you could do without wearing a pressurized suit. So we were already tempting pressure.”
The day of the jump
Wigginton said he and Noonan were aware that this would be a complicated and dangerous jump, but that didn’t mean that it was impossible. The average altitude that an airliner flies is 45,000 feet. Wigginton said the jump can be possible depending on logistics, like controlling oxygen and temperature, choosing who sits where on the plane and how long you pre-breathe with the oxygen tanks.
A week prior to the jump, the crew did a test run at 28,000 feet to see how the masks and hoses fit and whether they worked. They did another test run at 15,000 feet on Oct. 15.
“The next morning was a great morning,” said Wigginton.
Julie Watkins, 58, Noonan’s fiancée, waited at the drop zone for them to return. “We got there about 3 in the morning, got our gear ready, got suited up and we were out breathing oxygen a little after 5," she said.
First, the team had to get clearance from air traffic control to avoid any situations with commercial planes. The goal was to have the plane take off right before sunrise, so that by the time it reached 41,000 feet, the sun would be up and the team could jump.
But things didn’t go as planned. And if Noonan’s foot hadn’t gotten stuck, Wigginton would have jumped with Noonan unconscious on his back. And the automatic activation device set to deploy the shared parachute at 4,000 feet may not have worked because of the weight on Wigginton’s back.
Wigginton and Noonan have done many jumps together, breaking records around the world. And they were close friends, so Wigginton’s mindset has changed following the accident.
“I’m not sure if I’ll ever skydive again,” Wigginton said. The pair originally had a plan to go to Nepal to try another world record for the highest landing.
Waiting at the drop zone
Watkins feels the same way. She and Noonan were in a relationship for almost 10 years, with their anniversary coming up in December. They met through a mutual friend at another drop zone, and several months later, they connected on Facebook. He showed up at her door one day, and they had been connected through love and travel ever since. She was able to skydive with Noonan twice, and she was always present at the drop zone when Noonan came down from the sky.
When Watkins was on her way to the drop zone Oct. 16, Noonan sent a photo of himself in the plane with his gear on, and Watkins replied, "Good luck with your jump."
"He replied, 'You are the love of my life,' " and she said she replied, " 'You are my greatest love of my life,' and that I’d see him in a bit.”
She said she saw him suited up and they blew each other kisses before he took off. But when he came back, she saw him breathless, and watched as they tried to bring him back to life.
A pillar of the skydiving community
Noonan trained tandem skydiving instructors, and Wigginton said he was known as a "legend" with "high energy" in the skydiving community. He had completed over 10,000 jumps in about 25 years. And skydivers all over the world have had an interaction with Noonan.
He worked at United Parachute Technologies, where he was the Tandem Program director. He conducted classes at his office in Florida, and he also traveled to teach. One of his teaching travel destinations was in Arizona, where he would assist in training the military.
“He just had good input, and he was just a good communicator,” Watkins said. “He just could get things across to people and people would listen.”
His main focus was to ensure that people learned how to be safe in the sky, Watkins said. Noonan loved getting positive feedback after training people because it made him feel accomplished and successful knowing he’d passed on his knowledge to others.
One of Noonan’s favorite places to skydive was at Mount Everest in the Himalayas in Nepal, so there are unsolidified plans for several people to travel to the country and skydive together in his honor. Some of his ashes will also be released at a drop zone in DeLand, Florida, Watkins said.
“It’s a tradition within the skydive community to get as many of your friends as you can to take some of the ashes and do a skydive with as many people as you can,” Watkins said. “One person carries the ashes, which will be our elderly friend that we became friends with, Bill. … They’re going to go up in the skydive, and he’ll release the ashes once they reach altitude and open up canopy. And the ashes just kind of flicker away.”
Wigginton has done many adventures, like skydiving from high altitudes, diving to the deepest parts of the ocean and climbing a million stairs. All of these efforts — which later resulted in records — were all in honor of his wife, Nancy Wigginton, who died of thyroid cancer in 2013. He donates funds and raises money for Michigan Medicine’s Rogel Cancer Center. But skydiving isn’t in the plans anymore.
“Skydiving wasn’t the only thing I was doing for her,” Wigginton said. “I have a project to climb the tallest building in every state. Obviously, COVID shut that down for a while. Another project was to climb every peak in Colorado over 14,000 feet. There’s 53 of those and I’ve done 16 of those. And I’ve done 22 states. There’s always stuff to do.”
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Florida man dies after skydiving attempt, mourned by Michigan partner