Skydiver in death fall 'looked me in the eye and seemed jubilant'

Ian Herbert
Tuesday 22 March 2005 01:00
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One of the skydivers who jumped with the Army cadet Stephen Hilder as he fell 13,000ft to his death has described how he looked the 20-year-old in the eye and found him "excited'' and "jubilant'' on the way down.

One of the skydivers who jumped with the Army cadet Stephen Hilder as he fell 13,000ft to his death has described how he looked the 20-year-old in the eye and found him "excited'' and "jubilant'' on the way down.

David Mason, a fellow cadet, told an inquest how he held Mr Hilder's hand and looked at him as they and a third skydiver leapt from a plane and performed a series of 19 display formations at Hibaldstow airfield in north Lincolnshire. The three men produced a series of manoeuvres as they fell from 13,000ft to 4,000ft and, despite a difficult start, they were pleased with their "textbook" performance.

"He [Mr Hilder] seemed excited when we were doing the last jump," Mr Mason said. "He was like that the whole way down. In formation skydiving you want to make eye contact. Just making eye contact he seemed as happy as all of us. The jump hadn't started well but then we got things right and we were performing really well." It was after the skydivers separated at 4,000 feet that Mr Hilder's main and reserve chutes failed to open and he fell to his death in a cornfield.

Mr Mason, who was arrested on suspicion of murder after Mr Hilder's death, also admitted interfering with the parachutist's equipment two weeks before his death. He told the inquest, at Scunthorpe council chamber, that he had removed a pin from Mr Hilder's parachute after he had left his kit lying around. But he insisted he had done so to highlight Mr Hilder's carelessness, denied causing any damage before the student's fatal jump and said there was no animosity between them.

Mr Mason, 21, and Adrian Blair, the third member of the "Black Rain" skydiving team, were arrested after Mr Hilder's death in July 2003. But both men were fully exonerated and scientific analysis later established that a pair of kitchen scissors on which only Mr Hilder's DNA was discovered had been used to cut the cords.

Mr Mason conceded that the parachute-pin prank had "some implications ... in the light of what happened" and agreed it was reasonable for it to have provoked the suspicion of Humberside Police. The coroner, Stewart Atkinson, accepted that it seemed to be a prank.

The parachutist described how he and a third individual had removed a parachute pin after spotting Stephen's kit "lying around". He said: "I assume that he would have seen what had been done straight away. It was a way of highlighting that his kit had been left in a completely unsafe area. What we did meant he would have to unpack and repack his kit which would take him about 15 minutes."

He also admitted playing other pranks on Mr Hilder, including booking him on a parachuting flight for which he was over-qualified.

Mr Mason admitted that he and Mr Blair found Mr Hilder annoying because he followed the British Parachute Association's safety manual to the letter. "Adrian and I had jumped in America where there are not so many constraints, but Stephen was very safety- conscious," he said.

Mr Mason was also asked about a humorous draft obituary he wrote about Mr Hilder after his death which further aroused police suspicions when they found it on a computer. Mr Mason said it was only a draft, prepared as part of the process of writing an obituary for a skydiving magazine. He was asked a number of times whether, in hindsight, he felt the article, which the coroner refused to read out, was inappropriate. Mr Mason conceded it could have been misconstrued by police. "I think, after the hassle it has caused, I would prefer not to have written it," he said.

Mr Mason said he knew nothing of Mr Hilder's £17,000 debts - racked up to fund his skydiving - or of his relationship with his girlfriend, which was drawing to an end by mutual consent. "As I got to know Steve he appeared a pretty chilled-out person," Mr Mason said. "He never seemed particularly stressed about anything. Even with hindsight that's how I view Steve."

Tthe chief instructor at Hibaldstow, Paul Hollow, told the inquest he was baffled as to why Mr Hilder went through so many emergency procedures as he fell if he was trying to kill himself. "He pulled every handle available to him," Mr Hollow said. "I believe he made every effort to save himself."

The hearing continues today.

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