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Accident victims both loved skydiving

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Posted: Monday, September 14, 2009 10:00 pm

Robby Bigley's last jump from an airplane was Sunday, just two weeks after he had gotten married.

The 32-year-old Redwood City resident held a doctorate and worked in the genetics field, according to a parachute team member, but he loved skydiving and had fallen in love with a woman he met in the sport.

One of his fellow parachutists was Barbara Cuddy, 48, who worked as a correctional officer to pay for adventures, such as a recent trek to the 14,500-foot summit of Mount Whitney.

On Sunday they were at the Lodi Airport, perfecting an eight-person parachute formation for next month's national parachute competition in Texas. Each had jumped thousands of times, and each held national skydiving records.

Something went wrong, though, on Sunday. Their lines got tangled and others watched helplessly as the fearless jumpers crashed to the earth, dying of their injuries.

"It's like a car wreck. You want to pull them off the road and save them, but you can't do anything," said Bill Dause, owner of Lodi Parachute Center, where the two had been jumping.

The two were practicing canopy formations, where jumpers leap from a plane, pull their chutes and then form triangle and diamond shaped patterns by placing a foot in a fellow jumper's chute line, said team member Craig Stapleton, of Herald.

To the inexperienced - most of the population - it sounds risky and possibly insane. But it's a sport that's been practiced and perfected since the 1980s, according to the International Parachuting Commission. The commission sets rules and standards for competitions.

In 2007, Cuddy and Stapleton made history when they set a record as part of the first 100-person diamond formation. The jumpers leaped from five planes and managed to maneuver into alignment in the skies over Florida.

Bigley was also there, and was part of a second group that attempted the 100-person formation. However, one person didn't actually "grip," or hold onto, another chute, so the entire jump didn't count, Stapleton said. Bigley didn't seem to mind much, though.

"(He was) always smiling. Just one of those guys who's never having a bad day," Stapleton said.

Bigley, whose given name was Robert Floyd Bigley, had worked as a videographer at the Acampo jump center while attending the University of California, Davis, Stapleton said. It was a way to make money while going to school.

Then Bigley got his doctorate in molecular biology, Stapleton said, and went to work at a genetics company. Stapleton, a dentist, said Bigley worked with lasers and other high-tech equipment.

"He sets up the big experiment and all the lab techs do it," Stapleton said.

No longer a student struggling to make ends meet, Bigley was able to afford the skydiving hobby. He began competing around the country, racking up awards as he went.

Cuddy, meanwhile, had several thousand jumps under her belt and had been competing with various skydiving teams for the past 10 years. In the record-setting event in Florida, which was invitation-only, she was one of 10 women to make history.

A resident of Carson City, Nev., Cuddy worked as a correctional officer, Stapleton said. Her 21-year-old son also skydives, and works as a hang gliding instructor, Stapleton said. Cuddy's 18-year-old daughter would probably skydive more if it weren't for the cost, Stapleton said, but she did summit Mount Whitney last month with her mother.

Cuddy's long-term boyfriend, Gary Peters, had parachuted for years with Stapleton. Dause referred to Peters as Cuddy's husband and Stapleton said the couple had been together for at least eight or nine years and "in every sense of the word they were married, except for the piece of paper."

Peters, Stapleton, Bigley and Cuddy were part of a team called Redline, and they were set to compete next month at the national championship. They had a tan-colored portable building at the Lodi airport to hold their gear.

"The equipment we use is equivalent to a very good racing car," Stapleton said, explaining that canopy formations aren't for beginners. "Some of us on the team have been doing it 20 years. The least experienced on the team had been doing it for probably five to six years."

The team members had already jumped several times when they made another jump around 1 p.m. Sunday, leaping from around 9,000 feet, Dause said.

After deploying their chutes, they were traveling around 35 mph, said Stapleton, who was above Bigley in the formation. Bigley was moving about 37 mph to get to the bottom of the formation next to Cuddy.

The trouble began around 6,000 feet, when the parachute lines tangled, and from 5,000 feet Bigley and Cuddy began spinning out of control, Dause said.

Bigley and Cuddy landed in a vineyard east of Highway 99, three-quarters of a mile north of the airport, Dause said. One died at the scene; the other was pronounced dead upon arrival at Lodi Memorial Hospital by ambulance.

It didn't appear that either one pulled their second parachute, Stapleton and Dause said.

Stapleton said the gear was all brand-new several months ago, but that it will be turned over to the Federal Aviation Administration for inspection. The incident was captured in the air on video, which belongs to Redline and will also be turned over to the FAA, said Stapleton, adding that it was not being released to the public.

Investigations take weeks, months or even years, said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. The FAA sent two investigators to the Lodi Airport on Monday, and the video will be key, Gregor said.

As for the remaining team members, they haven't had much time to figure out how to go on. But Stapleton is inclined to still attend the national championship next month, competing in the four-way canopy competition.

"I think Robby and Barb would both be really mad at us if we didn't go. They were big time competitors and would want us to do well," he said.

Contact reporter Layla Bohm at layla@lodinews.com.

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