Navy SEAL Dies in Free-fall Parachuting Accident

February 23, 2023Matt White
Navy SEAL Michael T. Ernst

Chief Special Warfare Operator Michael T. Ernst, a native of Massachusetts, was killed in a free-fall parachuting accident at an airfield in Marana, Arizona. Photos provided by Naval Special Warfare Command.

A veteran Navy SEAL died in a parachuting accident while training in Arizona last weekend.

Chief Special Warfare Operator Michael T. Ernst was a native of Massachusetts, enlisted in the Navy in 2009 to be a SEAL, and had been awarded a Silver Star for actions in combat, Navy officials said.

Ernst was performing a high altitude, low opening, or HALO, jump at an airfield in Marana, Arizona, just outside Tucson, according to a press release from Naval Special Warfare Command. Officials did not provide details on the accident but said the SEAL chief was pronounced dead at a local hospital at 2 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19.

Navy SEALs jump from an aircraft as part of a high altitude, low opening, or free-fall, parachute jump. Special operations forces across the US military routinely perform HALO jump training. Department of Defense photo.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the Ernst family,” said Rear Adm. Keith Davids, the commander of Naval Special Warfare Command, in a statement. “Mike was an exceptional teammate. He was a dedicated NSW sailor who applied his talents and skills towards some of our nation’s hardest challenges, while selflessly mentoring his teammates.”

According to the NSW officials, Ernst entered the Navy in early 2010 and graduated as a SEAL after 27 months of training in August 2012. He spent the rest of his career assigned to a SEAL team on the East Coast except for a stint as a student at MIT for the 2021-2022 school year, during which he remained on active duty, officials said. The Navy did not name the specific unit or say if Ernst had switched East Coast units during his career.

He was awarded a Silver Star, the military’s third-highest award for valor in combat, according to records released by the Navy.

Navy SEAL Chief Special Warfare Operator Michael Ernst joined the Navy in 2009, graduating from SEAL training in 2012. He spent the rest of his career assigned to East Coast-based SEAL teams. DOD photo.

SEALs routinely practice free-fall parachuting, one of several infiltration skills widely practiced by US special operations forces. After a spate of deaths during free-fall training in 2017 and 2018, few have been reported in recent years across the military.

Ernst’s passing marks at least the third death of an active-duty Naval Special Warfare sailor in just over a year.

Cmdr. Brian Bourgeois, 43, was the commander of SEAL Team 8 when he died on Dec. 7, 2021, days after being injured during helicopter training.

Kyle Mullen, 24, was a student in the early stages of SEAL training who had just completed the notorious “Hell Week” when he died of pneumonia in his dorm in Coronado, California, on Feb. 4, 2022.

Cmdr. Robert Ramirez III, 47, died at home on Dec. 19, 2022.

Though not attached to Naval Special Warfare, Lt. j.g. Aaron Fowler, 29, was an explosive ordnance disposal officer with the Navy’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 1 when he was killed while training at Marine Corps Base Hawaii in Kaneohe Bay on April 20, 2022.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the unit to which Lt. j. g. Aaron Fowler was assigned.

Read Next: ‘I Just Disobeyed the Order’: The Incredible Story of Capt. Paris Davis’ Medal of Honor

Matt White
Matt White

Matt White is a former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. He was a pararescueman in the Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard for eight years and has more than a decade of experience in daily and magazine journalism.

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