An experienced skydiving instructor who fell to his death during a tandem jump in York County in September committed suicide by intentionally undoing his harness, Maine State Police said Monday.

Skydiving instructor Brett Bickford, 41, of Rochester, New Hampshire, fell a mile to his death after separating from the student during the jump on Sept. 27, police said. The student landed safely with the parachute. The tandem jump was conducted by Skydive New England in Lebanon, where Bickford had been an instructor for 10 years.

Bickford’s body was found the next day about 750 feet southwest of the Lebanon Airport runway by a team of game wardens, a state trooper and two members of a search-and-rescue team.

The cause of his fall had been the focus of a nearly two-month investigation, and skydiving experts said it was difficult to imagine how it could have been an accident.

State police said Monday that the state Medical Examiner’s Office concluded Bickford’s death was a suicide.

Steve McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said Bickford did not leave a suicide note.

McCausland said investigators concluded that Bickford loosened his harness in midair and that it was an intentional act. State police based their findings on interviews with other skydiving instructors and industry officials, who agreed that no experienced skydiver would loosen a parachute harness by mistake. Bickford was a member of the U.S. Parachute Association and Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

Nancy Koreen, director of sport promotion for the U.S. Parachute Association, said her staff told her that Bickford loosened his leg straps and other securing straps after the tandem parachute had opened.

“In this case, if his death was in fact a suicide, it appears he intentionally detached himself from the equipment,” Koreen said in an email Monday night.

Koreen said that tandem skydiving has a solid safety record, with an average of one student fatality per 500,000 tandem jumps over the past decade.

Bickford, a lifelong Rochester resident, had a pilot’s license and a drone license, and was designing and building drones, his obituary said.

“Brett was one amazing smart young man,” it said. “Those who knew Brett know he had a free spirit of life to live one day at a time. Brett’s smile and laughter live on in all who knew him.”

Tandem jumps typically are made with the student and instructor in separate harnesses that are attached, with the instructor secured behind the student. The instructor wears the parachute and controls its deployment during free-fall and landings.

Maine State Police, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration worked together to determine how Bickford fell to his death, authorities said.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

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Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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