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Originally published Friday, January 4, 2013 at 8:04 PM

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Missing skydiver had made more than 1,000 jumps

Friends of Kurt Ruppert, who is part of a tight-knit group of skydivers in Florida, are waiting for news about the 29-year-old man who was last seen when he jumped out of a helicopter near Mount Si in North Bend on Thursday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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In the seven or eight years since Kurt Ruppert first strapped a parachute to his back, he's made more than 1,000 jumps and spent nearly every weekend with fellow adrenaline-junkies in Florida, leaping from planes, said a friend.

He is one of about 50 people in a close-knit group that spent weekends skydiving together, said Art Shaffer, the owner of SkyDive Palatka south of Jacksonville, where Ruppert learned to skydive.

"He was one of those guys that start jumping, and then that's what they do," Shaffer said.

On Friday afternoon, Shaffer was among what he described as hundreds of people in the sky-diving community who were waiting to learn Ruppert's fate.

Ruppert, 29, of Palatka, Fla., was last seen Thursday afternoon after he made a jump from a helicopter at 6,500 feet near Mount Si in North Bend. A search Thursday and Friday has failed to turn up any trace of Ruppert. West said the search will resume Saturday morning.

Sgt. Cindi West, spokeswoman for the King County Sheriff's Office, said while authorities were able to pinpoint the helicopter's flight pattern before Ruppert's jump, the area of the search remained large — about 5 square miles — in part because of the wingsuit Ruppert was wearing.

Wingsuits, which are also known as a "birdman suits" or "flying squirrel suits," have a webbed design featuring fabric or material between the legs and under the arm that increases a skydiver's surface area, making the fall slower, and giving more horizontal glide.

Among other things, that means the diving experience lasts longer, said Shaffer, explaining the difference between a traditional jump and one made with a wingsuit.

"You don't have as much movement with your arms, but you can double or triple your free-fall time, and you can go horizontally 60 to 70 miles forward," he said. "You are modifying your body and turning it into an airplane, and that's a huge allure."

Shaffer said Ruppert started using a wingsuit early in his jumping career and became "really, really good."

According to the United States Parachute Association, wingsuit manufacturers generally sell only to experienced skydivers who have logged at least 200 free-falls.

In July 2004, Jeff Barker, 32, of Seattle, was killed during a wingsuit jump from Mount Baring in east Snohomish County.

Shaffer and Ruppert were among a group of people who made a midnight jump in Florida on New Year's Eve, he said. That night, Ruppert told him he'd met someone over the weekend who was headed to Washington for a sky-diving adventure.

Shaffer said he did not know the people Ruppert was jumping with on Thursday.

According to the Sheriff's Office, Ruppert was taking turns jumping from a chartered helicopter with two other people. West said the pilot did not see Ruppert's jump nor did his companions, who were waiting in the landing zone.

None was able to say whether Ruppert deployed his parachute, she said.

Shaffer said he's been in contact with Ruppert's family and larger circle of friends.

"We've got our fingers crossed," he said. "He's a really great guy."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com.

Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report, which includes information from The Associated Press.

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