Profile - Ray Cottingham | D-1653
by Brian Giboney
Ray Cottingham, D-1653, is a legend. During his 51 years in the sky, he’s filmed some of the most important aerial skydiving scenes in the history of the movies. Cottingham’s impressive résumé includes filming scenes for “Terminal Velocity,” “Operation Dumbo Drop” and “Honeymoon in Vegas,” and his work on “Point Break” inspired legions of jumpers to try the sport. In addition, Cottingham is responsible for numerous skydiving scenes on television programs in the 1970s and 1980s, and he’s shot aerial footage for hundreds of commercials. Even if you’re not a jumper, chances are you’ve seen his work.
Birth Place: Rapid City, South Dakota
Marital Status: Married to Joan, a proper English lady
Occupation: Retired chemical engineer and cinematographer
Education: B.S. in chemical engineering
Pet Peeves: None, really, but I don’t like to be rushed or disorganized.
Life Philosophy: I’m not a philosophical person, and I don’t know who said it: “Tomorrow has a way of turning into yesterday. Then it becomes a long time ago.”
Containers: Sun Path Javelin J3 and J4
Main Canopies: Performance Designs Spectre 190 and 210
Reserve Canopies: Performance Designs PD-193R and Precision Aerodynamics Raven I
AAD: Aviacom Argus
Home Drop Zone: Skydive Elsinore in California
Year of First Jump: 1960
Medals: 1991 to 1994, USPA Nationals Women’s Freestyle, gold (filming Dale Stuart)
1998, USPA Nationals Women’s Freestyle, gold (filming Jacqueline Scoones)
Total Number of Jumps: 12,000-plus
- Cinema, TV Show and TV Commercial Camera Jumps: 3,000
- FS Camera Jumps: 3,000
- Freestyle, Freefly and Skysurf Camera Jumps: 4,500
Balloon Jumps: 50-plus
Tandem: A few for movie jobs
BASE: two (El Capitan and Angel Falls)
Total Number of Cutaways: 20-plus (two on hidden rigs during stunt work)
What was your canopy progression?
My first 2,700 jumps were under rounds, mainly Para-Commanders. By the mid-’70s, I went to ram-airs. I made no real progression to high-performance canopies.
Of all of your skydives, is there one that stands out most?
While filming “Terminal Velocity,” I was called upon to do stunt work because I was a good double [for the actor]. I rode out [of the plane] on the hood of a car for five of the nine drops. I wore a hidden rig with the pilot chute in my front trouser pocket. No goggles, no head protection, no AAD and no altitude indication. I lay on the hood and held on where the wiper blades went. The car drove off the C-123 [transport aircraft] ramp backward, and I held on as long as I could. On several of these drops, there were cameras mounted on brackets that extended out from the front or rear car frame. On one drop, the car rotated in one direction, then reversed, knocking me free. Then the camera bracket batted me out of the way. Though my hidden rig was torn open down the back … I was able to track away from the car and deploy my main.
How long do you plan on skydiving?
As long as I can safely—my own safety, as well as others’.
Who have been your skydiving mentors?
In the mid-1960s, I feel the staff at Skydive Elsinore were. Filming-wise, there was Chip Maury, Kevin Brady and Carl Boenish, with whom I filmed inside RW [relative work, now called formation skydiving] point-of-view while he was outside.
What are your future skydiving goals?
None as such, now that I am retired from stunts and film work and am basically just fun jumping with cameras.
What safety item do you think is most important?
Awareness—in the airplane, in freefall, under canopy, on the landing zone and of how your equipment works.
How did you become interested in skydiving?
In the Army—my first jump was with the 82nd Airborne.
Do you have any suggestions for students?
You can never learn too much to be too informed, only to think you are.
What is your favorite jump plane and why?
Twin Otter—comfort and safety.
The toughest thing to do in the sport of skydiving is:
To quit when the time is right, much as is the case for geriatric drivers.
What kind of skydiving student were you?
I remember no problems, probably just normal.
Of your thousands of skydives, is there one jump you would like to do over again?
In the 1970s, I was part of the U.S. Freefall Exhibition Team that went to the world meet in Bled, Yugoslavia, and competed in the exhibition event. We won a bronze medal; however, our real goal was to demonstrate RW as a competition event. I wrote an article on this adventure for Parachutist.
What is your perfect day like?
During the production of “Point Break,” did you foresee it having as large of an impact on the sport as it did?
Not really; however, the visual impact of Lake Powell should excite anyone.
What was it like jumping with Patrick Swayze in “Point Break”?
Near the end of filming, Patrick was allowed to jump for three days. Being a natural athlete and a dancer, he was comfortable in freefall. With only a few jumps, he performed freestyle moves with grace and form. In person, he was very likeable. My pictures of him were a hit with my teenage nieces and graced their dorm walls.
In your early filming days, were you concerned with jumping ultra-heavy movie cameras?
My main concern was a clean, consistent opening. I never worried about the landing. With a Strato-Star [one of the first ram-air canopies], I experimented with packing to the point that I packed myself a streamer and had to cut away. Once I got a Strato-Cloud Lite, I never looked back.
Out of all the movies, TV shows and commercials you’ve filmed, what is your favorite bonfire story?
While [we were] filming “Dumbo Drop” in Thailand at Mai Hong Son (very near the border with Burma), the Bangkok Post reported, “A Thai military helicopter was lucky to escape being shot at by Khun Sa forces when the pilots accidentally violated Burmese air space in an area controlled by the Muang Tai Army …” Not the publicity that Walt Disney Pictures was seeking.
What comments do you get about your movies?
The “Point Break” comments are about editing—the long freefall time over Lake Powell and [the characters] talking in freefall.
What do you consider your most significant life achievement?
Reaching my 71st year.
Explain Ray Cottingham in five words or fewer:
Organized, focused, dependable and unassuming.
Do you have any closing comments?
I have lived through some of the early days of RW and filming; however, I am totally in awe of where the sport is headed today.