Point Break—20 Years Later
photos courtesy of Tom Sanders/ Aerial Focus
The filming of “Point Break” began in early 1990; the movie opened the summer of the following year to mostly positive reviews and left the audience hungry for more skydiving. Never mind that some critics, such as Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly, mused, “’Point Break’ makes those of us who don't spend our lives searching for the ultimate physical rush feel like second-class citizens. The film turns reckless athletic valor into a new form of aristocracy." Well, everyone is entitled to their opinion, but for many people, the speedstar over Lake Powell touched their souls and made them want to jump out of planes. Ultimately, “Point Break,” starring Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves, ushered in a new era for the sport of skydiving.
The studio execs encouraged Swayze to learn how to surf to better shoot the surfing scenes, but for some reason, they drew the line at skydiving. They didn’t realize that when Swayze landed the role in the movie, his brother Don, who had more than 500 jumps and was a regular at Perris Valley Skydiving in California, brought him down to check it out. In order to become a better actor for the skydive scenes, Patrick wanted to know what it felt like to skydive.
He signed up for AFF with Jim Wallace and what happened next was unexpected: He got into it, completed AFF and earned his license, A-12086, and turned into a real skydiver. According to Wallace, his athletic abilities combined with years of dance and gymnastics training made him a natural. “He obviously could have done zero jumps and just had his stunt double do all the work. But where’s the fun in that?”quips Wallace, who was also one of Swayze’s stunt doubles.
Swayze was talented enough that after just a couple dozen jumps he was able to do some of his own stunts. But being the professional he was, he let the crew and stunt doubles shoot all the scenes and complete the filming. Only then did he sneak back to the DZ on his own dime with a skeleton crew to duplicate some of the scenes. Some were good enough to actually end up in the movie. One of these is the famous “Adios, amigo” exit. Swayze didn’t want the scene, in which he falls backward out the door, performed by a stunt double, so he scripted it with the camera angle directly on him.
Behind the Scenes
It took a lot of people and a lot of jumps to bring the skydiving scenes to life. The two primary freefall cameramen were Tom Sanders and Ray Cottingham. When it comes to aerial photography on the big screen they both have impressive resumes. Beside “Point Break,” they had the pleasure of working together on “Terminal Velocity.” Cottingham’s filmography also includes “Operation Dumbo Drop,” “Honeymoon in Vegas” and “Target Eagle.” Sanders’ credits include “Drop Zone,” “Navy Seals,” “Delta Force II” and the James Bond movies “The Living Daylights,” “Goldeneye” and “Tomorrow Never Dies.”
“Point Break’s” famous speedstar was filmed entirely over Lake Powell, Utah, over a six day period in the summer of 1990. No stars were present for that shoot. Craig Hosking flew the plane and all the jumps were carried out by stunt performers including Ted Barba, Don Bonham, Jeff Habberstad, Jeff Jones, Jack Lombard, Jerry Myers, Steven Rahm and Jim Wallace. Some of the maneuvers performed directly by Swayze, like his pike-position exit and barrel roll were shot later and edited in.
The aerial team had to get creative for the landing scene. But how do you choreograph a low-pull opening to look dangerously close to the ground (or water, in this case), and keep it safe for the stuntmen? The aerial stunt coordinator, Kevin Donnelly (who hired all the skydivers and freefall cameramen and directed all the dives and camera angles), together with his crew came up with the brilliant idea of jumping out of a chopper hovering so low that an incomplete opening would not pose a hazard but would provide the right effect. They bolted a sheet of plywood to the skid and Sanders would lie flat on his belly with the helmet cam hanging over the edge barely 100 feet over the water. Doing static-line jumps, Donnelly and Wallace fell by him with the chutes sniveling open as they came into full view for the final splash landing.
The other scenes were shot in California, including at Edwards Air Force Base and Perris Valley, but the bulk of the sequences were shot at California City Parachute Center. The famous in-air fight scene was filmed there, with Habberstad and Wallace wearing a modified tandem rig hidden under their clothing.
There was also an incident that was too close for comfort while filming one of the scenes in California City. When a camera helicopter performed a quick right turn over top of a Twin Otter flown by pilot Van Pray, in a freak accident it sheared off the top third of the airplane’s vertical stabilizer. In an instant, everyone was forced out the plane, including a number of people who had never jumped before. At one point, Wallace had to pull the ripcord for the costume lady to get fabric over her head. For some, it was their first and only skydive, and fortunately everyone landed safely. For one person, Dave Donnelly, the son of the stunt coordinator who happened to be riding in the plane and was wearing his father’s rig, this emergency bailout was the first of his many thousand eventual jumps.
People still show up at Perris and ask about Swayze’s skydiving days. He was one of the few exceptional movie stars who actually skydived and was personable and friendly with everyone at the DZ. When he wanted to jump he would just show up unannounced, without a big entourage, and hang out with other skydivers at the DZ. He enjoyed the sport, and according to Wallace eventually made about 80 jumps.
Wallace fondly recalls those days and has numerous stories. One anecdote he likes to tell is the following: “On one particular load, there were eight other fun jumpers and Craig H. (name withheld to protect the guilty) was the last to board after hearing there was a movie star on the plane. He wasn’t that familiar with Swayze, and as he sat down and buckled up the conversation went something like this:
C.H.: “So who’s the movie star?”
Swayze in his modest, unpretentious nature just sat there and didn’t pipe up. Some of the other jumpers pointed him out and said, “There. That’s Patrick Swayze.”
Craig turned toward him and uttered, “So what movies have you been in?”
C.H.: “No, I don’t know that one. Any others?”
P.S.: “’Dirty Dancing.’”
C.H.: “No, I don’t know that one either. Any others?”
P.S.: “’Road House.’”
C.H.: “Hmm, maybe. What role did you play?”
It was probably a relief for Swayze that he could go somewhere and be treated (almost) like a regular guy.
One way to quantify the impact of Point Break on skydiving is to look at the USPA membership numbers over the years. Before 1990, membership was creeping up slowly and hovered between 15,000 and 20,000. There were several TV commercials ablaze with skydiving images that year, but few people remember those. Clearly, it was the movie that had the big impact in attracting hordes of new students to DZs like bees to honey. After the release of “Point Break,” the USPA membership numbers took a quantum leap and within a couple of years jumped to nearly 30,000.
Patrick Wayne Swayze | A-12086
August 18, 1952—September 14, 2009
Using his own line from the movie, Parachutist would like to say, "adios, amigo" to one of the greatest movie icons of sport skydiving. He will be truly missed.
For DZs, the student numbers were a double-edged sword. More business was great, but it meant the jump schools were overcrowded and clamoring for more AFF instructors; packers felt like slaves on a Roman galley and had the calluses to prove it, and manifestors had hectic workloads like traders at the New York Stock Exchange.
Tragically, before Swayze had a chance to respond to a request for an interview for this article, he passed away. Maybe it is best to borrow the line from the movie, when he proclaims to Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) over the roar of a King Air, “100-percent-pure adrenaline. Other guys snort for it, jab a vein for it. All you gotta do is jump.” You can tell he didn’t need to act—that one came from the heart.
About the Author
Hal Streckert, C-35945, is from La Jolla, California where he started skydiving at Skydive San Diego four years ago. As a weekend fun jumper he has accumulated more than 320 jumps and has jumped in four countries, including the U.S., New Zealand, Germany and Australia.
When you hear the word Hawaii, the first things that come to mind are surf, sand and sunshine. But when you’re on Oahu, think Dillingham Airfield. Located on the North Shore, it’s one of only a few joint-use airfields—the military uses it at night, and during the day it’s open to general aviation and accommodates two skydiving centers. Tom Sanders and his lovely wife, Denise, an accomplished skydiver in her own right, live in Hawaii and call Pacific Skydiving Center their home DZ.
Sanders is one of the most accomplished freefall cinematographers and professional aerial photographers connected to Hollywood. Over the last 20 years he’s contributed to many skydiving scenes in feature films, television, commercials and exhibitions. In addition to his feature film work, His impressive resume includes the opening ceremonies for the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea; the promotional demo for the movie “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” at the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR race; and President George H.W. Bush’s 1997 AFF jump above the Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. To top it all off, USPA awarded him the 2005 Gold Medal for Meritorious Service.
So what’s he doing now? When they’re not fun jumping, the best time to catch up with the Sanderses is while they’re buzzing the North Shore’s countryside in powered ultralight hang gliders with their company Paradise Air. They fly their ultralights up to 98 mph at an altitude up to 10,000 feet. "On a powered hang glider, there's nothing separating you and nature," says Sanders, "The experience stimulates all your senses; it really is the closest thing to flying like a bird!"
More information about Sanders and his ultralight flights may be found at www.paradiseairhawaii.com.