It was a delightful early November evening in DeLand, Florida, when 30 or so friends and family members gathered to honor Raymond E. Ferrell as USPA presented him with its Lifetime Achievement Award. The USPA Board of Directors had voted to bestow Ferrell with the honor earlier in the year. The celebrants in DeLand marked the occasion appropriately, uncorking and pouring bottles of red wine from Melanson Vineyards (owned by Ferrell’s longtime friend and former skydiving teammate Greg Melanson), which is located near Pope Valley, California, where Ferrell began learning about the skydiving industry. Over the evening, the stories grew bigger and the laughter grew louder.
Ferrell is exceptional in an exceptional sport. Many take up skydiving and apply themselves to it recreationally or competitively. Some go beyond the skydiving and pursue a business or technical aspect of the sport by becoming a parachute rigger examiner, drop zone owner, gear manufacturer, aircraft provider or founder of a gear store. Very few excel at more than one of these pursuits. Ray Ferrell engaged successfully in all of them in his years in the sport and was an influencer and safety advocate throughout.
Ferrell made his first jump (also his first flight in an airplane) in North Carolina in 1976. To paraphrase the Beverley Hillbillies theme song, he soon saw that California was the place he oughta be, so he loaded up his car and moved to Security: GQ Security Parachute Company, that is. There, he began learning rigging and the parachute-manufacturing business. He also continued honing his skydiving skills at California’s Pope Valley DZ. From there, it was game-on. Ferrell started his own parachute loft, founding Action Air Parachutes in 1984, and in 1987 he opened SkyDance SkyDiving near Davis, California. Along the way he became a jumpsuit manufacturer by purchasing Flite Suit Company and a rig manufacturer by buying and reviving the Reflex harness-and-container system business. As a commercial pilot, he saw the sport’s need for a fixed-gear, single-turbine airplane and convinced the New Zealand manufacturer of a single-turbine agricultural airplane to redesign the plane, producing the P-750XL (PAC). Some things weren’t easy: He had to battle for airport access for his DZ, and Federal Aviation Administration regulators put up continuous roadblocks for his rig to receive a Technical Standard Order (a performance standard the government requires for use). But Ferrell never stopped pursuing his goals.
As impressive as Ferrell’s business accomplishments are, they weren’t what earned him the Lifetime Achievement Award, which USPA gives primarily “in recognition of personal contribution to the United States Parachute Association, its goals and purposes.”
Pacific Region members first elected Ferrell to the USPA Board in 1995. He was re-elected to another regional-director term in 1997, and then re-elected—this time as a national director—in 1999. He brought the same acumen and energy to the board as he had his business pursuits, serving on the Government Relations Committee and chairing the Group Member Committee. In 1996, USPA knew it had to make its Group Member program more meaningful in order to deal with growing FAA concern about some shoddy DZ operations. Ferrell and his committee met the challenge with a new, tiered structure based on the number and type of aircraft that a DZ operated and added programs and benefits for affiliated DZs. Again putting his knowledge as a commercial pilot to work, Ferrell and his committee developed the first USPA Skydive Operations Handbook, conveying to DZOs the best practices for operating jump planes.
Upon receiving his Lifetime Achievement Award, Ferrell’s remarks were forthright, as always, saying, “I thought I had pissed off way too many people over the years to ever receive this award.” He said he realized the key to his success and not getting jaded along the way was to continue being a skydiver first, never forgetting it as the reason for doing everything else. He displayed that as a member of the World Team from 1994-2014, where he set several records for large-formation skydiving. Ferrell said that all his accomplishments were the result of great assistance, guidance, advice and mentorship. He also credited the support of Robyn Best, his wife of 18 years. Then he closed with, “You had to have been where you’ve been to be where you are. If you like where you are, it’s been a good trip, and I’ve had a great trip!”