Jumping Down the SkyAt 90, Veteran Pilot Leapt and Found Peace
By John Chappell
Last Saturday saw a World War II -fighter pilot do something he had hoped back then he'd never have to do: parachute out of an airplane.
This time, for Ed Cottrell, it was a way to celebrate his 90th birthday and a chance to remember fallen comrades.
At first, it looked as if nature might force a postponement. Skies were overcast at Moore County Airport on Aug. 11, and light rain fell from time to time.
The airport was holding an open house, and its tarmac swarmed with families and veterans in uniform. The local chapter of the Civil Air Patrol was on hand, and so were several active duty members of the U.S. Air Force who'd flown in for the occasion.
Overhead, Cottrell waited in his jump plane, suited up with 'chute strapped on. Round and round the plane went, seeking a hole in the cover. Along as Cottrell's jump partner was Sgt. 1st Class Mike Elliott, a retired soldier and former member of the Golden Knights, the U.S. Army Parachute Team.
Elliott has a passion for taking World War II veterans on tandem jumps. One he jumped with twice was former President George H.W. Bush, a U.S. Navy pilot shot down over the Pacific during the war and rescued by submarine.
Cottrell enjoyed the flight, but was glad to see the sky clearing.
"It was great," he said. "Then the clouds opened up."
A smoke plume heralded the coming jump to the crowds below, and Cottrell made his leap.
"I jumped right out with no, no trepidation," Cottrell said. "No hesitation. I understand why these people like to jump. I really understand it now. It's so ... it's so peaceful up there."
Down on the field below, several hundred people had been milling about, eating Boy Scout hot dogs and lining up to tour an Air Force C-130 flown in for the open house. They'd been sheltered somewhat from Saturday heat by the very clouds that delayed Cottrell's jump.
Up above, finally leaving the plane, Cottrell hit different weather altogether.
"It was cold and windy," Cottrell said. "When you first jump out, that thing hits you ... real quick, and you're shouldered around. And then, all of a sudden - from then on, it's just a matter of looking around.
"The free fall is really fun," Cottrell continued. "You can see the ground coming up. It's not frightening; no, it's not frightening at all. I never had any trepidation about going out of there. I just put my feet over, and he said, 'Let's go.' I said, 'I think we're out,' and we were!'"
This was something Cottrell had been dreaming of ever since his Army Air Corps days in a P-47 over Europe. When he turned 90 in January, he mentioned it to Jim Reed, whose son Nick Reed had interviewed him for his book of veterans' self-told tales. Reed got in touch with Elliott, and plans were made.
"Well, I always wanted to do that," Cottrell said. "I thought about all my buddies up there. Guys that had given their lives, or had their lives taken. You have plenty of time to think about things like that."
Elliott, Cottrell's "partner" in the tandem jump, is a Tar Heel native - born in Linden - who enlisted in 1986 and served 24 years. He did combat tours in operations Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.
In his decade since being Golden "knighted," Elliott has completed more than 9,000 freefall jumps and over 3,000 tandem jumps. Cottrell formed his own view of his partner falling through the air with Elliott at his back.
"Mike is just unbelievable," he said. "He's right behind you and talking to you. Telling you to have fun, relax. I said, 'I am relaxed.' He said, 'I know you are; you're the most relaxed -person that I've jumped with.'"
Contact John Chappell at (910) 783-5841 or by email at email@example.com.
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