BASE jumping and wingsuit records no easy task
When these wingsuit trailblazers attempted the world record for the highest, longest and furthest flight they left nothing to chance. Chance had other ideas.
FAR BELOW, THE AUSTRALIAN desert is beginning to shimmer orange, turquoise and silver in the crystal pre-dawn light, as the horizon takes on a distinctly curved appearance. Dangling beneath the giant orange-and-red balloon, the tiny wicker basket I’m standing in is rotating rapidly in the jet stream currents, resembling a giant whirling dervish.
At an altitude normally populated by transcontinental jets, a hot-air balloon is a rare sight. It feels fragile, especially as we approach the edge of the stratosphere where the temperature is –53°C. The air is so low in oxygen the burners keeping us aloft continually sputter and threaten to die altogether. Yet here we are, soaring ever higher.
Our current lofty position says a lot about the ingenuity and adventurous spirit of my fellow aviators – my husband, Glenn Singleman, and the balloon’s pilots, Sean Kavanagh and John Wallington, Dick Smith’s copilot on the first Australian transcontinental balloon flight (AG 34). Sean and John are here to fly a balloon higher over Australia than anyone before them. Glenn and I (Heather Swann) hope to break the world record for distance flight in a wingsuit. Two highly ambitious goals that could come unstuck in any number of ugly ways.
It’s really not helpful to think about it, but if the oxygen systems fail we’ll suffocate within minutes; if one of the five onboard oxygen bottles explodes we’ll die a horrible death in seconds; if the balloon’s burners go out we’ll plummet towards the ground; if either Glenn’s or my personal oxygen system fails when we jump, we’ll pass out and fall in an uncontrolled flat spin until the automatic device on our parachute opens the reserve canopy. If that device or any other vital piece of equipment on our parachute freezes, we’ll hit the ground so hard the hole will be big enough to drive a truck into.
Of course, gloomy thinking has no place here. It just makes me feel sick. My stomach and chest tighten and my mouth is drier than the desert below. We’ve spent years testing and training for this jump. We’re ready to fly higher and further than anyone before us. We just need to focus on doing it right.
Our journey to this world-record attempt began towards the end of 2005 when Glenn said to me, in a matter-of-fact tone that completely belied the complexity of the task: “I’d like to have a go at the distance record.” He sounded as casual as somebody asking a friend out for a round of golf.
“Don’t you think we should finish the record we’re working on now?” I asked. We were just months away from travelling to India to attempt the world record for the highest BASE-jump and the highest BASE-jump in a wingsuit. “Well they go together – the highest flight and the furthest flight. It makes sense, don’t you think?”
Aiming for the wingsuit distance record
WITHIN DAYS OF RETURNING from our successful Mt Meru expedition (AG 84), Glenn turned his attention to the wingsuit distance record. In 2005, a Spanish team flew across the Strait of Gibraltar (which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, separating Spain from Morocco) to set the benchmark, jumping from 35,000 ft (10,668 m. In aviation, altitude is measured in feet; 1ft = 0.305 m) and gliding 20.5 km. During the Australian winter, a strong wind current screams above the Red Centre, and Glenn believed that by using the jet stream as a tailwind, we could fly about 30 km at ground speeds approaching 410 km/h – an astonishing concept, even to me. As a practising medical doctor, breaking the record appealed to his affinity for scientific complexity, and he set to work to make it happen.
First on the list was an aircraft able to fly at 39,000 ft and drop two skydivers. Normally these two things are mutually exclusive: commercial jets have no problem reaching this altitude, however pressurisation means it’s impractical to open a door and jump out. A military aircraft was the next alternative, but after nearly a year of discussions it became clear that the Australian military has an aversion to civilian projects like ours.
Back to my first (and the most romantic) choice – a hot-air balloon. Glenn and I have jumped from them many times and the experience has always been sublime. There’s no fuel smell, no harsh aircraft noise and no skin-tearing wind. And a large hot-air balloon can reach 39,000 ft – high enough to break the record.
More than two years of physical training, careful planning and a multitude of trials later, we were ready to put it all to the test.
On 17 July 2008 our team converged on John Wallington’s ballooning business in Alice Springs, the base for our record-breaking attempt. The place was a flurry of activity. Smack in the centre, inflation pilot Byron Hall sat behind a small sewing machine engulfed in acres of orange-and-red nylon. “I’m looking for holes in the balloon envelope,” he calmly explained.
Next to Byron’s sewing operation, ground-crew chief Mark Petering and balloon-inflation chief pilot Christie Birkett were wrapping the balloon’s propane gas bottles in electric blankets. Sean explained: “Preheating the propane will improve the delivery pressure, so the gas can burn more efficiently in the extremely low temperatures at 38,000 feet.”
“You’ll need a hell of a long extension cord, won’t you Mark?” someone said, full of cheek.
Glenn was surrounded by a tangle of multicoloured plastic tubing, putting together the five separate oxygen systems we’d use on the high-altitude flights. The colour-coded tubes looked to me like a mass of oversized spaghetti, but Glenn quickly had them sorted and attached to each oxygen mask, regulator and bailout bottle. These lightweight bottles held 113L or about 11 minutes of oxygen at a modest flow rate – enough for our estimated 7-minute jump with not much to spare.
John and Sean were in the balloon basket, which looked alarmingly like a large wicker picnic case. Sean was attaching the high-altitude burner he’d made for the flight, which would be fed oxygen to keep the pilot lights from going out. John was securing the transponder that would track our position in the air.
Professional photographers Graeme Murray and Terry Clark were helping Greg Cox and me assemble the camera gear we’d use to film and photograph the jump. Greg is a very experienced wingsuit pilot and camera flyer. He and I planned to carry digital video and stills cameras on specially designed camera helmets. There would also be cameras mounted on the balloon: one on a line anchored to the top of the envelope, and another on a purpose-mounted arm attached to the basket.
To the uninitiated the mountain of gear and the frenzy of activity might have looked disorganised, but there was order in the chaos. Everything had a purpose and everyone knew the job they had to do.
The wingsuit jump
WHILE BALLONS ARE WONDERFUL jump aircraft, they’re also finicky. If the conditions aren’t perfect they usually don’t fly. Fortune (and the weather) favoured us the next day. We were up and out by 4 a.m. for our first practice jump, and the balloon was inflated before sunrise in a paddock near Alice Springs. Though we’d made sure it was strong and secure, the jump platform hanging from one side of the basket looked ominous – like a plank set up by pirates.
We planned to jump from 10,000 ft – high enough to test our oxygen, communication, navigation, camera and retrieval systems, low enough that if any failed it wouldn’t matter. In just under 20 minutes we were close to the exit altitude, and Glenn, Greg and I made the awkward climb onto the platform. Glenn was leading off and giving the countdown. Greg and I were jumping either side of him. “Okay?” Glenn shouted through his oxygen mask. We nodded. The platform was surprisingly stable. I felt comfortable and relaxed – the best state for jumping, when everything happens in slow motion with a heightened sense of awareness.
“Ready, set, GO!” Glenn yelled. I spread my wings slightly and followed him off. The air was cold and for the first few seconds there was no sound, just perfect stillness. Then, as we picked up speed and the suits filled with air, we soared faster and faster over the desert, our passage creating a loud whooshing sound, as we gained speed. As often happens when I’m flying, a sense of pure joy and the urge to laugh bubbled up inside me.
Flying in a wingsuit, the world is spread out beneath you and the sky is your playground. The speed is intoxicating, the sense of freedom expansive. I was hurtling over the earth at almost 200 km/h, flying right next to Glenn, close enough to touch his hand.
The morning light illuminated his wingsuit and in his black helmet and mask he looked like a real-life superhero. We don’t tend to talk when we’re flying. It’s too noisy to hear properly and words can distract from the experience.
Too soon the unwelcome sound of my audible altimeter warned that I was approaching 3500 ft and it was time to deploy my canopy.
On the ground about 30 km west of Alice, we had no problem contacting the retrieval team with our VHF radios, and they came roaring across the desert in two four-wheel-drives. Back at base we congratulated ourselves on the flight.
Glenn, Sean and John were confident we were ready for a test jump from 22,000 ft, which the national air traffic control overseer, Airservices Australia (ASA), cleared us to do at Curtin Springs station, 75 km east of Uluru. It’s a popular tourist location with an airstrip, camping ground and resident emu, which took an instant
liking to Ralph, Christie’s labradoodle. The emu enjoyed a game of chasings, but Ralph wasn’t so sure. If the emu came near he tore off at full speed, racing in circles around our campsite with the emu in pursuit. Their games had us all in stitches.
We needed something to laugh about. Although we were ready to jump, the weather wasn’t cooperating. As each day passed and it was too windy or cloudy for the balloon to launch we did our best to fight off rising anxiety and keep our frayed tempers under control. We were almost a week behind schedule and time was running out. Our team had other commitments and our budget was almost expended. On 23 July we decided the 22,000 ft test jump would have to be abandoned: the record jump would go ahead the next day or not at all. The winds didn’t look favourable and the jet stream was a long way south. We were exhausted and strung out. I began to steel myself for disappointment.
With winds from the west-south-west predicted, ASA wanted us to take off from Connellan (Ayers Rock) Airport to stay away from Alice Springs Airport’s jet lanes, so the whole team had to relocate to a site near Uluru. By the time we completed the move it was nearly midnight.
Wingsuit woes: avoiding decompression sickness
THREE HOURS LATER THE alarm sounded. It was now or never. Glenn, Sean, John and I needed to pre-breathe oxygen for an hour before the flight to avoid decompression sickness. While we relaxed in deckchairs, the rest of the crew went to work. John’s team inflated the balloon. Greg double-checked our equipment. Graeme attached the camera rig to the balloon, complete with chemical warmers to fend off the –50°C and lower temperatures that could jam the equipment. Our retrieval helicopter’s pilot, Andrew Wight, prepped his R44 aircraft and rechecked his systems and maps. Dare I say it, we were ready at long last.
Retrieval was my biggest concern. The outback is a huge, harsh place and I didn’t want to be alone in it. I planned to do everything within my power to stay with Glenn, which would require both of us getting a good launch and flying at the same speed. We’d been practising for years, but we’d never launched from 38,000 ft.
It wasn’t yet light when, connected to oxygen bottles, we shuffled towards the balloon basket like a group of invalids on ventilators. The wind was picking up and although the balloon was tied to a 4WD, the basket was bucking. I’m not sure who was more surprised when a group of young men wandering home after an all-night party appeared; they were quickly conscripted. “You guys,” Graeme yelled. “Hang on to the basket.” They draped themselves across it, laughing and catcalling as we climbed aboard.
Once in, Glenn and I gave the thumbs up. John yelled to Christie and Mark: “Release the line! Release the line!"
Moments later the burners sputtered and died. Sean desperately tried to relight them. “Come on, come on,” he pleaded, flicking his lighter over and over. Time seemed to stop as I held my breath, trying not to think what would happen if he couldn’t get them to relight. At last they sputtered into life. “Yes!” Sean yelled, in what might qualify as the understatement of the trip.
Setting wingsuit records
At 34,000 ft we began the climb onto the platform. I used John’s esky as a step. It contained important cargo – John and Sean’s lunch for when they landed, in case there was a delay picking them up. John was trying to placate Melbourne Air Traffic Control (MATC), its operator asking for our expected longitude and most northerly latitude! John didn’t get flustered, despite MATC’s difficulty understanding him through the oxygen mask. He kept repeating our call sign “Balloon Oscar Oscar Papa” and our position.
After satisfying MATC, John turned his attention to switching Glenn and me from the onboard oxygen system to our bailout bottles. All went well with this complex task, which we’d rehearsed many times, until John tried to close the zipper on Glenn’s wingsuit.
It was frozen. John’s gloved hands couldn’t get a grip. He yelled to Glenn: “I can’t close it, I’ll try with my Leatherman.” He was pushing on Glenn’s chest, trying desperately to close the zip when Glenn started to slump a little. Then, without any warning, his legs buckled and he fell backwards from the platform. In an instant, he was gone. John and I looked at each other, stunned.
I wanted to go after Glenn, but I wasn’t ready, and it almost certainly would’ve meant separation on the ground. It was difficult to think clearly and while I was trying to decide what to do John commanded, “You can’t go Heather, you’ve got to get back in the basket.” With John’s help I climbed back in. “Sorry to do that to you,” he said. My head was spinning, my stomach felt leaden and I fought the urge to cry.
Was Glenn okay? Why did he fall? Had he rolled over and flown hard without me? Would he land okay and would the helicopter pilot find him? I started to feel nauseous, and concentrated on breathing slowly and rhythmically to regain control.
John radioed the helicopter: “Balloon Oscar Oscar Papa, there is only one skydiver. Confirming Heather still in the balloon.”
“Helicopter November Uniform November,” I heard Andrew reply. “I have a position on Glenn, am heading to retrieve, over.”
I lost track of time: 15 minutes seemed like hours. Then the radio crackled again. I heard Andrew’s voice: “Helicopter November Uniform November. I’ve got Glenn, he’s okay.”
Now that Glenn was safe, I focused on the situation at hand. The wind on the ground had increased to 30 knots (55km/h) and it was going to be an extremely challenging landing. Sean expertly guided the balloon through competing air currents until he saw a dirt track. “Get low in the basket Heather,” he said, “and put your back to the direction we’re landing.”
The basket swept helter-skelter along the ground for 50 m. But it was when we hit a tree and the esky hit me in the head, that I really started to worry. As we bounced along the ground at more than 30 km/h I clung to the esky (I thought we might need provisions if we were stranded in the middle of the desert). At last the balloon came to a stop. The basket was on its side, my mouth was full of dirt, my hair full of twigs and I felt bruised all over. Laughing, John congratulated Sean on the landing: “Great job … absolutely fantastic!”
Glenn and Andrew arrived in the helicopter and ran over. “Can you believe that was Heather’s first balloon landing?” Sean said.
“And my last; next time I’m definitely jumping out,” I replied, before turning to Glenn. “What happened?”
“I started to feel dizzy and I just fell straight back,” Glenn said. “Then I was on my back looking up at the balloon, thinking ‘Oh, no!’ After a while I thought ‘Heather’s not coming’, so I rolled over and flew. I have no idea how far I went – both my GPS devices failed. While I waited for Andrew I started thinking how we could do it better next time. There will be a next time?” he asked me pointedly.
“Of course,” I said. “We don’t give up.”
We set three of the four records we were aiming for. Ours was the highest balloon flight in Australia (37,838ft) and the highest skydive in Australia, and the highest wingsuit exit in the world (at 36,750ft). But the distance record that had first enticed Glenn eluded us. The GPS devices he was wearing froze in the extreme conditions. With no GPS track we can’t be sure of the exact flight distance.
Recalling it all now, I’m once again reminded of Glenn’s and my adventuring philosophy. The destination should never be more important than the journey, and the people who take it with you.