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High Drama

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Reporter: Liz Hayes

Producer: Stephen Rice

It's been a nerve-wracking couple of days, Liz Hayes tells us.

A spectacular world record attempt, two high-flyers ready to dive at 37,000 feet.

One slip.

Then, that dreadful empty feeling. Not knowing if they're going to make it back alive.

The adventurers were Glenn Singleman and Heather Swan, those two Australians who get their kicks jumping off mountains and flying, yes flying, back to earth.

This time though, they were planning to leap from a hot air balloon, and ride the jet stream that howls across Central Australia at 200 kilometres an hour.

Thus setting a new world record. Well, that was the plan.

Story contacts

For further information on Glenn Singleman and Heather Swan - and all other aspects of wingsuit flying, go to:
www.baseclimb.com

For further information on outback ballooning go to:
www.outbackballooning.com.au

Special feature

Slideshow: High Drama

Full transcript:

LIZ HAYES: It's the ultimate leap of faith. Over the remote desert of central Australia, Glenn Singleman and Heather Swan are preparing to dive into the stratosphere at an altitude usually the domain of jumbo jets. Their lives entirely dependent upon a small cylinder of oxygen and a wingsuit. But then, all of the sudden, a collapse. A life-and-death drama at the top of the world that sees one of them stumble and fall from 37,000 feet. This Sydney husband-and-wife team have been wingsuit flying for the past six years, but in their quest to set new world records their skills will be truly tested.

GLENN SINGLEMAN: So, worst case scenario the oxygen fails at 39,000 feet. We've got about a minute of useful consciousness before we become incapacitated.

LIZ HAYES: You can't have any skin exposed?

GLENN SINGLEMAN: Yeah, the temperature up there is minus 50 or so, so exposed skin freezes in about 30 seconds, especially with a lot of wind blowing over it like when we're flying in the wingsuits.

LIZ HAYES: Heather and Glenn have come to central Australia to fly further in a wingsuit than anyone has ever flown before. To do that, they'll have to ascend 39,000 feet in a hot air balloon to catch the jet-stream that blows across Australia.

GLENN SINGLEMAN: It howls up there at about 100 knots, or 200km/h, and we'll have that pushing us along and added to the speed of the suits which is also about 200 km/h we'll be crossing the ground at around 400km/h for 7 minutes.

LIZ HAYES: Not bad, huh?

GLENN SINGLEMAN: Not bad, better than a Ferrari.

LIZ HAYES: Wingsuits are man's latest answer to flying. Custom-made suits which fill with air, enabling the wearer to maintain elevation and the ability to glide.

GLENN SINGLEMAN:

GLENN SINGLEMAN: You fly like a bird, like an eagle, like a hawk, like you imagined it was when you were a kid. You streak across the sky. It's fantastic! It is personal human flight. There is nothing like it except being a bird.

HEATHER SWAN: We can be up there and be flying around the clouds, geeking at each other, barrel rolling, playing with the birds. It's... that's just fun, it makes me happy.

LIZ HAYES: Like birds of prey... ..they soar across the sky and swoop through valleys. This is an extreme sport which brings with it extreme outcomes. At least four Australian wingsuiters have been killed in the last six years. Glenn Singleman has weighed up the risks and as a trauma specialist doctor, says his choice of sport, if approached with care, is no more dangerous than those every-day pursuits chosen by many of his patients.

GLENN SINGLEMAN: Look, I work in an emergency department, I'm very, very familiar with death, more familiar with death than most people, and I understand that we all die as a result of the lifestyle choices that we make. If you choose to eat a greasy pork chop every night for dinner and put on heaps of weight you'll get diabetes, you'll get heart disease and you'll die from it. Those are the choices that you make. Whereas to do the stuff that we do, we have to be fit, healthy, strong, clear, mentally alert.

LIZ HAYES: But to break a world record, this mission also requires military planning and diligent attention to detail.

JOHN WALLINGTON: I have some familiarity with the environment, but I'm still nervous about it. I am, you know, genuinely concerned and want to make sure we get it absolutely right.

LIZ HAYES: John Wallington is in charge of getting the balloon into the jetstream.

GLENN SINGLEMAN:

GLENN SINGLEMAN: I'll call the tower, I'll clear everything, then we're ready.

LIZ HAYES: And while he and his co-pilot Sean Kavanagh have a wealth of experience, neither has been anywhere close to this extreme altitude before. What are the main concerns that you would have?

JOHN WALLINGTON: Oh well, obviously it's a low-oxygen environment, so having really good oxygen system is is the primary consideration.

GLENN SINGLEMAN: Your timer is running, you're in your 11 minutes. So this can't happen, it's gotta be zip zip and we go.

LIZ HAYES: The oxygen system is tested...

JOHN WALLINGTON: I'm going to have to have really thin gloves on for this particular part of the exercise.

GLENN SINGLEMAN: Yes.

LIZ HAYES: ..and not all goes according to plan. All that pure oxygen next to the open flame of the burners could prove disastrous.

GLENN SINGLEMAN: This, if it goes flick, over here, could provide interesting fuel!

LIZ HAYES: At 39,000 feet, nothing can afford to go wrong.

HEATHER SWAN: We are really trusting a lot to John and we're also trusting that he won't be hypoxic, that he won't be incapacitated, but if any of that happens well you just don't get out, just come down.

LIZ HAYES: It's 4:00am, and jump day, and everyone's feeling the pressure. How are you feeling, Heather?

HEATHER SWAN: Pretty good, actually, feel ready, little bit nervous, bit of stomach action going on which I wish would go away because once that suit goes on nothing else is coming out.

LIZ HAYES: How about you, Glenn?

GLENN SINGLEMAN: Yeah, This is the moment of truth, this is always the most nerve-racking time and yeah, I do feel nervous now. It's pretty wild, we're going out to the edge.

HEATHER SWAN: Going out to the rim.

LIZ HAYES: Heather and Glen, their pilots John and Sean, must spend an hour preparing their bodies - sucking in more oxygen.

GLENN SINGLEMAN:

GLENN SINGLEMAN: We've got to pre-breathe oxygen to wash nitrogen out of our system, so that when we go up into the thinner air the nitrogen doesn't bubble out of our tissues and blood stream and give us the bends.

LIZ HAYES: No matter how much preparation Glenn and Heather and their team have done no matter how much knowledge they have now that it's crunch time, I've got to say I'm more than a little nervous for them. At 39,000 feet it only takes one thing to go wrong, for them all to be in perilous danger. Glenn and Heather have 11 minutes of oxygen in the cylinders they'll jump with. If all goes according to plan, they'll be back on the ground in seven minutes. Before first light the balloon takes flight. And even before they're in the jet stream, there's trouble. The pilot-light in the balloon's burners goes out. At just over 37,000 feet, Glenn and Heather step out onto the launch platform. And in temperatures of minus 53, John Wallington begins the difficult task of switching their oxygen supply to their personal cylinders.

JOHN WALLINGTON:

JOHN WALLINGTON: Let's change you over, guys.

LIZ HAYES: Suddenly, Glenn begins to slump - dizzy from the effects of low oxygen and without warning falls backwards off the platform. Heather doesn't know what's happened and wants to follow. but in a decision that may well have saved her life, pilot John Wallington pulls her back into the basket.

JOHN WALLINGTON: Sorry to do that to you, Heather.

LIZ HAYES: For a distressed Heather, it's a shocking moment. No-one knows what's happened to Glenn.

JOHN WALLINGTON: Oscar Oscar Papa, there is only one skydiver. Only one skydiver. RADIO: Copy that.

JOHN WALLINGTON: Heather is still in the balloon. Confirming Heather is still in the balloon.

LIZ HAYES: You mean, she didn't go? HELICOPTER PILOT: She didn't go.

LIZ HAYES: But thousands of feet below the balloon, Glenn recovers and is able to fly.

JOHN WALLINGTON: He's safe, he's safe!

LIZ HAYES: Standing in the desert we find him, a solitary figure waiting and still coming to terms with what's just happened. You're okay? Well done. How was it?

GLENN SINGLEMAN: Oh, I fell off the platform. John was doing me up and I just fell straight back off the platform.

LIZ HAYES: Oh my God!

GLENN SINGLEMAN: And that's why Heather didn't jump. Because I just went straight off. And it was a bit disorientating like, what.. there's the, ah no. So I just flipped over and I saw that, you know, I figured I couldn't see Heather so I just sort of turned over and flew. But I'm so cold I can hardly speak.

LIZ HAYES: I'm just glad to see you got to the ground.

GLENN SINGLEMAN: Oh I'm so glad, yeah me too.

LIZ HAYES: But for Heather and the balloon crew, a soft landing looks out of the question. This mission means this won't be a normal balloon landing. 30 knot winds are now propelling them across the desert. Even a tree fails to stop them. It takes all the extraordinary skills of pilot Sean Kavanagh to bring the balloon to a halt.

LIZ HAYES: You are so, I mean truly... ..watching you bring that down was extraordinary.

JOHN WALLINGTON: He did an extraordinary job of it, absolutely fantastic.

HEATHER SWAN: It was better than any ride I've ever had. SEAN: The best thing is this is Heather's first balloon landing.

HEATHER SWAN: And the last.

GLENN SINGLEMAN: Are you guys alright?

HEATHER SWAN: Yeah. You left without me!

LIZ HAYES: While it all didn't go according to plan the team has broken several records - for the highest balloon flight and parachute drop in Australia and a world record for the highest wingsuit jump. But next time Heather and Glenn try this they'll do it together.

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