Written by Heather Swan
“Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could fly across The Grand Canyon in our wingsuits?”
I first asked Glenn that question, in January 2014.
“Incredible for sure,” Glenn said. “But technically complicated. The narrowest part of the Canyon is around four miles (KM) wide and the rims of the canyon are 7000-8000 feet above sea level. We would have to open our parachutes at least 4,000ft above that. That means we’d have to get out of a plane around 30,000 feet to get across. We’d need to use our high performance wingsuits, a bail-out oxygen system, a jump plane that can go that high and a pilot who knows how to fly it – we’d also need permission from a half dozen bureaucracies and it would be very expensive. It’s a huge physical, mental and emotional challenge – right up our alley!”
“I guess that’s why no one’s done it before,” was all I could think to reply as I thought through the complexities.
Glenn and I have been flying wingsuits since 2004. We’ve flown over the Himalaya, across outback Australia, down Sydney Harbour, over Brisbane city and many other spectacular places, but never anything as ambitious as the Grand Canyon.
At first the reality of the idea was intimidating. What if we couldn’t hold the wingsuits that long? What if we couldn’t fly that far? What if our hands got so cold we couldn’t pull? What if we became hypoxic? What if we got lost? What if? What if? It would have been easier to have stopped right there.
Our first step was to do a detailed study of the challenge. Glenn wrote a meticulous operations plan to identify the real (as opposed to the perceived) risks. Rim to rim the widest part of the Grand Canyon is about 29 miles (KM) – too far for any wingsuit - but the narrowest part, near Toroweap Point is 4 miles wide (KM). Taking into account a 2:5:1 to 3:1 glide ratio of our Rebel 2 wingsuits flying in formation and a working altitude of 17,000ft (exit altitude 28,000ft to opening altitude 11,000ft) – physics said we could fly the distance safely.
Gaining permission for the flight was a lot more complicated. Almost a year and sixty pages of submissions later, we had permits from the US FAA (Federal Aviation Authority), the USPA (United States Parachute Association) the Los Angeles ARTCC (Air Traffic Control) and the Hualapai Indian Nation (who own a million acres on the south side of the Grand Canyon). The risk-averse Grand Canyon National Park threatened us with prosecution if we landed in the park or entered their airspace so we had to stay above 14,000ft while north of the Colorado River and avoid landing in the park at all costs.
While the permit process was progressing Glenn worked on the oxygen systems that would enable us to breathe at 30,000ft. At that altitude, without supplemental oxygen, we would have less than three minutes of useful consciousness.
Working with US based skydiving HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) expert Tad Smith and Australian engineer David Goldie, Glenn put together a system that combined oxygen bottles inside each arm wing of our suits and modified military oxygen masks and regulators, similar to those worn by fighter pilots.
It was an elegant, effective but awkward collection of gear that required a lot of practice to get used to. To manage the complexity of changing from in-plane oxygen supply to bail out supply, we did over 30 jumps from our regular exit height of 14,000ft ASL at Sydney Skydivers. Then we planed a series of jumps from increasing altitude. The technical and regulatory environment for this type of high altitude wingsuit jump is non-existent in Australia so we went to SkyDance Skydiving in the USA – a drop zone that conducts annual high altitude boogies to 30,000ft.
It was during this training that we added skydiving camera flyer, Paul Tozer and Swiss-Australian wingsuit pilot Roger Hugelshofer, to our team. Together we did over 100 training jumps, flying in various formations, including a high-pressure flight over Brisbane city. We were flying Apache Rebel 2 wingsuits. Our goal evolved to flying a high performance 4-way diamond flock across the Canyon. Vicente Cajiga took the final slot. Vicente is a US based wingsuit flyer who flew across Sydney Harbour with Glenn and I in December 2011.
After a year of preparation we were at Skydance Drop Zone in Davis California ready to test it all out. The owner, Ray Ferrell is an expert in HALO jumping. His plane, a Cessna Grand Supervan with Texas Turbine upgrade is more than capable of taking us to our planned exit point 28,000ft above the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Before the big jump Ray took us to 15,000ft, 18,000ft then 30,000ft over his northern California Drop Zone. Apart from our oxygen systems we had to trial our layered clothing, the cameras, GPS tracking devices, audible and visual altimeters, blue tooth communication systems and search/rescue technology in the high altitude, minus 50 degree temperatures.
We were all wearing Sony 4K Action Cams, and Paul also had a Sony A7-S full-frame mirror-less camera, plus the AX100 4K camcorder mounted on his specially designed, Cookie Composites camera helmet. We were worried how the cameras would fare in the extreme conditions.
The morning of our 30,000ft trial jump, we were up at 4am. We geared up over multiple layers of thermals, Skins and wind stopper. To avoid any chance of decompression sickness we pre-breathed pure oxygen for an hour before taking-off at daybreak.
Once we settled in the plane and connected to the on-board oxygen system that Tad ran from a sophisticated console he built himself, we could all think about the jump. Everyone was quiet. I concentrated on the slow even breathing that helps me stay focused in stressful situations and visualised each part of the jump from exit to landing. I was most concerned about the cold. I worried that if my hands got too cold, I might not be able to pull.
The Grand Supervan climbed to 30,000ft in just 30 minutes. Five minutes before exit we began the awkward business of turning on our personal oxygen systems and cameras before disconnecting from the umbilical cord of the plane’s systems. My hands and feet felt frozen, but otherwise I was OK.
As we reached 30,000ft and our predetermined exit point Tad opened the door. The temperature outside was -50c. Thankfully once we were out and concentrating on the job, I didn’t notice it too much. Glenn was base and navigator, Roger and I flew on his left and right wings respectively and Vincente made up the rear of the diamond. Paul hovered above filming.
We flew across the patchwork fields of Davis for just over six minutes. The sun was low in the sky and illuminating the alternating green, wheaten and brown paddocks with a stunning sunrise glow. It was breathtakingly beautiful, but bitterly cold. With a forward speed over 100mph, the chill in my hands was intense, but thankfully they still worked at pull time.
We all put down safely, completely elated that everything had worked perfectly. We were ready for the Grand Canyon.
The drive from Davis to the Grand Canyon took 12 hours. We met the Hualapai cultural representative and guide at Peach Springs the following morning so we were a bleary eyed group when we set out at 6.30am to reconnoitre our landing area.
Bennett Jackson, who was our guide over the course of the challenge, is Hualapai. His family has lived in the area for centuries and he proudly carries on their traditions. We followed him, driving on a rough dirt track through forest and mixed low foliage for almost three hours to the remote southern rim of the Grand Canyon directly opposite the Toroweap Peninsula. Bennett told us that we were probably the first non-Hualapai to ever visit that part of the Canyon.
The track suddenly emerged from the trees and ended on the edge of the canyon. The view in all directions was as spectacular as it was intimidating. Bennett told us that somewhere to the east, is a clearing in the forest where we could land our canopies. We walked for five hours surveying landmarks and memorising the details of the small clearing. It seemed very small to me and spotting it from nearly six miles away would prove an interesting challenge.
As we walked back to the car, Bennett pointed out wild flowers and explained their medicinal uses. We saw a ‘wigwam’ that he said dated from the early 20th century. Wild horses ran across the ridge above and unconcerned antelope watched from a distance. Then the wind started.
For the next two days a high altitude cold front brought howling winds and freezing temperatures. We had to stay patient and sit out the bad weather. We also had to change the date of our permit. Los Angeles air traffic control had given us an 8 minute window to slot in between transcontinental jet liners. Most of this timetabling is settled weeks in advance. Frantic phone calls and emails put Glenn in a bad mood but eventually we got a new permit for Thursday 9th April at exactly 7:40am.
Ray Ferrell and Tad Smith flew into Peach Springs from Davis the day before our jump. The Grand Caravan made a long, lazy loop around the remote airstrip before it touched down just before sunset. Tad prepared the oxygen systems so the following morning at dawn, we would only need to climb aboard and hook in. At sunset, Bennett performed a traditional Hualapai blessing on us, using an eagle’s feather and incense, while reciting an incantation to guide our safe return.
Sleep was elusive that night. The nerves had taken hold. Could we really do this? Any sort of problem on this sort of jump was potentially a big problem. The flight was across a proverbial no-mans land, and the landing area was far from ideal. This kind of self-doubt always plagues me the night before a big jump. I can look back at my diary entries, and cut and paste the emotions and thought patterns from one challenge to the next. Only this knowing, and my use of mindfulness and breath control to keep me focused makes it possible for me to beat the fear and doubt.
It was bitterly cold when the alarm sounded at 4am. We got dressed into the same layered-clothing, followed by the wingsuits, and all our other technology, which, this time included two-way radios and satellite phones.
We completed our pre-breathe just as we had done in Davis, only this time our Bluetooth communication devices were on, so I could hear Paul and Glenn’s breathing as well as my own. It was a comforting sound.
We took off just after sunrise at 7am. I watched the benign desert plain around Peach Springs become fissured as we approached the canyon lands. I’d never been to the Grand Canyon before this trip. I’d seen plenty of photos and I’d studied our flight path on Google Earth but seeing it for real, especially from our small plane, stunned me. It is not one canyon, but many, and from 29,000 feet it stretched out as far as I could see - red, and sandy, green and gold, beautiful and intimidating. It reminded me of a Mars scape.
Ten minutes to jump. Outside temperature minus 50 degrees Celsius. We were flying into a head wind - air speed 141 knots. Our rehearsed sequence began. Personal oxygen systems on. Cameras on. Disconnect from the plane’s oxygen system. Open the plane door. Wait for the green light.
We formed up in the door of the plane and looked down for the prominent feature of our exit point over Toroweap Point. It took one and half minutes to reach it. Glenn nodded at us. I exited the plane first. I was flying fine, but Glenn, then Roger, Vicente and Paul all barrel-rolled in the thin air. I held my breath and to my huge relief they all recovered quickly. They were a long way beneath and in front of me. I put my suit into a dive to give chase. My entire focus was on reaching Glenn. I got to him perhaps ten seconds later. We were all together and moving fast, but flying our diamond was proving illusive, it was more like a misshapen rectangle.
We passed the deepest part of the canyon at over 100mph, yet it felt like we were floating, and I could count every crease and crevasse in the landscape. It was cold but the chemical hand warmers in my gloves were working. I could hear Glenn’s laboured breathing in my headphones – he was head down, going for it. After what seemed like an eternity, we soared over the V-shaped formation I knew was our marker point on the South Rim of the canyon. We were across. Not long after that my audible altimeter sounded its first alarm. The next next alarm signalled break off. Glenn and Vicente flew offset diagonals ahead. Roger turned left and I went right. Paul opened where he was. We’d practiced this opening sequence many times.
I had a perfect clean opening, and once under canopy I took time to look at the breathtaking landscape around me. Everything glowed in the early morning light. A sheer cliff wall fell away 1000ft directly beneath my feet. Behind that, the central part of the Canyon dropped another 3,000ft. I knew where I was. The dirt track we’d driven along a few days earlier was right in front of me. The small clearing in the forest was to my left, but too far to make safely (and not nearly as nice a place to land). The road was a soft obstacle free runway so down I went, landing safely nearly 7000ft above sea level. Glenn, Paul, Roger and Vicente demonstrated their impressive canopy skills putting down safely in the landing area near the astounded crew from 60 Minutes and a jubilant Bennett.
Grand Canyon Wingsuit Flight 9/4/15
North Rim to South Rim
A World First
Time from Idea to Execution: 14 months (fund raising, project planning, official submissions for permission to fly and land, oxygen system refinements, training, weather).
Wingsuits: the Apache series from Tony Wingsuits (the X-3 through to the Rebel 2).
Plane used: SkyDance Davis' Grand Super Van with Texas Turbine upgrade
Pilot: Ray Ferrell, USA
Oxygen consultant: Tad Smith, USA
Dr. Glenn Singleman. Australia. Team Leader. Wingsuit BASE flyer. Flying wingsuits since 2004. Over 1000 wingsuit jumps.
Heather Swan. Australia. Sponsorship & Funding. Wingsuit flyer. Flying wingsuits since 2004. Over 1000 wingsuit jumps.
Paul Tozer. Australia. Wingsuit Camera Flyer. Over 1000 wingsuit jumps. Roger Hugelshofer. Switzerland/Australia. Wingsuit flyer. Over 1000 wingsuit jumps. Flew across Brisbane city with Glenn and Heather in January 2015.
Vicente Cajiga. Meixco/USA. Wingsuit Flyer. Over 800 wingsuit jumpsSponsors and Supporters: Sony Action Cam, Australian Geographic, Toyota, the Australian Parachute Federation, Sydney Skydivers, Cookie Composites.
Cameras used: Sony 4K Action Cams, Sony 4K AX100, Sony A7-S (stills).
Grand Canyon Flight
Exit Altitude: 28,000ft
Exit Temperature: -50c
Exit Speed: 141 knots
Exit position: Directly above Toroweap Point, North Rim of the Grand Canyon
Distance Flown: 11kms
Top speed: 110 miles per hour.