Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Sydney Couple Flying High

By Chico Harlan

January 03, 2008 12:00am

HEATHER Swan and Glenn Singleman own these things called wingsuits, which means that - at least in many eyes - they no longer own this thing called sanity.

A wingsuit, for the uninitiated, allows its wearer to cheat nature. Jumping from a cliff or a balloon or a plane while wearing a wingsuit, as Swan and Singleman often do, turns the human form into a flying missile of flesh.

Eons of instinct paint this as a decidedly poor idea. But Swan, 45, and Singleman, 49, a husband-and-wife team of Sydney adventurers, live on the frontier where instinct ought to be battled, not obeyed.

Together, they've hiked 6500m mountains and jumped off of them. They've performed hundreds of skydives and BASE jumps. They've sought fear so many times that now they no longer abide by its rules.

Many call wingsuit flying the forefront of human adventure sports, so Swan and Singleman decided to plan a flight unlike any before it.

In June, if all goes to plan, Swan and Singleman will journey to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, strap on their wingsuits, rise 11,900m in a hot air balloon and jump.

They hope to soar some 30km in roughly six minutes, which would obliterate by almost 10km the current world record for wingsuit distance.

A willing human can set the distance record in Australia, Singleman believes, because of the powerful jet stream that whips at high altitudes across the outback.

"Our sport is like a gravity-powered glider sport,'' Singleman said. "You need height to get distance, but it helps to also have a really good tailwind. We happen to have the best in the world right over the centre of Australia. It's very consistent. It's thick. It roars.''

So here's the gruesome computation: If Swan and Singleman, with the help of their support team, can rise to 11,900m, the ensuing jump would combine the predicted wind speed (200km/h) with their natural wingsuit speed (220km/h), meaning that this tandem - one a mother of two, the other a still-practising doctor - will hurtle through the atmosphere at more than 400km/h, protected only by several thermal layers (to guard against the -50C temperatures), miniature oxygen tanks (to guard against hypoxia) and the $1700 customised suits, composed of 300 individual Gore-Tex-like panels.

Already, Swan and Singleman have laid much of the groundwork. They've researched weather patterns, arranged for the balloon and organised the GPS systems and a film crew. They've performed a trial run from 7010m. Singleman submitted an operational manual to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

They've performed physical training to strengthen their arms and shoulders - necessary to support the wingsuit at such speeds. Months, if not years, of preparation and red tape prevent such a record chase from being spontaneous.

You first have to think about dangers so often that your knowledge of them becomes almost clinical. It's an awareness that turns fear into readiness.

"The reason others say it's crazy is because they're scared,'' Singleman said. "But the reason Heather and I do this is that we want to discover what's possible when you overcome your fears. OK, you're scared - for lots of people, that's where the story of their life ends.

"Whereas Heather and I understand fear as a survival mechanism that helps us achieve incredible possibilities. We've found that the benefit of doing all this adventure stuff is that you can control these fears.

"We don't let fear stop us. I find that incredibly liberating. I find that intoxicating, in fact.''

Singleman started seeking adrenalin and adventure in the mid-1980s, long before he met Swan. He became proficient, and then an expert. In 1992 he jumped 6100m with a parachute from the Great Trango Tower in Pakistan, the basis of a documentary.

Three years later, when Singleman spoke to a corporate audience about adventure and risk, one particular listener, his future wife, felt captivated. "I'd never seen that kind of audience gobsmacked before,'' said Swan, who introduced herself after the presentation.

"But it had a profound impact on me. If it's possible for somebody to do something like that - it was such an outrageous thing: to climb a cliff and chuck yourself off - then hey, maybe our minds are a lot more powerful than most people give it credit for.''

Swan first became Singleman's speaking manager. Then she became his wife. Though she lacked a background in extreme sports, the couple found a natural harmony.

They talked Buddhist philosophy and meditated and shared vegetarian diets. Meanwhile, Swan crammed a career of adventure-seeking into just a few years, becoming her husband's able partner.

Five years ago, with wingsuits only in their infancy, Singleman and Swan caught on. Now, about 1000 across the world fly with such contraptions; most have used skydiving or BASE jumping as their gateway.

Until the 1990s, wing-aided human flying was almost non-existent, in large part because almost all those curious about the pursuit died while trying. In an information packet Swan and Singleman have compiled about their record attempt, they address the pathway of tragedies.

American Clem Sohn died in 1938 after jumping from a plane while wearing wings with a skeletal base of steel. His parachute failed to open and he hit the ground - in front of 100,000 spectators _ at 2000ft/min. A parachutist who later tried to copy Sohn died on his first try.

Swan and Singleman face updated, but still extreme, dangers.

"We cannot have any flesh exposed,'' Singleman said. "At that altitude we'd freeze within 20 seconds. And hypoxia, low oxygen. That's the real danger. If we were disconnected from our oxygen supply, we've got about 30 seconds of useful consciousness. After that, you're impaired.''

Swan said that fear comes from the unknown. Study erases the unknown.

And wings are the ultimate antidote for fear because they enable the one sensation that - until now - we've never been able to know.

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