Maja Kuczynska – Bigger than the Sky
Stunning routine by Maja Kuczyńska
“Wouldn’t it be amazing to fly across The Grand Canyon in our wingsuits?”
That was the casual line that started the ball rolling on an ambitious project to fly high performance wingsuits in a formation across the Grand Canyon, from rim to rim - a world first.
“Amazing for sure,” Glenn Singleman (my husband and fellow wingsuit pilot) had replied. “But technically complicated. The narrowest part of the Canyon is around four miles (6.43kms) 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 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, so we know all about complexity. Putting together the right team, raising the money and obtaining the necessary permits and insurance is always the most time consuming part of these challenges. The Grand Canyon would prove to be the most challenging and complex of them all.
At first the enormity of the project was intimidating - permissions aside - Could we hold the wingsuits that long?
Could we fly that far? How would we manage the cold and the high altitude? How would we navigate a landscape that from 30,000ft all looks the same?
When a challenge is huge our strategy is always the same - break it down into manageable components starting with a budget and a detailed operations plan.
Glenn wrote a meticulous project outline to identify the real (as opposed to the perceived) risks. Rim to rim the widest part of the Grand Canyon is about 29 miles (46.6 kms) – too far for any wingsuit - but the narrowest part, near Toroweap Point is 4 miles wide (6.43 kms). Taking into account a 2.5:1 to 3:1 glide ratio of our Rebel class 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. The Grand Canyon National Park came back with an unequivocal NO to even our initial enquiry. They even denied us permission to be in their airspace, so we would have to stay above 14,000ft north of the Colorado River and avoid landing in the park at all costs. We got around what first seemed like an insurmountable problem by requesting and gaining permission to land our canopies from the Hualapai Indian Nation (who own a million acres on the south side of the Grand Canyon).
It took a year and over sixty pages of other submissions to obtain the other necessary 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. Our celebration about getting the permits didn’t last long though. Grand Canyon National Park lodged a last minute objection to our rescue plan, citing we ‘may need their EMT resources’. It was a spurious claim, but answering it took a further 27-page submission and caused a long delay.
While the permit process was unfolding I worked on raising the money and 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.
During the early Australian training we added skydiving camera flyer, Paul Tozer and Swiss-Australian wingsuit pilot Roger Hugelshofer, to our team. We worked well together and had fun making over 100 training jumps. We flew various formations, with various suits to find a combination that we could fly together in a high performance configuration. We were flying Apache Rebel 1 and 2 wingsuits. Paul preferred his trusted X3 to his new Rebel 2, finding the X3 a more stable, less stressful suit for flying camera. Our most exciting training jump was a 3-way arrowhead formation across downtown Brisbane.
For the flight across the canyon we decided on a 4-way diamond flock adding Vicente Cajiga in 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 DZ 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 was more than capable of taking us to our planned exit point 28,000ft above the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Before the Canyon flight we did jumps from 15,000ft, 18,000ft then 30,000ft testing and refining all our systems. Apart from the oxygen 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 meditated and then concentrated on the slow even breathing that helps me stay focused in stressful situations. I 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 Vicente 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, but the pain in our hands from the cold was intense – it felt like they were on fire. Still we completely elated that everything else had worked perfectly. We were ready for the Grand Canyon…
The drive from Davis to Las Vegas via San Francisco, took us nine hours. Toyota had loaned us a top-of-the-line Land Cruiser, but we had so much gear, it was still a squeeze.
We met up with the crew from 60 Minutes Australia in Las Vegas, and very early the following morning we all set out for Peach Springs. Our EMT crew were waiting for us there along with the Hualapai cultural representative and guide Bennett Jackson.
Bennett 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.
I did not sleep that night. The nerves had taken hold. Could we really do this? 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 28,000 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 strong 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 almost two 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 1,000ft 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 far to my left. The road was a soft obstacle free runway so down I went, landing safely nearly 7,000ft 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 April 2015
North Rim to South Rim
Time from Idea to Execution: 14 months
Wingsuits: the Apache series from Tony Wingsuits (X-3, Rebel 1 & 2).
Plane: SkyDance Davis' Grand Super Van with Texas Turbine upgrade
Pilot: Ray Ferrell, USA
Oxygen consultant: Tad Smith, USA
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: 11.3 kms
Top speed: 110 miles per hour
Sponsors 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).
Dr Glenn Singleman
Wingsuit BASE flyer
Flying wingsuits since 2004
Over 1000 wingsuit jumps
Sponsorship & Funding
Flying wingsuits since 2004
Over 1000 wingsuit jumps
Wingsuit Camera Flyer
Over 1000 wingsuit jumps
Over 1000 wingsuit jumps
Flew across Brisbane city with Glenn and Heather in January 2015
Over 800 wingsuit jumps
Watch this epic flight and the TV coverage by 60 Minutes here