“I CAN’T” is the front line of our FEAR.
“HOW CAN I?” is the beginning of our creativity.
Sitting in the open door of a Cessna Grand Caravan cruising at 110 knots, 28,000 feet above the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, fear is palpable in the icy wind.
Not without good reason. The temperature is -53c and a safe landing area is nearly 12 kilometres away on the other side of the sheer drop of the Canyon. No one has attempted to fly a wingsuit – to be the first unpowered human to fly across it – from rim to rim.
The possibility is unknown, but not unknowable. Imagination, planning, skill, determination, technology AND the ability to focus the fear can make the dream a reality.
I know because I’ve had ‘impossible dreams’ before – like jumping off a 6700 metre mountain – and I’ve watched dreams unfurl from impossible, to improbable to possible and then finally into reality.
The dream to fly across the Grand Canyon in a wingsuit was inspired by those realities and the creativity of ‘How Can I?’
‘Wow, wouldn’t it be amazing to fly across the Grand Canyon as a bird would, not in a machine, just me and my wingsuit’ became ‘How Can I?’
The question became a collaboration first with my husband Dr. Glenn Singleman and later with friends (who also fly wingsuits).
It still seems somewhat unreal to me that I am a wingsuit pilot with over 1000 wingsuit flights, world records and world firsts to my credit (including being the only women in the world to do a high altitude BASEjump) especially since I once said I would never go skydiving, much less fly a high performance wingsuit.
Glenn was a skydiver when we first met, but I found the whole idea terrifying and frankly a bit ridiculous. Why would you want to jump from a perfectly good plane?
It quickly became apparent to me that if I wanted to spend time with my new husband I should reconsider, at least give it a chance. So I started skydiving, and slowly overcame the fear enough to see the beauty in the sport. There is something uniquely magical about skydiving, especially in a wingsuit.
To do it well though requires not only mental toughness but also physical fitness. I’d long been vegetarian but I switched to a wholefood vegan diet and started running with Glenn every day. Both things are still a huge, highly positive part of my life.
“If you can be healthier and happier cruelty free, why wouldn’t you?”
Glenn and I have been flying wingsuits since 2004. We’ve flown the fabric ram-air wings that transform a skilled skydiver into a human glider, over the Himalaya, across outback Australia down Sydney Harbour, over Brisbane city, Lake Eyre, Wilpena Pound and many other spectacular places, but the Grand Canyon was perhaps our most ambitious flight.
The Grand Canyon is one of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders. It attracts over five million visitors every year, but no one had flown over it in a wingsuit. Even at its narrowest point, the canyon is about five miles wide and the top of the rim is 7000 feet high, which means we would need to jump from at least 28,000ft.
At that altitude we would need full bail-out oxygen systems so we could breathe and a high powered plane with a door that could be opened in flight. We’d need permission to jump and somewhere to land, we’d need a retrieval team – the list went on.
Sometimes big dreams can seem so overwhelming you’re tempted to quit before you even begin. The trick is to take one step at a time while never loosing sight of your vision.
It took us a year to put together everything we needed.
That’s the moment, when the fear threatens to overwhelm me. The dream has moved from a future possibility into an imminent reality, and I inevitability start wrestling with ‘I can’t’. The reality of what we’re attempting washes over me, I get cold, then hot, then nauseous, I start to imagine the worst and I want to run away.
So while for the rest of the team (all guys) it’s just a great big ‘boys own’ adventure, to me it’s a fight with my internal demons – every time. This is partly genetic. Women naturally have a more sensitive fear response than men.
My self-doubt threatens to derail me before every big project. I can look back at diary entries, and the emotions and thought patterns are the same from one challenge to the next. Only experience, mindfulness and breath control keep me focused and stop me giving in to fear.
The night before we were due to make our flight across the Canyon one of our guides from the Hualapai Indian tribe performed a traditional blessing for us, using an eagle’s feather and incense, while reciting an incantation to guide our safe return. The same blessing they use for going into battle.
We took off just after sunrise. I watched the benign desert plain disappear and the canyon lands rise up to take its place. I’d never been to the Grand Canyon before. I’d seen lots of photos and studied our flight path on Google Earth but I was stunned by the sheer vastness of it. It is not one canyon, but many. It seems to go on forever. It’s beautiful and intimidating.
It took us just 30 minutes to climb to our jump location. We formed up in the door, and as always, I jumped first.
Once I’m out of the plane and flying I’m fine. The fear is gone. Replaced by total in the moment focus, a feeling that keeps me coming back for more.
We passed the deepest part of the canyon at over 100mph. I could hear Glenn’s laboured breathing in my headphones – he was head down, flying fast. I felt the speed as we soared over the V-shaped formation I knew was our marker point on the South Rim of the canyon. We were across.
I opened my canopy, and breathed a huge sigh of gratitude because I was across (and my canopy opened perfectly). I looked around at the incredible view – the ancient landscape around me. Everything glowed in the early morning light. A sheer cliff wall fell away 1000ft directly beneath my feet. Beyond that, the central part of the Canyon dropped another 3,000ft. I could see where I wanted to land right in front of me. Total elation!
Looking back I am happy ‘past-me’ faced up to her fears and tried skydiving. I am even more grateful she took up meditation, went vegan, became a runner, got healthy and continued to face her fears.
The small choices we make today will make a huge difference in our future.
Those decisions, and chipping away at them every day, transformed my life; made my marriage a true partnership and made me a happier, healthier person. So now ‘How Can I?’ is a mantra and ‘what would my future self want me to do?’ is a motivating guide.
Heather Swan is one of Australia’s best know adventurers. She has set a number of World and Australian records in extreme sport, including one for a wingsuit flight from a 6672 metre mountain in the Himalayas. She is the only woman in the world to successfully combine high altitude mountaineering and wingsuit flying. Last year, with her husband and team, she made the first wingsuit flight across The Grand Canyon. This year they flew across Lake Eyre and Wilpena Pound.
Heather’s impressive achievements in adventure are remarkable, but even more so when you consider she didn’t begin adventuring until her late 30’s. Prior to that she was a senior corporate executive, with a long career in management, marketing and communications, both in Australia and internationally.
Today she combines professional motivational speaking with her other career as an award winning writer and photographer. Her latest article is in issue 39 of Collective Magazine.