The endless plains, the unrelenting sun, and a healthy dose of isolation can have the most unusual effect on West Australians. An increasing number of West Aussies are jumping out of perfectly good planes, soaring in the clouds without a motor, and sailing through the skies without a rudder. These are WA’s sports adventurers and their exploits are captivating locals and making an impact on the world stage. There are even a few medicos amongst their ranks. Medical Forum cornered the best of these high flyers to see what makes them go … to the extreme!
Who needs a perfectly good plane?
Allan Moss is a man who has never felt the fear but most certainly does it anyway. With more than 9,000 jumps to his credit (yes, 9,000!), Allan is the most experienced skydiver in WA. He is the First Jump Course Coordinator & Formation Skydiving Coach at Skydive Express, based in York.
He caught the skydiving bug after his very first jump, describing himself as a “one jump wonder”. He has since gone on to win an intermediate 4-way formation medal (in 1993) and has represented Australia in 4-way, 8-way, and 16-way formation competitions. Amongst Allan’s biggest career highlights are coaching a WA team to a gold medal and participating in a 300-way formation world record. Allan is quite literally a high achiever.
When asked about the dangers of that old chestnut – why throw yourself out of a perfectly good plane? – he said, “Skydiving is a calculated risk. Students almost exclusively don’t hurt themselves skydiving – it is people bending or breaking the rules. A
As far as the danger of skydiving, statistically it is more dangerous getting into your car every day.”
By bending or breaking the rules, he refers to skydivers “around the 500 jump mark” who get a bit blasé, lose concentration, and don’t obey the traffic rules of the sky like not giving way to other jumpers.
“Unfortunately a skydiving accident is news. A bee sting or someone slipping in the bath is not news.”
In addition to his 9,000 jumps, Allan has made 200 base jumps around the world. Base jumping is the sport of diving off standing structures like mountains or skyscrapers.
“I’ve never chipped a nail [base jumping],” he said. “Base jumping is not dangerous but the window of safety is much smaller. Decisions before you jump have to be more precise and your response time has to be quicker.”
He says WA skydiving compares well against the rest of Australia.
“Our training methods are considered one of the best in Australia. This year alone, we have six national champions out of our dropzone at York, across four different disciplines. It is partly to do with the WA attitude. We don’t take bullshit. The attitude and weather of WA are very conducive to adventure sports.”
Surprisingly, there are a lot of medicos out there throwing themselves out if planes.
“There are three standout demographics that go skydiving. Engineering and tradespeople, students, and people in the medical profession. We have three doctors regularly jumping in our dropzone.”
With the constant adrenalin rush of daily skydiving, Allan finds his centre by catching some couch time, cycling, or pursuing another energetic pastime.
“Believe or not, I like dancing. Dancing is probably the number one thing I like doing outside of skydiving.”
Meditating in the clouds
Damien Hays is a man with a more sedate passion. As Chief Pilot of Windward Balloon Adventures at Northam, he gets to admire the beauty of the Wheatbelt and Perth hills from the clouds.
He says ballooning was in his blood.
“I grew up in Northam and my parents were involved with ballooning so I have had a close association with it all the way through childhood.”
Damien echoes what others have said on the risks of aerial sports.
“Any form of aviation can have a risk of danger. It is really up to the operator or the pilot whether they allow danger to come into the matter. We only ever fly when we know the weather conditions are spot on. That is why it is only ever done at sunrise. You won’t ever see balloons flying out in the middle of the day because it gets too hot and too windy during the day. We like it to be nice and cold and still and stable and you only get those conditions at sunrise.”
West Australian conditions are both a boon and a curse to hot air balloons.
“We can’t fly in summer because it is too hot and windy, but during our season, I’d say it is as good as anywhere in the world. We have one of the best weather conditions that you could ask for and the valley is quite scenic.”
For all intents and purposes, balloons have no steering mechanism. Damien has scouted out a dozen launch sites around Northam and the Wheatbelt, depending on the strength and direction of the wind. By choosing the right launch site, he can control the flight to some degree.
“Once you are in the balloon, you can find different wind directions by changing altitude and you can zigzag somewhere. But we are at the mercy of the wind on the morning as to where we can actually go.”
Because of this uncertainty, he says he has landed the balloon in some very unusual places.
“I have occasionally landed in town [Northam] or on a road verge or a vacant block. We took off in town this year on Avon Descent morning and didn’t fly very far because of the light winds and we ended up landing at the high school oval where they had all the helicopters parked.”
Fortunately he has a dedicated retrieval crew (vehicle, trailer, and bus) that follows the balloon on the ground and meets him when he lands.
Ballooning won’t appeal to the adrenalin junkie, because as Damien describes it, there is an “aura of calm” that settles on even nervous passengers when they take to the sky. The hour-long flights are romantic and almost Zen-like, which has attracted many young beaus proposing to their girlfriends.
“In between the burns there is utter silence. You can hear the birds whistling in the trees below. The other day, I was flying a balloon that carries sixteen passengers and I had three couples that got engaged in the balloon on that one morning.”
Soar like an eagle
Sitting somewhere between skydiving and hot air ballooning in terms of risk and excitement is the sport of gliding. Marek Dukowicz is an instructor at the WA Gliding Club, Cunderdin. He says he always dreamed of being a pilot and was inspired by the stories told by his piloting dad.
Soaring on thermals like an eagle is a spectacular pastime, made all
the more exciting by not having an engine. Gliders, like hot air balloons, are at the mercy of the winds but are considerably more manoeuvrable. They are towed into the air by a conventional plane and then the fun begins. Flights can last for hundreds of kilometres, depending on conditions, and WA has some world-beating conditions.
Marek, like the other sports adventurers, is aware of potential dangers but is comfortable with the sport’s safety.
“Like every sport, if you push it to the limit, you can drag yourself into the area of no return. I never put myself in a situation that I cannot control. You have to think well ahead when you are flying. Gliding is very safe but like any extreme sport, it contains an element of danger.”
In acknowledging the risks of flying an unpowered aircraft, he recounts some of his ‘hairiest’ moments in the cockpit. On one occasion, he was gliding with another pilot who was below him. He lost sight of the other glider when he entered the thermal updraft but a “sixth sense” told him not to turn into the thermal like he was supposed to. Moments later, he caught sight of the other glider, which had also caught the thermal and was bearing down on him. Had he turned as he normally would have, the results could have been disastrous.
“We were not on a collision course, but if I had turned the glider into the thermal a few seconds earlier, then it would have been very close.”
Other potential risks to gliders are planes flying over Cunderdin who may not be aware of the gliders in the area but like obeying road rules, reducing risk comes down to preparation and applying common sense.
Marek described his best gliding moments as like climbing Mt Everest. His best moments with the WA Gliding Club have been the friendships and trust he has fostered with the other pilots.
“There is a bond between everyone involved in aviation – not only gliding but in any similar sport.”
He said there is a wide range of people who have glided, from engineers and bricklayers through to doctors.
“A member of our club is Dr Iain Russell – he is an instructor and a good pilot.”