Friday, March 2, 2012

Australian Adventure: Log 12

The team has taken a massive hit. After Mark has broken one of his propellers on the first leg of the journey, we’re down to no spares; one prop for each pilot is now all we have.

The boys have just completed their longest flight of the trip, a 160 km early morning run that started well before the sun broke the horizon. We’re so far out in the Outback now that landing on the highway is ideal, there are no cars seen for hours and it provides a great runway for both landings and take offs. We’ve been under the pilots all morning and the conditions are good when they land. Glenn asks for a refill, they want to get a second morning run in before the heat of the day makes the thermals too strong. Craig and I top up both tanks and lay Marks wing out across the road for takeoff. However, there is a bit of a crosswind in the air and a set of power lines off to his left. With a heave and handful of throttle, he brings the wing up into the air above him and begins to scamper off down the road. But the crosswind catches him and angles the wing off to the right; he counters which is sending him towards the power lines. He lifts up off the ground and steers once again to avoid the lines, however, the steering input kills some of his speed and as he has just taken off, the wing loses lift an crashes back down to Earth.

Painfully I watch as Mark crashes into the abrasive road surface, the sickening sound of metal striking the rock surface and breaking. It’s all a blur and it looks like there was debris flying from the Paramotor. I run down the road after him, he’s already up by the time I get there, shouting out in a panic, “Is the prop ok, is the prop ok!” Glenn and Craig are charging up behind shouting the same question. I inspect the rear of his Paramotor to find what I had suspected, the carbon fibre blades are shattered at the tips, the metal structure around the fuel tank has buckled and broken free to stick out into the path of the propellers.

Heartbroken, I tell Mark, “It’s done,” then turn and slash my throat with my hand signalling to the others the day is done, and likely the trip for Mark. Glenn comes to a stop; his face falls as all hope dies, turns and walks with heavy steps back towards the camper. Mark is still asking in a panic whether the prop is ok or not, he either didn’t hear my first answer or most likely could not let himself believe the answer. I give him the bad news clear and to his face and the disappointment in his face is enough to nearly bring a tear to my eye. He drops the damaged Paramotor and walks back to the camper as slowly and painfully as Glenn.

Craig and I pick up the pieces from the shattered machinery and drag it back to the camper. Glenn is in deep thought, wondering around, while Mark is sitting silently on the other side of the road, gazing off into the prairie. We inspect the damaged Paramotor further to find the damage was even greater than we first thought, some expert welding and fitment will be needed to get the Paramotor running again, however, nothing goes up without a prop. Mark grabs a breath, picks himself up off the side of the road and comes over. “I’m out, Glenn get up in the air and carry on.” Both Glenn and I protest the snap decision as this was Marks dream to complete a flight around Australia, breaking a record in the process. Mark doesn’t want to hear anymore, the painful situation too much, and wants Glenn to get going, but we insist on a team meeting to further discuss the situation and where we go from here.

With some quick words, the decision is made that Glenn will push on to the next town, Mark will make some calls and try to get a new prop in, and will come back to cover Glenn’s tracks once a new prop has come. Glenn flies to the next town while Mark sits in the back of the truck, working the phones trying to source a new prop. Ben from Kangook, someone we met while down in Brisbane supplies several Paramotor parts and Mark has him courier in a new prop.

We hold up at a caravan park, happy to finally have a shower and fresh water at hand, the new prop will take a couple days to come in. The wait also gives us time to make repairs to the camper which is beginning to fall apart, weld up Marks frame and get some necessities. I’m holding fort at the camp as the others are in town, the Caravan Park manager shows up telling me there is a package in. Glenn shows us just after and picks it up. He hurries back and rips the package open, but something doesn’t seem right. Pulling the prop out, it is a two blade propeller made of wood, not a carbon three blade.

Mark returns, excited that he found some essential tools, the smile on his face sinks as he catches sight of the prop over in the corner of camp, stopping mid-sentence. “Oh no,” he mutters, the twin blade prop will not work on the Parajet motor. The heartbreak from a couple of days ago was replaced by hope, destroyed in a split second by heartbreak once again. “The Prop won’t work,” claims the Parajet rep over the phone to Mark. “The fastest we could get you one is in two weeks’ time,” The Parajet factory is based in England, and we are in the middle of the Outback.

Two weeks would kill any chance of making the world record as Glenn is scheduled to leave at the end of April. Another team meeting is called and we have the painful choice to make, do we wait and give up on the record, or do we push on, now only Glenn will be capable of the record? The hard decision is made, Glenn will push on alone. Mark will join him once the new props are shipped to join him in the rest of the journey. It’s a heartbreaking decision, as this was Marks dream, and all the hard work and finances to put this all together came from him and Jackie. For the next couple weeks, Craig and I will have Mark riding along on the ground, and not flying overhead.

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