Why I Play series: Wingsuit Pilot Alex Tran
“Why I Play” is a fortnightly series every Thursday showcasing the stories of people who are passionate about their sports or hobbies. Want to see your sport or hobby featured? Let us know via Facebook or Twitter.
Since young, Alex Tran has always looked up to the sky and wondered what it would be like to fly among the clouds – even though he had a fear of heights.
After hundreds of skydiving jumps across United States and Australia, Tran was finally able to “fly” in a wingsuit. Most recently, the 29-year-old – who is based in Singapore – took part in an attempt to break the world record for the most number of wingsuiters flying in a formation.
Q: How did you pick up this sport?
A: I remember I was sitting on my bed, I’ve been working and it was two o’clock in the morning or something, and I’ve always been somebody who liked chasing my dreams.
Before this, I had been a professional DJ. That was my dream and I had accomplished all the goals that I wanted to do. I had just researched skydiving and basically I decided that night I’m going to do it. I booked my time off, went and did my Accelerated Freefall Course.
Which muscle groups are most involved in this sport? Which part of your body ache the most after a flight and why?
Definitely your scalenes (the muscles on the neck and around the throat), your trapezius muscle (the muscles behind the neck and on the upper back) and your upper torso. This is because those parts bear a lot of pressure during a flight.
Do you know anyone in the sport who has or used to have a fear of heights?
I myself have a fear of heights, really. Four years ago, before I started skydiving, I was at the Burj Khalifa, which is the world’s tallest building. At the top, there’s an observatory and the floor is made of clear plexiglass so you can look all the way down, thousands and thousands of feet.
I was so scared with paralysing fear. I couldn’t even stand up because I had this irrational fear that, if I stood up, the glass breaks and I just fall to my death. I know it sounds crazy. Obviously, the first skydive jump was terrifying. But, as you do it more and more, you learn to overcome that fear and relax.
What are the biggest misconceptions people have of this sport?
People always think that wingsuit flyers are crazy or reckless, or that we are trying to throw away our lives. I would think it’s the opposite for me. It’s more of a passion and love for living.
For certain people, they’re comfortable doing whatever it is that they’re doing and that’s totally cool for them. But for me, in order for me to experience the life that I want to live, I have to go through fear and pain and cross the barrier to get there. That doesn’t necessarily make you a reckless person, right?
Although I do have a fear of heights, I am able to overcome that. When I’m flying, it’s like I’m so relaxed. It’s crazy, I can’t even describe it.
In your experience so far, what has been your most amazing experience?
I think the first time I’ve ever flown in a wingsuit is definitely top of the list, because it was something I’d worked very hard to get at. You have to do 200 skydives in order to fly in a wingsuit.
I was at 74 or 75 skydives, and I took time off and spent about a month and a half in the US just to complete it. I was jumping seven to nine times a day, every day, seven days a week.
So I got to 200 and then I could start training for wingsuiting. At that time, it was the most intense thing I had ever done. I’m not gonna lie and say I was not scared, but when you jump out and nail it, you’re just like, “Oh my God, I’m actually doing it.” That was such an incredible incredible experience.
What about the scariest moment?
So I was doing something for the first time, whereby a canopy pilot – a parachutist flying his parachute – can fly next to the wingsuit pilot together. It had never really been done before, it’s like a brand new discipline that they just started doing.
So the canopy pilot would jump out first, pull his parachute and fly off into the distance. I would then jump out and try to catch him, and then fly next to each other. So I caught up and I’m flying next to him and then it was break off time, which is when you need to safely clear the airspace from each other to open the parachute.
After making sure no one is around me, I pulled my parachute but I couldn’t feel my arm and lift it up and back. I kept trying but I couldn’t reach. It felt like somebody was sitting on my arm. Next thing I knew, it was time for me to pull my emergency parachute and somehow I did just that. I almost landed inside of a prison, which is kind of funny.
It was the first time that I discovered that I had this issue called thoracic outlet syndrome and it comes from an impinged nerve. After an MRI, I found out I actually had two slipped discs in my neck.
Was there a time you felt like walking away from the sport? What made you stay?
There was, but I don’t know if it had to do with the injury. It was more because I was living in Singapore. The closest place to skydive would probably be Thailand or Australia. I’ve been pretty fortunate to find really good friends that I can train with in Australia and the US, but it’s not like I can go whenever I want, so in terms of training, I don’t get to train as much.
There was a point I walked away. When I spent those two months getting to my wingsuit, I was at such a high level of expertise. Then I regressed a bit and for me that was very frustrating.
I wondered like, can I still be competitive? Can I still fly the way that I want to? I realised that I could. I just had to try a little bit harder and train harder. That meant maintaining myself physically and making sure I’m in the best shape that I could be, which requires sacrifice.
What it taught me is that no matter what you want to do, there will be a sacrifice of some sort.
Can you tell me about the world record jump that you are going to be a part of?
The current record is 61 wingsuiters flying in a formation. If you saw the NDP (National Day Parade) wingsuit demo, that was maybe four people.
Because I had broken two American state records, in Texas and in Illinois, I got a full invitation to go for the world record jump.
For this world record, there are 81 people that are going, although it’s 96 people in total. Some of these are conditional invitations, so if there are some wingsuiters that aren’t up to par, they get cut and those substitutes come in.
How can people pick up the sport if they are interested?
Well, they can ask me! In order to wingsuit, you need to do 200 skydives first, and that means you need to get your skydiving license, which takes about 25 jumps.
After that you need to crank out 200 jumps and then do a First Flight course, so you’ll have a wingsuit instructor that will teach you how and they’ll jump with you.
Can you tell me in one sentence why you love this sport?
The fact that I can look up at the clouds and be like, I’ve been there, I’ve flown in the clouds. It’s almost like breaking those limiting beliefs, and the way that I look like clouds is maybe how kids look at clouds. To kids, anything is possible, and this is why I fly.