Outside Magazine, March 2012
Thursday, February 09, 2012
Professional daredevils Rex and Melissa Pemberton were drawn together by a mutual passion for risk and adrenaline. Now they have a marriage based on love, trust, and the strange, stoic acceptance that their life partner could die at any moment.
TWO DAYS FROM NOW and 10,000 feet above the Southern California desert, Rex Pemberton will don a wingsuit, leap from a plane, and race toward the earth trailing orange smoke from canisters strapped to his ankles while Melissa Pemberton, one of the world’s best aerobatics pilots, paints a white smoky corkscrew around her husband—two minutes of barnstorming showmanship for thousands of gaping spectators spread out below them.
But first, a moment of marital tension. A screw has worked itself loose, a tiny screw, stainless steel, five millimeters long, one of four securing a sheet of aircraft aluminum across the front left side of the engine. Rex notices the hole, a flaw in his wife’s exquisite plane, as they push it out of the hangar at Pine Mountain Lake Airport, a few hundred yards from their home in the hills outside Yosemite National Park. He taps his finger against the loose corner, and he worries. Engine vibrations have started a hairline crack in the metal. Melissa says she’ll have her mechanics replace the screw at an airport that’s a 15-minute flight away. But he retrieves a screwdriver and tiny screw from the hangar while she watches him, slightly exasperated.
In their garage, Rex often works on his powered paraglider, with its 30-horsepower engine that propels him over these valleys, forests, and mountain lakes at 40 miles per hour. But the $350,000 plane, a sparkling metallic blue Zivko Edge 540, with black flames edged in pink, has much smaller tolerances. “Rex, this isn’t your paraglider,” she says, her soft voice calm but her words coming faster now, betraying her annoyance. “I need you to listen to me when we’re talking about my plane.”
But he’s not really listening. He knows that if the piece breaks on her brief flight, there’s a chance she won’t be able to adjust the prop and may not be able to land. And he knows the odds. In his five years with Melissa, she has lost four close friends and six acquaintances. This season has been a particularly bad one on the air-show circuit. Five performers have died from crashes already, some of them in front of huge crowds, the worst when a modified P-51 Mustang slammed into the audience at the Reno Air Races in September, killing the pilot and eight spectators and injuring 69. Aerobatics are unforgiving. The forces exerted on Melissa’s plane can bend even the thick bolts that hold the engine in place, and a moment of disorientation, a major gust of wind, or a slight overcorrection at the controls can be fatal.
Rex can’t change any of that, but here at least he has the illusion of control. “Just let me see,” he insists, and spins the screw into the engine. “See? It’s the same screw. The exact same screw.”
Melissa relents and climbs into her plane. The prop turns, stutters, and catches, and the engine settles into a deep, throaty rumble. She revs the throttle and roars down the runway, and Rex watches his wife climb into the morning sky.
EVERY MARRIAGE HAS ITS unspoken rules, an understanding of needs and desires, and the Pembertons’ is no different, though the stakes are slightly higher.
“I would never tell her to stop because of any fear that she’ll have an accident,” says Rex, 28. “We need to keep each other in check and make sure we’re doing these risky things in the safest way possible but not tell the other to stop, because those are our core values.”
Melissa, 27, agrees. Her husband has made more than 1,300 skydives and 300 BASE jumps. At age 21, he became the youngest Australian to climb Everest, and he recently set his sights on Pakistan’s K2, an objective that had Melissa concerned, though for reasons that had little to do with the technical route to the summit. “It’s one thing to worry about a mountain, but I don’t want him to get kidnapped or blown up,” she says. Still, these are concerns, not ultimatums. “I would never tell him outright, ‘No,’ ” she says. “If he wants to do something, that’s up to him.” Because that’s where they found each other—riding the edge of excess—and why they fell in love in the first place.
In April 2007, Pittsburgh native Melissa Andrzejewski traveled to Australia to train for aerobatics. Customs authorities held her plane for six months because the wooden shipping crate wasn’t certified pest-free. So at 23, a pilot without a plane, she decided to spend her downtime skydiving, rock climbing, and BASE jumping. One afternoon she walked into Rex’s house in Sydney with a friend of his, a fellow climber and jumper who needed mountaineering equipment. Rex had plenty; he’d just finished the Seven Summits, at age 24.
The next week, Melissa and Rex spent a day BASE jumping with friends in the Blue Mountains, and as they chatted on the hourlong hikes to and from the exits, between leaps off craggy cliffs and surging adrenaline, Rex had a revelatory thought: This petite, blond-haired stunt pilot, with this smile and these hazel eyes, might be the only woman in the world who could do everything he loved, at his level, and a few things he couldn’t. That night they had a beer at the pub and then dinner with his parents, and deep into the small hours of the morning they had a first kiss. “I didn’t have much question that she was going to be the love of my life,” he says.
Their hunger for adventure may be genetic. They both came from families that pushed sports and exploration and instilled a sense of wonder for the outdoors. Melissa rock-climbed as a toddler and learned to scuba dive in the family pool at age five, then dredged for gold in rivers on vacations to Northern California. Rex started as a rock climber, too—at six, with his brother, Max, two years older. In a Sydney suburb, they built catapults to pelt the neighbors’ house with fruit and barreled down streets on scrap-metal luges, but mostly they climbed, which eventually led to alpine peaks in New Zealand.
In high school in Pittsburgh, Melissa played basketball and soccer, ran cross-country and track. But competition bouldering was her favorite, and she picked Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona—a place Time magazine once called “the Harvard of the sky”—because the nearby climbing would be good. She first experienced aerobatics with her grandmother, who flew as a hobby and taught herself simple loops and rolls, and the summer before college she earned her pilot’s license, with her grandfather as her instructor. Melissa started taking aerobatics lessons early in college; by 22 she’d become the youngest woman on the U.S. Unlimited Aerobatics competition team. From there she began flying air shows, rolling, flipping, and carving through a sport dominated by older men.
While his brother joined the Australian armed forces, Rex kept climbing. He raised $100,000 for his Everest bid in 2005, and another $100,000 to finish the Seven Summits. After the climbs, he started giving corporate training workshops, using his videos and stories from Everest and other expeditions to teach team building, goal setting, leadership, and risk management to companies like Google and Hewlett-Packard.
THE CAREER HAD DRAWN Melissa to Rex, long and lean and in control of his life. He wasn’t just crashing on friends’ couches and working only enough to fund the next adventure. He’d used his experiences to build a career. “Our lifestyles are so out there, it’s hard to imagine finding someone else who would be OK with that and understand it, and he was already doing it,” she says.
For the next five months, they jumped and climbed across Australia, scuba-dived on its reefs, and leaped off Malaysian skyscrapers. In September 2007, at Colorado’s Royal Gorge, where they spent three days among a tribe of fellow BASE jumpers hucking themselves from a 956-foot-high bridge, he told her he loved her. He told her right after he realized the downside of finding your perfect match—right after he first felt the fear that hasn’t left him since.
Their helmet cameras documented the moment, the last of their 5 jumps: Melissa goes first, with a whoop and two backflips. She free-falls for three seconds and at about 500 feet pulls her chute, which opens cockeyed. Her lines cross and send her into a spin, back toward the rock face. She struggles to untwist the lines, and the video bounces between flashes of rock face, sky, and red-and-white parachute canopy. Rex, still above, sees that she’s in trouble.
“Fuck!” Melissa yells. She kicks herself away from the wall and keeps falling. She slams into the cliff again, tries to kick away with her left leg, and snaps her tibia and fibula. Finally, she plunges toward the rocks below until her chute catches on a small outcropping. Pieces of rock torn loose by her parachute cascade in a shower around her. She hangs 200 feet off the ground, and Rex thinks he’s just watched her die.
“Ohhhh fuck! Fuck!” he yells, then shouts for the high-angle rescue climbers on standby above.
“Is she moving?” His voice is now a pained moan. “Is she moving?”
“She’s moving, Rex,” a friend says. “She’s OK.”
“I think I broke my leg,” Melissa yells. “I’m passing out.”
“Don’t pass out,” Rex shouts. “Are you bleeding?”
“No,” she says. “I’m going to pass out.”
“Did I tell you that I love you?” he yells.
Melissa laughs. “I love you, too,” she says.
Five months later, in Antarctica, where Melissa joined Rex for a two-week corporate training gig aboard a Russian icebreaker, he proposed. He hid clues around the ship referencing their ten months together—like their day kitesurfing off the Sydney coast and kissing in the water under the sail—which led her to an avalanche beacon that led her ashore, where he was waiting with a ring and a bottle of champagne.
THE PEMBERTONS ARE ON THE ROAD seven months a year, between the spring-to-fall air shows, trips to Australia, corporate training events, and side adventures. When they’re home, Rex spends a couple of days a week in the Bay Area meeting with clients, so their Pine Mountain Lake A-frame, set among oaks and conifers, is something of a refuge.
They live a few hundred feet from the airport, where houses and hangars ring the runway, and nearly all of their neighbors are pilots—mostly retirees, plus a few business executives from Silicon Valley. The Pembertons are the curiosities, that sweet crazy couple, Melissa flying loops over the airport and Rex buzzing the treetops in his powered paraglider or walking slacklines in the front yard.
Their toys and work gear crowd the shelves in the basement: tents and skis, ropes, harnesses, diving tanks and a surfboard, 11 parachutes, and thousand-square-foot American and Canadian flags that they sometimes unfurl during skydiving routines at air shows. The garage holds the overflow: mountain and road bikes, the powered paraglider, a sailboard, a Yamaha R6 street bike, and two typical mountain-town vehicles—a Subaru Outback and a metallic blue Toyota Tacoma, picked by Melissa because the color matches her plane.
On the evening I visit, before Rex lights the grill for steaks and corn, he steps onto a 63-foot slackline stretched between two oak trees in the front yard. He steadies himself on the inch-wide tape and walks end to end. Next year he wants to try walking a 60-foot line stretched between two rock spires in Yosemite, 2,000 feet above the valley floor—another little adventure.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, Melissa checks on her inaugural batch of kombucha, the fermented health drink made from mushroom-shaped bacteria cultures. She puts the four large jars back in the cupboard, pleased with the progress. The culture originally came from a batch brewed by a friend who recently died in a bicycle wreck, so the drink is a tribute of sorts.
Tonight Melissa has economics homework to do—she left college after her junior year to fly full-time and is now finishing her aeronautical-sciences degree from Embry-Riddle—and Netflix has delivered the season finale of Dexter. But first, the laundry has piled up. She lugs a basket of clothes to the basement, while in the living room, its walls adorned with Botswanan and Kenyan tapestries, Mexican wood carvings, and Buddhist prayer flags, Rex and I sit on the couch flipping through The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook. Parachute doesn’t open. Lost in the mountains. Caught in an avalanche. No problem. Listening to Rex and Melissa, I realize that they read this book not as voyeurs but as connoisseurs, more to critique the advice than learn from it. Even knife wounds and an emergency tracheotomy aren’t surprising to them—Melissa just finished a course to become a wilderness emergency medical technician.
But a few entries catch their interest as Rex calls out topics to Melissa, who is still downstairs pulling clothes from the dryer. “How do you get inside from the roof of a moving train?” she asks, with a curiosity that suggests the knowledge may someday be useful.
“Crawling on all fours may be the best option,” Rex says. “Move your body with the rhythm of the train. Find the ladder at the end of the car and climb down.”
I read, with skepticism, the advice on flying a plane with an incapacitated pilot. Before we settle into our steaks and corn and the Dexter episode—a moment that seems out of place in the Pemberton house for its very normalcy—I ask Melissa if I could land without killing everyone, and she barely considers. “Sure,” she says, and shrugs her shoulders.
That’s how they talk. When they describe their plans for 2012, it comes across as routine. Mundane. Air shows in the U.S., Central America, and Europe. A return to Ghana, where Melissa has been training young women to fly supplies into remote areas through a group called Medicine on the Move, and Rex will finish a documentary about the program. He’ll earn his pilot’s license—he wants to fly aerobatics, too—and maybe climb all 13 of California’s 14,000-foot peaks in 13 days. In March, they’ll head to South America. He’ll surf the miles-long Amazon tidal bore, and together they’ll jump off Venezuela’s 3,211-foot Angel Falls. Of course they will. What else would they do?
IF YOU ASK THE PEMBERTONS how they deal with all the risk, they’ll tell you their lives are really not so dangerous. “We all go through the binge-drinking phase in our sports, going hard and going big,” Melissa says. “We’re human—we like to push sports and take things to the next level—but you have to be able to step back, to be self-aware.”
The Royal Gorge jump taught them that—to not flirt with the limits of their abilities or equipment. “Hopefully that will help us live for a long time in the sports we do,” Rex says. He tells me that many of their activities look more perilous than they are. The danger, he says, comes when actual risk outweighs perceived risk and an athlete doesn’t recognize the subtle shift. “They don’t know when to stop, and they push until they die,” he says. They pack their chutes too fast, or jump in areas that don’t allow a way out should anything go wrong, or keep pushing up a mountain slope after the weather fouls.
Rex and Melissa have walked away from jumps and backed off from maneuvers when they felt their training or gear wasn’t adequate or the conditions were wrong. In this sense, they say, their marriage is a safety valve. “We help each other in not getting to that point of complacency, because you’ve got another person with you that you love and care about,” says Melissa, “and now you’re making a decision not just for you but for the other person.”
For Rex, the closest he’s come to saying no and breaking that unspoken rule has been Melissa’s proximity flying, the term BASE jumpers use to describe flying close to a cliff face using a wingsuit. In 2007, a few months before the Royal Gorge jump, Melissa spent two weeks jumping off 3,000-foot cliffs on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic—hairy jumps, screaming through canyons at more than 100 miles per hour. In a video on YouTube, Melissa shuffles to a cliff edge, sucks a few nervous breaths, and leaps. Her free fall slows as air gathers under her wingsuit, then she races for the canyon mouth a half-mile away. Fifteen seconds into her flight, she aims for a steep ridge on the left side and clears it by less than ten feet, just as she’d planned. From leap to landing, the whole sequence takes just under a minute, and she howls, giddy, as she touches down. “That was the best jump of my life,” she tells me. “Then came the worst.”
A few hours later, Melissa made the same leap, followed by an American friend. (She requested that he not be identified.) Melissa shot through the canyon, again narrowly clearing the rock face at the mouth. She floated onto the snowfield and turned to watch her friend’s descent, but he hadn’t followed her out of the canyon. He’d free-fallen too far and started flying too late, and he hit the cliff face. They spent the next day waiting for the local police to come and retrieve his body. Even as she describes this, Melissa doesn’t see her own flight as reckless. Her preparation had been meticulous, she tells me. She’d jumped near the canyon mouth several times in previous days, learning the terrain and air currents until she knew she could make the flight. “You know your body, you know how you fly, you know the cliff,” she says. “I’ve never put myself in a situation where I felt I wasn’t in control.”
IN THE HALLWAY OUTSIDE Rex and Melissa’s upstairs bedroom, there are two wooden shelves on the wall. Mixed in with air-show programs and coins given to Melissa by military pilots is the foot-long titanium rod from her broken tibia, a piece of the rock outcropping that caught her chute at Royal Gorge, and another from a jump in Australia in which she slammed into the cliff face and broke a vertebra, all reminders of close calls. The top shelf serves as a shrine to her friends. “It’s only for the people closest to me. Otherwise I’d have a whole room,” she says.
Nick Nilmeyer, with whom Melissa had started aerobatics, crashed during a practice flight in 2006, her first close friend to die in a plane. Chandy Clanton, her best friend on the air-show and aerobatics competition circuits, a mother of two boys who had flown through her second trimester in both pregnancies, spiraled into the ground in an Edge 540 while practicing for a Missouri air show in 2009. And in 2011 she lost her friend Amanda Franklin, a wing walker who performed with her husband, Kyle, who piloted the biplane. During Kyle and Amanda’s act at a Texas air show last spring, the engine faltered. Amanda crawled off the wing and into the biplane’s second cockpit before the crash landing, but once on the ground the plane caught fire and she couldn’t get out. Amanda died two months later from the burns, and Kyle returned to flying air shows.
“It definitely hit Rex hard that that was his wife,” Melissa says. “I really saw a difference in him this season, having that extra level of concern.”
Which may explain the extra time Rex spent packing his parachute in the living room two days before the air show, meticulous and precise, as he inspected each line then folded the canopy into its small canvas case. And it surely explains the screw. “That is the fear speaking,” he told me.
Melissa is practical, and when a friend or colleague dies she mourns, often calling her father as soon as she hears about a death, and then deconstructs the event and searches accident reports. She’ll double-check gauges and spend more time on her preflight inspection—perhaps an illusion of control, since careful pilots still die, but a necessary ritual for muting doubt. If a pilot crashes during a specific maneuver, she will climb to a safe height in her own plane and practice the same trick, making it go as wrong as possible and seeing how long it takes her to recover. She does this until maneuvers feel hardwired into her brain, then spends time alone before air shows, away from the crowds and the noise, running through her routine and pushing away outside worries.
Rex often films Melissa’s practices and performances, and he’s learned not to focus too closely on the tight view from the camera’s LCD screen. “I’d watch the plane diving down,” he says, “and think, Oh God, oh God, pull up, pull up, pull up.”
ON AIR-SHOW DAY in Thermal, California, just outside Palm Springs, thousands crane their heads back, video cameras fixed on a cloudless stretch of sky, and watch two planes, specks twinkling against the blue. Rex flies from the first plane in his wingsuit, a tiny white dot trailing a streak of smoke. Melissa slides her plane in behind him and wraps a white spiral around Rex’s wispy arrow of orange. Murmurs and gasps rise through the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer says, “this is what you refer to as true love and harmony.”
Rex makes a sweeping 180-degree turn to keep himself in view of the spectators, and Melissa follows. She cranes her neck, always watching Rex, as she fights the G’s of the continuous two-minute turn. He kicks his feet at 2,300 feet, his signal that he’s about to pull his chute. Then he spins toward the ground in wide circles, yanks the toggles to slow the chute, and touches down with a little trot.
The crowd cheers, and Rex walks down the fence line, signing autographs. Above him, Melissa spirals from the sky, her plane spinning so fast it seems out of control, the same sort of maneuver that killed Chandy. She pulls from the dive and tears over the runway at more than 200 miles per hour, 20 feet off the ground and upside down. She flips over, banks hard, and climbs straight up until the plane slows and stops at 1,500 feet. The plane hangs in the air several seconds as though balanced on its tail, then it tips sideways and tumbles.
Her engine screams, and Melissa flies a giant loop, doing aileron rolls the whole time, the G forces pressing her into the seat as though a cow were sitting on her lap. At the beginning of the season the G forces exhaust her, with blood squeezing in and out of her organs, and she’ll feel hung over afterward, until she’s built up her tolerance through hours of flying. She pulls a 10-G turn and then blasts back down the runway, fishtailing the plane’s rear end side to side.
She lands, flashes a thumbs-up, and climbs from the cockpit. Several people want pictures with the plane; a few young women ask how they can learn to fly, and Melissa seems to gain energy with each conversation. A man introduces his daughters, 10 and 11, who are taking flight lessons. “They saw you fly a year ago and they haven’t stopped talking about it. So they want to be pilots now,” he tells Melissa. “Their legs are just long enough to reach the control panels.” She hugs the girls, lifts each into the cockpit, and tells them about aerobatics. “You are absolutely the inspiration for those girls,” their father says.
The crowd thins, the sun drops toward a jagged ridgeline, and a few pilots take off in the old warbirds, headed home. The next morning, Melissa and Rex will wake before dawn and scramble up a rocky mountain spine overlooking Palm Springs to watch the sun rise. Melissa’s left knee will ache, from the Royal Gorge jump. So will Rex’s, from a years-ago fall near the end of a 100-kilometer trail race just before he climbed Everest. They’ll push higher, climbing boulders to small peaks along the ridge, caught up in a little adventure.
But here, on these emptying acres of concrete, a long-awaited moment of calm, and a slow exhale.
“We survived another season,” Rex says, and high-fives Melissa. “We’re still alive."