The life of a Queenstown daredevil

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The closest Queenstown adventure flying veteran Chuck Berry has come to death was, funnily enough, on a motorcycle. 

Berry – who pushes the limits hang-gliding, paragliding, base jumping, skydiving and flying his wingsuit – fell asleep and crashed going more than 120km per hour during a West Coast road trip in 1997. 

“I tumbled it out and ended up on my feet – I couldn’t believe it.” 

Still, the aviation thrill-seeker had four screws and a plate inserted into a broken neck and spent months in bed in a brace. It took two years before he could properly work again. 

At the time, the former Air New Zealand aircraft engineer was a freefall cameraman for a Queenstown tandem skydiving operation now known as NZONE. 

“All of a sudden skydiving was out of the question for quite some time,” Berry recalls, but he optimistically set about carving out a new career as a cameraman and editor, starting a production company. 

“There’s nothing like an accident like that, when I came within an ace of either killing myself or becoming paralysed, to realise just how lucky I was to be able to get out of bed and wiggle my toes.” 

When fully recovered, he returned to his passion for flying with vigour. 

Energy drink company Red Bull first sponsored him in a major way back in 1999 and he’s been with them ever since, and is now their longest-serving NZ athlete. 

It’s a partnership that’s enabled him to travel the world fulfilling some of his wildest dreams and doing stunts. 

Berry, who lives up the Crown Range, has skydived into a Singapore beach party, leapt from a plane into an Indian Premier League cricket fixture as pre-match entertainment and spent three days base-jumping off the world’s fourth-
highest tower in Malaysia. 

And that’s just a sample. 

When interviewed for this story last month, he was heading to South Korea to fly a parachute at a Red Bull extreme sports festival, and China to base-jump off the world’s third highest road bridge. 

“It’s been a wonderful relationship. I’ve got to meet so many of my heroes, travel around the world and do some absolutely incredible things with people I’ve looked up to.” 

His latest adventure, which forms part of his new film Airborne: The Life of Chuck Berry, involves a mission in a microlight plane he co-owns and assembled. 

The flick, in the Adventure Film Festival starting in Queenstown tomorrow night, tracks his search for a new cliff that he then base jumps off – as well as a seafood dive on coastal NZ. 

Berry, guest speaker at the first screening tomorrow, insists he’s no crazy man. 

“What I do may well be crazy for many other people but for me with my background and training and all the jumps I’ve done, it’s not crazy at all.” 

Though his lifestyle has pushed him to the edge at times – including a jaw-dropping great escape in 2007 when hang-gliding acrobatics went horribly wrong in Queenstown. 

On New Year’s Day during a speed dive from Coronet Peak, the wings of his hang-glider ripped off mid-air.
It left Berry plummeting with friends looking on in horror. 

“Once the wings broke off, the cockpit cage I was sitting in also broke up because of the massive forces generated,” Berry recalls. 

“I was spat outside the cockpit cage but still attached to it by a harness. I’m freefalling with the wreckage of the cockpit two metres above me and that’s where the reserve parachute is. 

“So I had to climb up to get hold of the cage – I was doing over 200km per hour at this stage – find the handle that was flapping … and open my parachute. 

“The really funny thing is when the damn wings came off … it just seemed like a scene from a Bond movie – I could hear the orchestra in the background,” he says. 

Berry got the parachute open six seconds before thundering into some hawthorn on the lower slopes of Coronet Peak but says he wasn’t scared until he saw the very small reserve open. 

“I was coming out of the sky so fast it wasn’t funny.” 

Berry ended up with concussion, a prickle in his wrist and scratch on his knee. 

“I walked off the hill under my own steam.” 

Berry adds: “If I hadn’t spent a lifetime doing dangerous things I’d be dead by now. 

“You’ve got to be in tune with what you’re doing, be really comfortable with flying or being in freefall – you’re packing a lot of excitement and decisions into a handful of seconds and you really have to perform to your utmost because you’re delivering the performance of your life.” 

All you need to know
What
: Airborne: The Life of Chuck Berry (26 mins)
Where: Reading Cinemas
When: Friday, 8pm, Saturday, 3pm
Cost: $20, $15

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