King Island Death Trap

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All Photos: Duncan Macfarlane

Mitch Crews and Jack Freestone grew up together on Australia’s Gold Coast and their relationship has known many faces. Friends. Travel partners. Rivals. Roommates. In the past few years they’ve taken on the world together in pursuit of their WCT dreams. Mitch realized the dream in late 2013, and Jack isn’t far behind. In one way or another they’ve always lived their lives together and recently, as suggested in Mitch’s words above, they almost died together.

With a short break in their schedules, the boys saw an opportunity to do a good old-fashioned surf trip together. No obligations. No jerseys. No points. Just a few days sharing empty beachbreak barrels on King Island, a notoriously hard-to-forecast destination located halfway between Melbourne and Tasmania. So they hopped a plane from the Gold Coast to Melbourne, then another one from Melbourne bound for King Island. But what went up almost came down — hard. Mitch gives us a candid account of what was almost his last flight. —Zander Morton

MITCH: Duncan [Macfarlane], Jack and I had been watching the swell maps for King Island for a while — it’s really hard to get the conditions over there just right. Finally a swell popped up, everyone was home at the same time and even though it wasn’t looking ideal, we figured we’d give it a shot. Jack and I jumped a flight from the Goldie to Melbourne, where Duncan was, and then we were all meant to take another flight to the island together.

Our flight was delayed from the Gold Coast, so we were only going to have 30 minutes to make our connection. We called Duncan just before we took off and we asked him, “Do you reckon you could ask the airline to hold the flight for us?” And he was like, “I’ll try my best, but what airline holds a flight for two blokes?” But it was a small outfit, only doing one flight a day, so we were hoping they would.

We landed in Melbourne in gnarly conditions; like 60 mph winds ripping roofs off houses and shit. We called Duncan right away and we’re like, “We’ve landed! How’s everything going? Are they gonna let us on?” He goes, “Dude, the flight to King’s been canceled. The weather is too gnarly.” And we just went, “What now?”

Duncan pulled up his laptop and finds this dodgy airline called King Island Express. They operate off-site at some little airport nearby. So we called them and asked, “Are you guys flying today?” And the chick’s like, “Yeah, of course, we fly 365 days a year. Why’s that?” And we’re like, “Oh, sick. Rex Airlines isn’t flying today.” She just goes, “Really? Oh, well, that’s silly! We’re flying.” So we drove over there and checked in and we were psyched, because we knew the strong winds meant the next morning the beachies would be really good.

Then we see the plane. It’s tiny. The smallest commercial plane I’ve ever seen — our surfboards boards barely fit inside. So that was a bit unnerving and then we see the pilot and he’s, like, 85 years old. We were all thinking, “Well, this guy doesn’t give a f–k, he’s lived a long life, he doesn’t care if he goes down.” And at this point it was really, really windy, so we’re all freaking out. We take off, and right away we know we’re doomed. We get up and this big front comes over the plane, and all of a sudden — darkness. Just deep black. We’re shitting ourselves, holding on to each other, going, “This is really stupid. I wanna go back.” We’re freaking and the pilot goes, “Oh yeah, I’ve been through way gnarlier than this. Don’t worry.”

After 45 minutes of bouncing and dropping and total blackness, he punches through this cloud and puts us out in the open. The flight was only meant to be 45 minutes but we ended up flying another hour, I guess because he was maneuvering us through crazy shit. We sat in silence, just tripping the entire way. There was a reason why Rex Airlines wasn’t flying — it was not safe to be up in those conditions. And even though the pilot wouldn’t admit it, he was freaking, just white-knuckling the joystick.

So we’re flying in the open for a while but as we’re about to land, another front comes over the runway — more blackness — and there was no way around it. The pilot, who had been silent for an hour, tells us, “Shit, it’s looking pretty gnarly to land.” And we just beg him, “Please. Please get us out of here, mate.” And so he charges, and just as he’s coming in to land, the plane goes sideways and we drop at least 100 feet. I really, truly thought it was over, and the pilot was tripping — just losing his shit. We’re all like, “F–k, we’re dead. We’re all f–ked,” as we’re dropping like a rock. And then he grabs the controls, gets us flying straight, puts us 20 feet from the runway and goes, “Shit, I can’t land this thing,” and flies us out of there again. Had he not regained control when he did, we would have died. So we’re all shaking, yelling, “Get us on the ground! Please, just get us on the ground.” And he goes, “OK, I’ll try. I’m gonna do another loop.” So he does a loop and he’s looking down at the runway and this 85-year-old pilot is not OK. He’s white in the face. The plane is still being thrown sideways, dropping up and down, and I was sure we were going to crash. I really braced for it. And he comes in and we can see the ground but the plane is still being whipped every which way. We get closer. Closer. We’re still bouncing up and down until finally, somehow, one of the bounces is actually the wheels touching the ground. We’d made it.

We taxied in silence for a few minutes, just reflecting on how close we were to going down. And then as soon as the plane stopped we got out and just f–king broke down. We all hugged each other. Just so happy to be on solid ground. It was the absolute worst flight ever. The surf was pumping the next few days, though.

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