Arthur Williams: "The way airlines handle wheelchair users causes me enormous amounts of frustration and anger"
The ex-Marine has a close call in Siberia in Flying to the Ends of the Earth - but says even ordinary trips can be upsetting if you use a wheelchair
On Sunday, the second series of Flying to the Ends of the Earth gets off to a dramatic start. Arthur Williams' quest to land at the most remote and dangerous airstrips takes him to the world's coldest settlement – Omyakon in Siberia.
After visiting a giant open-cast diamond mine five times deeper than the cliffs of Dover, he heads even further north to hang out with ice divers. But when one of the helicopters crashes in thick snow, his crew are forced to abandon flying in favour of a six-hour drive along treacherous ice roads.
Below, the former Royal Marine tells us why the crash really shook him up. He also explains why travelling by plane can be frustrating and demeaning for wheelchair users, and why he finds presenting the Paralympics more nerve-wracking than flying.
The Siberia episode was the first time I’ve ever seen you lose your…
Shit? It looks dramatic but it doesn’t really do justice to what it was like being out there. It was terrifying. I was in shock for a good couple of hours after it happened. I think everybody was.
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Why were you so terrified?
That’s the most isolated I’ve been anywhere in the world and when it’s minus 25 degrees – which it was – and the helicopter is the only means of getting out of there by air and quickly, it becomes a big deal. If anybody had been injured, there wouldn’t have been a chance to get them out. I don’t think they’d have survived.
I was shaking for a long time. We lost two members of the crew. The next morning we woke up and found one guy crying – this big tattooed motorcyclist. He was so scared he just wanted to get out of there. And we had another member of the team claiming they had PTSD as a result of it.
So how did you get out?
Because of the nature of the terrain – frozen rivers, lakes, dense pine forests, mountains, cliffs – it took them about 72 hours to clear a road with a tractor so we could get out by 4x4.
The helicopter minus its tail rotor
So it's not somewhere you’ll be returning to in the near future?
I won’t be going back to Siberia. Not if you bloody paid me. Don’t get me wrong, when the shit hits the fan like that, that is when life is at its best because you really see people's true colours and it tests you against nature. It’s one of the worst things that’s happened to me but it’s a story and a memory that I’ve got, and it’s all as important as the good stuff.
Any other hairy moments in series two?
All of the landings that we do are hairy. If anybody had a slightly nervous disposition towards flying, they’d be terrified. But that's just standard for us: we fly with crazy pilots in crazy airplanes to crazy airstrips. In the last episode, we fly to a goldmine in Peru. It required two really qualified captains to fly a small airplane about 10ft from the cliff edge and land it on a runway that’s really, really tight and nestled in the Andes mountains. That was quite hairy.
What are you out to prove with Flying to the Ends of the Earth?
I want to prove to myself that I’m capable of doing these things still. I don’t really care what anybody else thinks. I love being out in nature and in the environments that we go to. And I love going to the ends of the earth. Saint Augustine of Hippo famously said: “The world is a book those who do not travel read only one page.” I love that and it’s so true: the world is so culturally different everywhere. It’s a shame if you don’t get the opportunity to see that.
Arthur shovels a path in Siberia
When did you get the travel bug?
When you join the Marines, you go to these far-flung places on your own and with your mates. That’s where the wanderlust began. My car crash nine years ago put me in a restrictive position and I still want to prove that I'm able to see these beautiful places, and probably will want to until the day I die. I’m not going to let the legs or lack thereof to stop me.
How do you find air travel when you're not at the controls?
Aircrafts by their nature are quite hard things to get into even if you’re able-bodied, but the way airlines handle wheelchair users causes me enormous amounts of frustration and anger. Because it’s the only time in my life where I can’t control myself. You have to rely on other people to help you out and I hate that.
How could airlines improve the experience?
I’ve spent hours, days, weeks probably, thinking about how you can make the process better rather than having to get in those horrible little aisle chairs. The system works fine but it’s not very good for people’s self-esteem, independence and morale.
You have to get into a horrible little chair and somebody pushes you to your seat, and they put your chair in the hold. Every time you want to go to the toilet, you have to ring the bell and they put you in the aisle chair and take you to the toilet. It’s demeaning and I hate it. You’re not in control and you have to rely upon somebody else. Often people with no use of their legs have less time to know they need to the toilet, so they don’t have the luxury of waiting for somebody to assemble the aisle chair.
That fact that you’re segregated from other passengers is not great. And if there are steps, you have to wait for the ambi-lift to turn up. You’re always the first on the aircraft and the last off. It’s just not a pleasant way of travelling. They can do it much better, I’m sure. We’re due a big step in that and I’d like to pioneer it if I can.
Which countries are leading the way in accessibility?
Peru is a developing country but Lima was bloody fantastic. Generally, developing countries lack the most basic accessibility provisions even in the capital, but you couldn't fault Lima. In many ways, it was better than London.
America and Canada are up there with the best. I remember coming back from Canada thinking that they were so wheelchair-friendly it almost felt patronising! Everything was geared up to it and I’m used to struggling a bit.
In September, you’re off to Rio for the Paralympics. Do you have to do much prep?
Lots and lots! Our production team creates a bible on all the athletes and their key stats. Because it’s live, you have to do your best to learn about every single athlete and there are just shy of 5000 athletes going. Then you also need to know how the 23 sports work, the competition format, the implications of certain results...
How nerve-wracking is live TV compared to flying?
Infinitely more nerve-wracking. I don’t get nervous when I fly, but live television is horrendous!
Have you been to Brazil before?
No, Peru was my first time in South America. Hopefully I’ll have time to soak up at least the Olympic Park and maybe the city.
I’d like to see the favelas because that’s the real underbelly of Rio. You’re going to get a rose-tinted view of what the Brazilian officials want you to see, but it’s not the real city. You want to be able to see the guts of it, how it works and the people that live there. But because we’re there with a sports production company rather than an events production company, they’re a bit like: 'No, don’t go there because you’ll be mugged and killed.'
When you do take an actual holiday, what do you do?
Beach holidays. Me and the wife just relax on a sun lounger and take it easy. We recently went to the Maldives for our honeymoon. We got married in November but hadn’t had the chance to go. So we went when I got back from Russia. We read our books by the pool and drank far too many cocktails, and then I got bored and got my diving qualification! Becs loves chilling out and I do to a point, but then the hyperactive child inside me breaks out and I have to do something.
What’s still on your bucket list?
I need to explore Africa in a big way. I’ve been to Sierra Leone, Senegal, Tunisia, but I want to explore much more. The landscape is so beautiful.
More flying qualifications – I will do as many of those as I can. I want to do an aerobatics course so I’m going to try out an aerobatic plane on Saturday, a big old Russian trainer. And I’m hoping to do my flight instructor course in the next two years so I can teach.
Flying to the Ends of the Earth begins on Sunday 31st July on Channel 4 at 8pm
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