License to thrill

Nearly a year ago, Kiwi freeskier Byron Wells fell while filming the documentary, "Winter of Wells," and tore his ACL. It was a season-ending injury for him, and he was forced to sit out last winter's contest season to let his knee recover. While he was taking the time off from skiing, though, Wells picked up another skill: He got his private pilot helicopter license. We talked to him about rehab, flying a chopper, and his plans for getting back on snow.

When you fell while filming, did you just know the season was over?
At first I didn't think I had blown my knee. I thought all I had done was broken a bone of some kind. I remember the doc saying, 'I'm just going to test your ACL.' He yanked on my knee and I felt nothing. He didn't even say anything and he didn't have to. I lost it, I haven't cried or been upset over an injury in a long time. Just the thought of not being able to ski for six to nine months hit me so hard.

How did you decide to get your helicopter pilot license?
Just before I got injured I started my helicopter private pilot license so getting hurt gave me a lot of time to fly and study. I have always wanted to give flying a chopper a go -- I mean who wouldn't? A few people around me told me I couldn't become a pilot, that it would be too hard. All that did was give me more motivation. I was in Keystone filming with Poor Boyz Productions in May last year and when we got done with the heli for the day, I skied down and talked to the pilot. He said, "If you can do what you do skiing then you can fly one of these." I called mum that night and said, "Mum, I want to be a heli pilot!" I think she thought I was kidding. I now have my private pilot helicopter license and have started work on my commercial license, which I hope to finish by 2015.

What has been the hardest part of rehab?
The hardest part was seeing everyone post about skiing and comps on Facebook and Twitter. I ended up blocking out the posts and removed myself from the whole industry for most of the New Zealand summer. The weirdest part of summer was not seeing [my brother] Jossi. It was the longest we hadn't seen each other -- normally we spend most days with each other. He used Tupac's line a lot to keep me grounded: "Even though we broke for the moment we'll be ballin' again." It's our motto when one of us gets hurt.

Are you planning on competing in New Zealand this winter?
As of now the plan is to compete. I will just have to see how the knee is when the comps roll around. I spent the first few days in Whistler where I'm training now just sliding the little rails trying to get my feet back under me. I had no idea how kooky I would feel after 11 months off. On my third day I did a back 270 out of a flat bar. It was truly the coolest feeling and reminded me why I ski in the first place.

[Video by Jase Hancox of Basket Productions.]

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