Driven To Extremes
Written by Kate Williams
Photos supplied by Mac Mackenney
It seems that those who create a business which really helps people, seem to have to fight harder to realise their aspirations. Mac Mackenney lost his dream career as an RAF pilot following a mental illness, but is now dedicated to helping veteran soldiers overcome Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) with his adventure tour company, Driven to Extremes. He told me of the struggle to drive it forward at times but he is fighting for more than just a job, he is fighting to save others…
Starting a business from the heart is not always an easy ride, but it is almost always worthwhile. But this was not the original life plan for Andrew ‘Mac’ Mackenney. Since he was a six-year-old boy, Mac had only ever dreamed of being and RAF pilot. It was all he wanted.
His parents moved to East Devon when he was 18 and Mac joined the Army as a helicopter technician with the Rapid Deployment Unit. Having always wanted to be a pilot in the Air Force, Mac’s journey there was not straight forward as a health check flagged up a slight heart murmur – but he fought for his dream and became a trainee RAF fighter pilot. “I had it all,” he recalls. “I had everything in my life that I could have ever wanted. And then it all went wrong and it cost me my career.”
Excelling as an officer and being made a senior cadet with great success on his first pilot’s course, Mac was earmarked for single-seat jet, meaning he was good enough to fly without a navigator. Part-way through his second course though, things took an unexpected turn ending in disaster.
“I came home one weekend and I went to the bank where a friend of mine’s mum worked. Whilst I was waiting in the queue, she came out and dragged me to the side and told me her daughter had just been raped. She hadn’t told her husband as they had just buried his father the previous week and she was worried about him.
“She said would I go and see the daughter. She was a nurse and her mother was worried that she would know what to take to end things. “So, instead of relaxing at the end of each week – as trying to be a fighter pilot is hard work, it’s incredibly demanding, physically and mentally – I found myself travelling from Lincolnshire to here [Devon] just to basically try to stop this girl from killing herself.
“Her mum was telling me the doctors and psychiatrists were saying I was the only person keeping her alive and if it wasn’t for me she probably would have killed herself by now.”
It wasn’t surprising that the immense pressure finally took its toll.
Driving back to Lincolnshire after another weekend of seeing his troubled friend, Mac remembers drinking two litres of cola just to get enough sugar and caffeine in him to make the 260-mile journey.
“I was knackered and I shouldn’t have been flying the next morning but I did. So at 8 o’clock, I was up. Your bodyweight is six times its normal weight so all the blood drains out of your head and you have to strain like mad to stop yourself blacking out.
“I did a loop, and I just didn’t have the strength to do it, I wasn’t concentrating properly and then I suddenly had a massive panic attack.
“I thought I was just going to pass out with fear. I was hyperventilating in the cockpit, totally enclosed.
“I thought if I was going to pass out completely and I’m on my own, my last conscious effort has to be to grab the ejector seat handle. It would hit a school and a hospital, it would kill people, I’d be court-marshalled, world news. I couldn’t face the consequences of ejecting from a perfectly-serviceable aircraft. So, I thought, I’d got to go down with it. But I was 26 and I didn’t want to die.”
He managed to land the aircraft safely, after two attempts, and kept quiet about the incident but shortly after, Mac admitted his issues and lost his beloved RAF job.
“I lost everything. I cut myself off from everyone. I saw lots of doctors and psychiatrists and have had many problems since. It has shaped my life,” he admits. “People say everything happens for a reason but I just couldn’t figure out that reason.”
Mac then travelled to Africa and worked driving backpackers around, which gave him some thinking time and he realised he liked vehicle expedition.
After wondering how he could make money from this, Mac set up Max Adventure and he has taken part in some amazing trips and expeditions over the years, including being right-hand man to Sir Ranulph Fiennes on his North Pole trip, taking actor Tom Hardy to Siberia to drive the world’s coldest road for a Discovery Channel series and organising the logistics for the largest ever medical research expedition on Everest. “But it never answered the ‘everything happens for a reason’ question as I would rather be in the Air Force,” he explains.
In 2005, Mac was involved in a project for motor firm Vauxhall and had a reality check. He explains: “I saw some people much worse off than me and thought, come on, Mackenney, sort yourself out. That reinvigorated my life.”
It was after this that he had the idea to include some armed forces veterans suffering with PTSD on a trip. The plan paid off and Mac has organised a number of tours since then.
Driven to Extremes is the Community Interest Company which Mac operates as an adventure tour business, taking clients to far-off places on driving adventures in clapped out old cars – but with the added ambition of helping veteran soldiers.
“My theory behind it is on the first trip we get the veterans out of the house, the second trip they act as support crew – helping to organise work on the vehicles – and the third trip, they lead it.
“When I was low, I missed my mates, the challenge, the team – that was another reason for using old bangers, it meant they had to work as a team. It needs to be pushed, shoved, repaired, towed, dug out – it’s really tough!
“The trip builds up their [the veterans’] confidence, self-esteem. They’re utilising all the military skills they probably don’t realise they have.”
Celebrity names including Tom Hardy, Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Carl Fogarty are among the supporters of Driven to Extremes, but this fledgling charitable company has its highs and lows.
“There are two main highs to running Driven to Extremes,” Mac explains. “Seeing veterans smiling, being happy again and buzzing from the experience of one of our adventures gives me huge sense of satisfaction and pride.
“The other high is when big companies offer to support the project as it’s a vote of confidence from them in that they believe in me and my ideas and have faith that I can deliver what I’m promising.
“One of the main lows of running this business is having to do it on my own. Being such a small organisation, we don’t have the money to pay anyone (including myself), so it relies on enthusiastic volunteers who really believe in what they are doing.
“We have a fantastic team of volunteers, but they all have day jobs that take up most of their time – doctors, medics, mechanics, etc. I alone plan the adventures and bring in the sponsors, so when I have a good day I have no one to share it with, but equally, when I have a bad day there’s no one to lift me up.
“The hardest part I find is not the planning, training or leading, but more normal business-related tasks of sales and marketing. These are two areas I have no skills in and really struggle with.”
Mac is determined to build this project and make this charitable company a financially worthwhile business but he could do with some support. He explains: “I need somewhere to store all my stuff – a friendly farmer who would like to help out with a barn maybe. And anybody on the financial side, to help with money. I can get the kit, I’ve got most of it.
“I need somewhere to operate from, someone to help with sales, marketing, operation. The big dream would be a workshop, office and bunkhouse accommodation for the veterans to feel back in the team again whilst working on the vehicles, getting them ready.
“I’d like to grow it to the point where we can offer different trips all over the world, the veterans would be preparing, promoting and taking the tours. It would stand on it’s own to feet.”
The next Driven to Extremes trip is the Dakar Challenge in March – a 21-day adventure where teams in Citroen Berlingos, worth no more than £500, will attempt to drive the original Dakar Rally route through Morocco, whilst fundraising in support of military veterans suffering from PTSD.
Mac says the most rewarding part of his job is witnessing the change in the veterans.
“Taking someone who has been suffering from PTSD for many years on an adventure and seeing the difference in them at the end of the trip is like watching someone being reborn,” he says.
“I’m incredibly proud of the projects I’ve put together and seeing first hand how it’s helped them come out of their shell and re-engage with society.
“We’ve helped 17 veterans so far. My doctor friend said that’s a phenomenally high success rate for mental health issues.
“Having suffered mental health problems myself which cost me my RAF career, the more guys and girls I help, the more it helps me come to terms with something that I’d been battling with for the previous 25 years.
“As a proud military officer, the shame of having a mental health problem caused me to withdraw into myself and shut myself off from the world.
“Helping others is making sense of what I went through myself. If I hadn’t suffered myself, I wouldn’t have the motivation or understanding to help others. It has finally clicked into place that things happen for a reason.”
If you would like to get involved in Driven to Extremes, contact Mac at firstname.lastname@example.org.