Skysailor > May 2005
Siberian Migration

 

(Article compiled by Richard Lockhart, translations by Luc Gondard)

Angelo d'Arrigo, former hang gliding champion, began his Metamorphosis Project in the year 2000, an ambitious endeavour mixing sport, ecology and naturalism, aimed at discovering the secrets of flight and the migratory routes of the greatest soaring birds across five continents. The following article tells the story of part two of that project - Siberian Migration - in which Angelo introduced the Siberian crane, a species facing extinction, back to its natural habitat.

The migration was undertaken in collaboration with the Russian Research Institute For Nature and Protection (ARRINP), and was a huge experiment for the international scientific community. Biologists who followed the expedition across Siberia included Alexander Sorokin, Youri Markin, Tatiana Zhouchkova and Natacha Pustovit, all members of the University of Biology of Moscow and the ARRINP. Claire Mirande, director of the USA's International Crane Foundation (ICF), also joined the team.

Angelo led a flock of Siberian cranes (born in captivity and facing extinction) for 5,300km in his hang glider, from the ice cap in the Arctic Circle to the Caspian Sea on the Iranian plateau after crossing Siberia. This exhausting adventure lasted for six months, finishing in winter 2002. Siberian Migration became the longest glider flight in history, but above all helped with the rebirth of a nearly extinct species.

The elegant, long-limbed and long-lived Siberian crane has been ravaged by a shrinking habitat and hunting, especially among a subgroup of the tiny remaining population that has been risking the combat zone of Afghanistan on its annual migration from north of the Arctic circle to its wintering place in a national park in India. In the wild, fewer than 20 of the western Siberian cranes are left. The scientists believe that d'Arrigo may prove the cranes' salvation by teaching them a migration route that avoids Afghanistan and Pakistan - where they fall victim to the abundant guns in the hands of tribal fighters - and which would then, scientists hope, be passed on from parent to fledgling for generations of cranes to come.

Here, Angelo tells us about the mission - preparation, equipment, and the flight itself.

Preparation

Q- Did the chicks really hatch under your hang glider wing?
A- Yes, they did! We built a nest under my Stratos and a dozen crane chicks hatched in May. The first things they saw after hatching were the silhouette of my wing and myself.

Q- How much time did you spend with the chicks before the migration flight?
A- I spent three months at the Breeding Centre For Cranes of Oka Biosphere Government Nature Reserve (Russia). I was able to take part in the life of the chicks right from hatching, teaching them to walk, to feed, to wash and then to fly!

Q- What did you do to make the chicks believe you were their father?
A- The imprinting phase is crucial, as the smallest mistake on your part, or any fear you give the chicks, will make them realise you are not from the same species, that you are not their father...  and then it's all over. You've lost their trust and they will escape!

Q- In the end do you think the crane chicks really believed you were their father?
A- Those chicks followed me walking on the ground, then flying in the sky for five months. For sure, when we had to part after having flown together thousands of kilometres, the chicks were missing something... this something was their dad! But hey, c'est la vie... It was emotional for me too, but that was part of the project...

Q- Did you have specific physical training for this vol-bivouac across Siberia?
A- Since the planning stage we knew this flight was going to be very long and very difficult. In nature the average daily duration of a migration flight is between 15-16 hours per day. My average daily flight has been of four hours; some days I flew eight hours, and believe me it is very hard when conditions in Siberia are difficult and unstable. So I trained specifically in that regard for a year. Apart from the flying, the training was based on physical endurance and on cardio endurance. For the physical training I found a very simple and efficient device: it's an electrostimulator Compex (Swiss made). This personal electric trainer allowed me, before and during the expedition, to train specific muscles under stress during longs flights.

Equipment

Q- What are the characteristics of your hang glider?
A- In a previous part of my Metamorphosis Project, I used an Atos to cross the Sahara Desert in free flight, about 1000km of desert. I fell in love with this glider! For the Siberia Migration I chose the new model: the Stratos. This glider is designed by Icarro 2000. After the first test flights I had to get some structural modifications done to suit my personal requirements. It's a fantastic wing! During the Siberian Migration, I was able to cross a quarter of the Earth in free-flying without braking a downtube or been tired after a long flight!! The real best gliding ratio is 19:1 and maximum useable speed is 90km/h (you could fly faster, but it's more like falling off rather than flying!).

Q- What sort of harness did you use?
A- For the vol-bivouac above the Ob river, middle of North Occidental Siberia, I had to have gear which enabled me to take off with an engine on flat land. Then, after switching the engine off, I had to be able to thermal without being handicapped by drag, weight or inertia etc... I found a great solution, the motorised harness! After switching off the engine, the propeller folded back and it's like flying after foot launching from a mountain! The "Mosquito" from Swedish Aerosport is an excellent compromise which allowed me to launch from flat land, then fly in thermals with the engine switched off as if it wasn't there. This treasure is mounted on a Woody Valley harness, which is as comfortable as a first class seat!

Q- What did you wear?
A- Well, North Siberia is obviously very cold, even during the Arctic summer. At that time of the year there is no night, but the temperature went under -25C several times when the sun was low on the horizon. When the sun was at its highest in the sky the thermometer never exceeded +10C! So you need isotherms, clothes used in Himalayan mountaineering made of Gore-Tex, which lets skin perspiration evaporate through the fabric instead of freezing inside.

Q- Any other special gear?
A- Flight instruments are very important. During those two months my only source of information was my GPS and my altivario. But one of our biggest problems was a source of power for the instruments in a country that doesn't sell batteries or have power points. So Digifly (Italy) set up for me a Graviter (alti/vario/GPS) powered by two solar panels. It's really cool not to have to think about recharging batteries! We have to learn how to tap into natural energy to see how fantastic it is to be able to rely on it.

Q- What about the support team?
A- The biologist team supported me all the way through this long, never-ending flight! Starting by boat for 1600km along the Ob River, the team then continued for 2800km by 4x4 truck in Southern Siberia and the Kazakhstan Desert.

Q- What about the media aspect?
A- The trip was filmed at all stages by a team of camera men. National Geographic is putting together a documentary.

Q- What sort of food did you take with you?
A- When the support team was travelling by boat, we couldn't meet regularly, so we had to plan a meeting point every three or four days. In between these meetings I had to have enough food and a minimum of fuel to take off each day. And all of that was not to exceed 10kg! I had my survival equipment in my harness plus my food, which was "garbage" dry food - absolutely tasteless but very light and provides the necessary energy. When on the third day the team would arrive with real food it was a dream... At the end of the trip I had lost 10kg, and considering I only weigh 70kg that's a fair weight loss!

Flight

Q- What was the starting date?
A- We arrived at the Polar Arctic Circle on 15 August. After twelve days of local flying we started the migration flight.

Q- How many cranes took part in the trip?
A- My flock included six Siberian cranes who would share the marginal vortexes in a formation of three on my left wing and three on my right wing! The ones closest to the wing hardly flapped their wings as they were using the ascending phase of these wing-tip vortexes!

Q- How many cranes made it to the end of the trip?
A- I started with six cranes, and I arrived at the destination with six cranes... plus one... this journey started my real metamorphosis to such an extent that at the end of the trip, to regroup the cranes in flight, I wasn't using the recorded calls anymore, but I was using my own voice. According to the biologists my imitation of their calls was perfect.

Q- Anyone lagging behind?
A- In thermals the formation brakes up. It's like in competition, everyone on their own! At the end of the thermal I always came out first, and from time to time one of the cranes would enjoy the climbing and slow down its exit of the thermal, but they always caught up with me pretty quickly. We had set up some loud speakers on my wing tips with a CD player on which we had recorded a parent's voice calling for its chicks during a flight. So when a crane was lagging behind I would call it!

Q- What were the weather conditions like?
A- From the 67 to 37 latitude the weather conditions were extremely different, just like from the Polar Circle to the Iranian Desert!

Q- Were was your starting point?
A- We left from Salekhard on the Ob's estuary, which opens into the Arctic Ocean. Located in far North Siberia, Salekhard is the last town before the ice cap on the Yamal land where the Nenets people live. "Yamal" in the Nenets language means "end of the earth"...

Q- Where did you finally arrive?
A- On the south shores of the Caspian Sea in Iran, where a line separates Iran and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, those territories are more known to the international community for their recent political events than the beauty of their landscapes, which I really enjoyed when flying. In fact, the contrast between desert and the Caspian Sea at 6000m altitude above Teheran gives this land an incredible beauty.

Q- What was the total distance of the flight? Was it FAI certified?
A- The total distance was 4500km. It's not a sport record, but a scientific record, which will lead to other similar actions.

Q- At what altitude did you fly?
A- My average above the Polar Circle was 2500m, although I reached a maximum of 4500m above the Aral Desert.

Q- Using thermals?
A- Thermals, thermals, and more thermals...

Q- At what time did you take off and land?
A- Usually I would take-off at about 11am and land at about 5pm.

Q- When did you use the engine?
A- I did all my take-offs under power then turned off the engine at about 500m altitude to continue in free-flying. I almost never used the engine to move along the flight, but I didn't hesitate to use it when having problems like no landing, too low to catch a thermal, etc.

Q- How many days did it take to complete the flight?
A- The total duration of the mission was four months, in which I flew 50 days.

Q- What were the biggest problems encountered when flying?
A- Very strong winds and the cold in North Siberia.

Q- How did you survive?
A- Just holding on, bracing myself....

Q- How did you communicate with the support team?
A- We used radios whilst in the air and satellite phones on the ground. Sometimes the vegetation was so dense that when using my phone I had to climb to the top of trees to catch signals from satellites!

Q- How were the cranes faring when you finally arrived at your destination?
A- Everybody was happy to have arrived: the pilot, the birds, the biologists, the cameramen, everyone!

Q- What effect did the trip have on you?
A- It was a very long trip, a great adventure at a scientific and a human level, with major uncertainties along the way regarding the success of the expedition. Those major problems were successfully eliminated by the will power of the team members to succeed. Without them I would never have been able to live the adventure. The Siberian Migration helped me understand even better the way birds fly and thermal. I got deeper into the heart of my project by understanding the parent's role for the birds, to whom I taught flying, how to core thermals, and how to follow a migratory route.

Q- Hang gliding is declining steadily (the number of free flights are currently decreasing) but the evolution in wing design still grows. What are your thoughts on this?
A- It's great to see that money is not the only motive for things to happen, that a great passion is still a strong motive for manufacturers and projects to happen. The saturated state of the hang gliding market doesn't prevent the continuing evolution of the technology, and that's fantastic.

Q- What do you think of other forms of flying, like paragliding and ultralighting etc?
A- I am an "air addict", so everything that can fly is for me a miracle which humans can enjoy. I do prefer flying without noise or vibrations (hang gliding or paragliding), however flying is fantastic! I have my gliding license, my aircraft license, and last year I did some solo hours in command of a helicopter.

Q- How far will the "Metamorphosis Project" take you? Until you start growing feathers?
A- Metamorphosis was born as a personal project, which then had an evolution, a scientific purpose, and is still continuing to change in its approach. Personally, I still continue to gain an understanding of the flying, and the world situation, of the big birds on our planet. Getting closer to their flying technique, even their flight instinct, may seem unrealistic, but my passion is taking me in that direction. And as long as I can use my legs to launch my glider and my arms to fly it, I shall enjoy coring thermals, diving into clouds, and skirting above trees atop cliffs...

Sub-ed note: This article brings us up to date with Angelo's Metamorphosis Project: Part I, Following the Hawks (2001), featured in our March 2005 issue; Part II, Siberian Migration (2002), featured above; and Part III, Flying Over Everest (2004), featured in our December 2004 issue. Angelo is currently in preparation for his next adventure - South Pol'Air - due to be completed 2006, in which he will attempt to cross the Antarctic ice-cap with the giant albatross, using soaring flight alone.

 

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