Best of ExplorersWeb 2004 Awards: Flight of the Eagles - Angelo's story |
Jan 6, 2005 00: 01 EST
E=mc˛. When Einstein summarized the relationship between energy, mass and speed of light in this elegant, simple formula - he gave the shivers to a world of physicists.
At ExWeb, sometimes we get expeditions that feels like that. Our fingers literally tremble as we type up their story and work their images. Even if only for a brief moment in time, we are part of making the world plain beautiful.
Angelo's story was one such moment.
The real stuff
Out of the hundreds of awesome expeditions we covered this past year, 8 stood out as absolutely outstanding. Those were no superficial "Grand Slams" created for oblivious media. They were Adventures celebrated by Adventurers. They were the real stuff.
A remarkable flight Over Everest made it to the top three.
Angelo's end of the rope
FlyMicro stunned the entire mountain as they came soaring toward the summit. Wide eyed climbers near the top awed at the sight of a Microlight with a hang glider in tow flying up Mount Everest West Face.
In the award story, we ran Richard's (the Microlight pilot) account. One passage said; "I saw Angelo bouncing around a bit in my mirror...there was a slight jerk and I realized we had a line break...I couldn't look round to see him and I didn't see anything in the mirror; by the time I had circled round, Angelo, in a white glider against the vast white background of the upper Khumbu Glacier was nowhere to be seen. Vanished into thin air."
So, what exactly happened Angelo? Here the account straight from the world's only Everest hang glider.
I could see the stars
"On the 24th, I woke at 3.30 am as usual. I could see the stars, but the most important sign was that we were no longer immersed in the mist. We were out of the clouds, and, looking south, I could see the Khumbu valley, also clear. This important sign was precious, because it was the first time that it had happened during our time there, and it showed that the air humidity conditions had changed.
The moment had arrived
I told the team that the moment had arrived. Everyone rapidly and scrupulously prepared all that was necessary for the attempt. Very early morning, we took off to start our upwards journey. I was towed by Richard Meredith piloting the microlight. At this height and in these conditions, take-off is achieved at about 70 km/h, after a long run. We had already been breathing oxygen for about thirty minutes. This essential part of preparation had been decided during the tests performed at the Italian Air Force Centre for Experimental Aerospace Medicine, and it was necessary to eliminate the traces of nitrogen present in the blood in the form of microscopic bubbles. Otherwise these could expand at high altitudes, creating a risk of embolism.
The first rising currents
After take-off, we climbed above Syangboche (3,800 m) until we had reached an altitude of about 5,000 meters, and then we headed for Ama Dablam. After having flown over this splendid mountain, we crossed the glacier and moved towards the buttress between Lhotse and Nuptse, and we skirted the west wall of the latter. Here we found the first rising currents. They were already thermodynamic, even though it was still early. The wind created considerable dynamic uplift.
Turbulence over Everest icefall
Once we had achieved the necessary height, we crossed the crest and moved towards the Everest Icefall, staying close to the north face of Nuptse. In this part of our journey, we went through some powerful turbulence. Then we headed directly towards the peak of Lhotse.
Feather wings touching the jet zone
Then towards Everest. We gradually attained an altitude close to 9,000 meters. While we were in the last stages of our long climb, just downwind from the peak, we encountered some particularly strong turbulence, with notable wind shear. (At these heights, one may even find jet stream currents).
Safety link breaks near Everest South Col!
Near the South Col of Everest, close to the peak, we ran into a gigantic area of rotor turbulence, which dragged the microlight violently downwards, projecting me in the hang-glider upwards at the same time. This caused the towrope to break, at the safety link, which I had regulated at 200 kg (about double the normal setting).
Gliding over Everest
We were at a height of about 9,000 meters, I was 500 meters south of Everest. I released what was left of the towrope and headed for the peak, flying over it soon after.
This was the moment, flying over Everest. I had succeeded in the attempt to fly my hang-glider over the highest mountain in the world.
Diving through thin air
I took some photographs and recorded some video footage of the crossing (the Over Everest documentary was produced by SD Cinematografica). But the flight over the peak lasted just a few seconds. I could not stay in the area for long, because it was still subject to the turbulence that had just snapped the towrope. Staying there became more and more risky. In addition, the low air density drastically increased the rate of descent.
A snap decision
I flew back and forth over the peak one more time, and then I headed for Nuptse, in order to cross the Icefall on my return from the top of Everest.
When I reached Nuptse, I had to make a snap decision. I had two options: to try to return to Syangboche, or look for an alternative landing site.
But I immediately saw that the former option was impossible, because the mist was rising, rapidly becoming banks of cloud that blocked the entire Khumbu valley.
About three hours had gone by, and the clouds had even reached the lower slopes of Ama Dablam. I had all the necessary equipment and the GPS coordinates, but this was certainly not the time to try out flying and landing using instruments alone.
I had another possibility, crossing the Lho La col and landing in Tibet. I had found a location suitable for a landing, a flat area of ice and snow, near the upper base camp (6,400 meters) to the north, just below the pass.
But I wasn’t keen on the idea of spending an indefinite period of time in a Chinese prison. An unauthorized landing on Tibetan territory would have without doubt led to a reaction on the part of the Chinese authorities, Even though it were an emergency, there would have been problems.
In the light of previous experience, I made a different decision. I narrowed down the field of possibility to the Italian CNR research station pyramid, because, during exploration the previous year, I had identified a possible emergency landing site there.
The problem, in fact, was not just that of finding a feasible landing site. It had to be one that could be easily located and reached by people in order to retrieve or rescue me.
The math of survival
I had identified ten possible emergency landing sites. I had marked them all onto a map, with their coordinates. The areas were numbered, and so, after landing, all I had to do was to transmit a number to the team. This would have been sufficient for them to know exactly where I was, so that they could come to fetch me quickly. Even just a broken leg in a remote area could have been fatal.
62 mph 10 feet above ground
So I headed for the pyramid. I gradually lost height, and I started orbiting the pyramid in order to attract attention. When I had reached the right height, I started to prepare for the final approach, for a landing just north of the pyramid. During the final approach, when I was just a few metres from the ground, my speed was still 100 km/h (62 mph).
This was partly due to the fact that I was still at an altitude of over 5,000 meters. In addition, I had a large oxygen cylinder on my back, which increased my rate of descent as well as hindering movement.
So the landing was technically complicated. But in the end, notwithstanding the rough ground, the high speed and the turbulence, I managed to land without any difficulties.
My tears froze
The glider incorporated a few adjustments to suit my flying technique, and a few small modifications for technical reasons. For examples, I moved the flap controls from the control bar to the downtubes, because I needed space for the equipment controlling the video and still cameras fitted to the glider.
Another specific technique used on the wing was a special spray, one used for the mechanical parts of military jets. This lubricant prevented the formation of ice on the surfaces of the Stratos. We flew at temperatures lower than –40° C for hours, and at speeds well over 130 km/h. In those conditions, even my tears froze, and I couldn’t close my eyelids.
God is in the details
It was important to use the wheels for landing, because of the high speed caused by the altitude, along with the weight of the equipment (oxygen cylinder, thermal clothing, three video cameras with recorders and batteries, two still cameras, survival materials, etc...).
The wheels had to be of the right size, and they had to be able to withstand changes of pressure at the different altitudes reached, so that they wouldn’t explode as we climbed. There were many other similar factors that had to be taken into account.
And a fine team
The team is the most important thing for this sort of project. I was the person that flew over Everest, but this would not have been possible without the extraordinary professional skill of a supporting team. Each member of the team had a specific role, and each was indispensable in attaining the final result. Success would have been impossible without the team. First of all, the tow pilot Richard Meredith, who actually established an extraordinary record in the height that he reached, never attained before in a microlight. I have known Richard for years, and I consider him one of the finest pilots of all. A long time ago we were adversaries in microlight competitions, but we later became friends. He now works with me whenever the opportunity arises."
Where the Eagles fly
In the Video, you can also see Angelo's eagle (and Sidney the Altitude Spider's enemy number One - check the Richard Over Everest Award story). One of the missions of the expedition was to learn the eagle to fly and reintroduce her to her native valleys:
"I flew a lot with her in the valley, both using a paraglider and a hang-glider. These flights enabled the eagle to become accustomed to the habitat and the territory.
With the help of the entire team, during the final stage of the expedition we taught the eagle to hunt, so that she could survive independently. In the end we freed her in her native valleys.
Before we released her, I fastened a micro-transmitter onto her, which, by means of a sophisticated system, transmits a signal allowing us to monitor her movements and activities, at the moment in the Solo Khumbu valley. Later we will be able to trace her during her migratory flights."
A last word about the challenge of the flight
"It was incredible to be flying over the highest mountain on earth in a hang-glider. Of course, at that moment there was a lot of tension and concentration, and so I didn’t have much time for philosophical reflection!
In this sort of project, there is no room for error. All sorts of factors had to be taken into account: the flight paths necessary to avoid the many areas of problematic air conditions; the various safety systems linked to the oxygen supply; the formation of ice, which in part covered my eyes; the ice which also tended to block the controls of the hang-glider (-40° C, speed over 100 km/h); and the video and still cameras that recorded and photographed the record attempt.
I also had to keep calm notwithstanding the excitement, in order not to consume the little oxygen that remained. At the same time I had to keep moving certain parts of the body in order not to risk freezing!
So, there wasn’t much time for thinking."
A dedication to two masters who continue to fly across the Universe
But nonetheless, I felt a sensation at that moment, and so I would like to dedicate this extraordinary adventure, Over Everest, to two people who had an important influence on my life, but who are no longer here to share these emotions with me. Two very different men, but who shared the same unique passion for flight and adventure.
I dedicate “Over Everest” to Patrick de Gayardon and Erminio Bricoli, two friends, two masters who continue to fly across the skies of the Universe.
All images courtesy and Copyright Angelo d'Arrigo.
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