Red Bull X-Alps

Fly like an eagle

When the BBC’s prestigious Planet Earth series wanted a pilot to mimic the flight of an eagle, they knocked on Aaron Durogati’s door. He tells us what happened next.

© zooom / Harald Tauderer

Chances are you may have already caught a glimpse of the BBC’s new landmark Planet Earth series. The scene in which an iguana outruns dozens of snakes is currently going viral. 

But there is an even more exciting clip for paragliding fans in which the producers call upon the services of the Italian speed riding ace and Red Bull X-Alps athlete Aaron Durogati to mimic the flight of an eagle swooping at speeds of 200kph over the Alps. 

“They contacted me after seeing my Trilogy project, one of which was speedflying Mt Blanc,” recalls Aaron. “We had a meeting in Bristol where they showed me what they wanted and whether it was possible.”

At first Aaron deployed a speedy wing and used a camera mounted onto his helmet. But because of his need to keep looking from side to side the footage was unusable.  

“So we decided to try a different way. During the Trilogy project I was working with photographer Jonathan Griffith and I proposed going with him in a tandem wing; I could concentrate on the flying and he could focus on the filming. Our goal was to try and think as a bird and to capture beautiful footage.”

Just one issue: although Jon is a super experienced alpinist, this was his first time in a tandem. And conditions were extremely windy. “He was kinda afraid but he’s done crazy climbs so it was funny,” says Aaron. 

Over to Jon: “I’m not really used to being in the air so it felt like a bit of a baptism by fire. I think we had 50k winds up at 3,800m for the take off, which felt quite brutal and made for a very bumpy and fast ride.

“However I also put full faith in Aaron. I know he’s an exceptionally good pilot and at the end of the day his life is in as much at risk as mine, so what felt quite full-on for me was probably not so bad for him. Though when we landed he did say he wouldn't fly tandem in those conditions again!”

In the behind-the-scenes making-of documentary, Jon’s shrieks are clearly audible.  
“Not screaming,” he maintains. “Like I said, that first flight was very bumpy and Aaron had to deploy some acro moves to lose height as the updrafts were so intense and to be honest, that’s a little brutal on you if you’ve never done it before. I’m not used to those G forces.” 

The pair also suffered an unplanned landing in the forest. 

“I tried to do a 360 but was too low,” says Aaron, “and we had to crash land in the snow. But it was nothing serious, just not planned.” With the snow a meter deep, the prospect of hiking out did not bear thinking about, but fortunately Durogati got the pair airborne again. 

“It was a bit sketchy, but we were able to take off,” he says. 

“Aaron is a really talented pilot, so he just managed to get us out of it,” adds Jon. 

“I was proud that I got into it and I could work on this,” adds Aaron. “It’s not something that everybody gets to do.”

Final word goes to David Attenborough, who narrates at the end of the sequence: “They might not be as majestic as a golden eagle but they do capture a unique perspective that conveys an eagle’s life as never before.”

Planet Earth II Mountains, and the behind-the-scenes making of documentary is available to watch on the BBC’s iPlayer but territorial restrictions apply.