Paraglider Simulates an Eagle for Planet Earth II

Aaron Durogati faced brutal weather and lethal crevasses to film an eagle's POV for TV.
Aaron Durogati flying his paraglider in Italy
Aaron Durogati takes to the sky © Vitek Ludvik/Red Bull Content Pool
By Ellie Ross

Aaron Durogati braved dangerous crevasses and extreme weather conditions to capture a golden eagle’s point of view for Sir David Attenborough's TV series "Planet Earth II."

The paragliding pro soared through the sky above the Mont Blanc range to film clips appearing to be from the bird’s perspective for the wildlife documentary.

The final 10 minutes of the "Mountain" episode shows how Aaron and the team shot such difficult footage.

Aaron Durogati flying his paraglider in the mountains of Switzerland
Aaron Durogati soars through the sky © Kelvin Trautman / Red Bull Content Pool

At first, the 30-year-old used a speed-flying wing and a camera attached to his helmet, but the shots proved too shaky to be used.

Durogati had the idea of taking cameraman Jonathan Griffith as a passenger on a tandem flight and the pair got the footage they needed.

But not everything went smoothly for the Italian athlete. Durogati found himself marooned on a mountain top before flying blind, as thick fog engulfed the summit.

RedBull.com caught up with Durogati to hear what it was like filming the sequence, the sketchiest parts and what it’s like flying with eagles.

Aaron Durogati posing for a portrait wearing his Red Bull Helmet
Aaron Durogati © Dom Daher/Red Bull Content Pool

How did this opportunity come about? And how many days were you filming?

I was contacted via my website by Emma [Emma Brennand, the show’s assistant producer] in Summer of 2015, but I actually hadn’t heard of the Planet Earth documentaries, so I didn’t respond straight away. At first I thought the project sounded too big and a bit like a joke. Then they wrote to me again and I said "yes." I didn’t realize until afterwards how big the show is.

I had some meetings with the producers where they showed me some footage of the kind of thing they were after and asked if I could do something similar with a camera on my helmet. The idea was to get the POV of the golden eagle.

At first I had the camera on my helmet but the footage wasn’t as clean as they wanted, so I came up with the idea of flying tandem with Jonathan filming. We filmed for two weeks to get the shots.

How do you practice for a project like this?

I didn’t need to practice because I fly every day — it’s what I do. I had my first flight when I was six years old with my father and I’ve been paragliding full time for over 15 years.

You climbed to the summit of the 9,800-foot Chamonix mountain with Armin Holtze, but it was pretty sketchy because of all the crevasses. Was that the most dangerous part of the whole thing?

The crevasses were dodgy — you couldn’t see them because they were covered in snow but you knew they were there. The snow wouldn’t take your weight if you stepped on one, so we used ropes and ice crampons in case we fell into a crevasse.

Another danger was using speed-flying wings. These are more dangerous than speed-riding wings because they are faster, so there’s less room for error.

When we eventually got to the top of the mountain to fly back down and film, the weather was terrible. We were fogged out and the wind was coming from the wrong direction (we had a back wind and you need a front wind). We tried to take off a couple of times but couldn’t. There was no way we were going to go back down on foot with those dangerous crevasses so we had to sleep in a hut at the top.

The crevasses were dodgy — you couldn’t see them because they were covered in snow.

Aaron Durogati

The next day, it was still really foggy but by this point we had run out of food and we hadn’t eaten for 12 hours and were damp. We didn’t even have a lighter to make water from the snow. We were so tired and wet that it seemed more dangerous to wait longer without food and water than to try to take off. So that’s what we did.

Taking off was really scary — for around one minute we couldn’t see anything. We were completely in the clouds, flying blind. Just imagine driving a car at 60 mph in the fog on a country road ... it’s not that cool! It was a great relief when we reached the valley.

POV shot of Aaron Durogati flying his paraglider in the snowy mountains
Aaron Durogati says birds are 'the best pilots' © Jonathan Griffith / Red Bull Content Pool

In the episode, David Attenborough says that you believe that "to fly like a bird, you must think like one, too." How do you think like a bird?

Paragliding has given me lots of chances to fly with birds. I’ve flown with hawks, eagles and vultures. In Spain, I flew with a vulture only two feet above my canopy — it was so curious about me and stayed for a long time.

I try to see what the birds do in the air and copy them. After all, this is their environment, not ours. Watching them helps me to become a better pilot, but they are the best pilots. My goal is to be as good as them.

There are a lot of similarities between birds and paraglider pilots. One bird will use the thermal first and the others will watch it and try to take the same line or get a better one. It’s the same tactics paraglider pilots use in competitions, constantly watching and pushing each other.

A golden eagle can dive at 200 mph. What is your top speed?

Not as fast as an eagle! You fly faster when you are higher as the air is thin. At 9,800 feet altitude I was probably flying at a maximum of around 62 mph, but you can probably reach up to 80 mph.

How was it being attached to a cameraman? Did you get on each other's nerves?

I know Jonathan well. We worked together on the Peaks Trilogy in 2014 and he’s a really nice guy. He’s a really experienced Alpinist, which is what I was looking for. I wanted to be with someone who wasn’t just a cameraman.

I didn’t really need to trust him, but he definitely had to trust me! I was relaxed and happy to have someone to speak to and laugh with. It was a nice change from flying solo.

Did you get to meet David Attenborough? Or have you had any feedback from him on your bit of the film?

No, I haven’t had contact with him. But I know everyone is happy with the result. If I did meet David Attenborough, I’d ask him whether birds fly for fun or for practical reasons alone. I think that they enjoy it and don’t only do it to get from point A to B. But I'd like to know what he thinks.

In a nutshell, what is it that you love most about paragliding?

It’s the simplicity of it. You can fly for hundreds of miles with kit that fits into a small backpack, which is pretty amazing. You don’t have to be in an airport and ask for permission to take off. I can just walk into the mountains near my home, takeoff and have a beautiful adventure.

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