Skydiving, Wingsuit Flying & BASE Jumping

We Speak to Aaron Durogati: The Planet Earth Paraglider Who Got THAT Golden Eagle Point of View Shot

No, the BBC didn't just duct tape a GoPro to the back of a golden eagle...

10 years after blowing minds with groundbreaking documentary Planet Earth, David Attenborough returned to screens with Planet Earth 2 in early November, and the country has gone understandably mad for the series.

We swooned over sloths, shed tears for lost penguins and are currently undergoing intensive therapy to try and unsee the images of that iguana getting chased by the snakes (/ slithering spawn of hell) still haunting our nightmares from episode one.

And after the stories of snow leopards, flailing flamingos and mountain goats with frankly no regard for our cholesterol in episode two, we were delighted to see World Champion paraglider Aaron Durogati pop up to star in the “Planet Earth Diaries” in the final 10 minutes of episode two – the segment at the end of each episode which shows how the trickier shots of each episode were filmed.

Any Planet Earth viewer should remember Aaron’s contribution to the ‘Mountain’ episode with relative ease. It was rather unique.

Photograph: Planet Earth 2 / BBC

Aaron was charged with capturing footage that looked like it was taken from the point of view of a golden eagle in the French Alps by flying about with a speedwing and a camera.

With a little help, he ultimately managed to do so with such success that most of Twitter thought the BBC had just duct taped a GoPro to an eagle, something we imagine would not have been quite in keeping with the moral integrity of the show.

“It’s actually very common for us to fly with a lot of big birds,” Aaron told Mpora over the phone from Italy. “When you paraglide you tend to be around big birds a lot.

“We had a meeting with the BBC guys and they showed us some footage of the kind of things they would like to have. They had found me through a project I did with Red Bull three years ago called ‘Peaks Trilogy’ where I was big line riding in Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa and the Breithorn. I couldn’t advertise I was filming with them but it wasn’t super top secret either.

“When I fly I’m always trying to get all the information it’s possible to get from the environment around me; so that could be from a bird which is thermalling next to me [a technique used by both birds and paragliders to achieve further flight], or where another bird is going to soar next or maybe there’s a small bird going up in a certain way which is able to teach you something about how best to fly at that moment.

“Learning everything you can from the nature helps you to become a better pilot.”

But Durogati’s efforts didn’t always look like they were going to go to plan.

The original idea was for Aaron to capture the footage himself from a custom-made camera attached to his helmet, but due to the peripherals of the camera this was unable to provide the special kind of stunning escapism Planet Earth has become so renowned for.

As well as that, when Aaron first got to the 3000m summit of the Chamonix mountain they were shooting on with buddy Armin Holtze, they found they were completely fogged out.

After staying at the summit shelter for the night, something that seemed to concern the accompanying researcher Dr. Emma Brennand significantly more than it did Aaron or Armin, they were still facing dangerous fogs. But they had to get down somehow, and flight was the safest way.

“Some of it was a difficult flight but everything was doable,” says Aaron. “The visibility was pretty scary, but not scary like… I knew what our window was and I knew that we couldn’t fly lower because it was more than 1000m fog and we would’ve gotten lost. I took off and tried to land exactly on the edge which was fine.

“It was actually harder the next part; having to ski down with about a 20kg backpack. That was harder than the flying part.”

But what about the filming? As those who watched will know, Aaron eventually enlisted Jon Griffiths, a photographer he had previously worked with on the Peaks Trilogy project, to come with him on a tandem ride – Jon’s first ever flight – leaving the Italian pilot free to duck, dip and dive like an eagle while Griffiths captured the footage.

Aaron continued: “We started filming big riding in my region in Italy around the Dolomites but there wasn’t enough snow. I had the big camera on my helmet and you could often see my ski as well which wasn’t good, so we decided to do it the different way.

“We decided that Jon was going to film and that we’d be better to go with the tandem flight – so I would be dealing with just the flight and he would be getting all of the footage.

“One day was super windy but we flew on… It was some pretty crazy stuff. It was really cool and it was a funny time as well.”

There’s certainly no arguing on the comedy factor. The quote of the episode comes from a distressed Jon panting “I feel like I’m wearing a g-string, this harness is so tight!” But the film footage is some seriously impressive stuff.

“The biggest challenge was to bring Jon into the right spot, in the right angle and with the right movement. We had to be as close as possible to how an eagle flies, so of course it was pretty challenging and I had to think about each turn and how I could get so close to the crevices, because sometimes we were flying really, really close. There’s no room for mistakes.

“The funny thing [featured at the end of the episode] is that once we found some tracks of an animal in the forest in a pretty fresh part, but I was too high to have a really cool shot, so I decided to make a 360 degree turn. I didn’t have enough altitude to get out of the mountain though, so we basically landed in a tree!”

It was a comical ending to an episode which absolutely stunned viewers – as much for Aaron’s antics as anything else.

As you’ll have guessed from the fact he got the nod from Team Attenborough at all – and from the bunch of Red Bull logos flying about at the end of the episode – this wasn’t Aaron’s first rodeo, despite the unfortunate tree-based landing.

Aaron is a competitor in Red Bull X Alps, a competition which sees athletes hike or fly 1000km across the Alps every two years, and he’s a former Paragliding World Champion too. Safe to say he got started early.

“When I was six I flew for the first time with my father in tandem, because my father was a pilot as well. I had done a couple of tandem flights but not so much because I didn’t like to fly tandem, I always wanted to fly by myself.

“When I was 13 or 14 I was pushing for flying but he said I was too young. When I was 15 I finally started trying on my own and since then I’ve just concentrated on flying as much as I can and I became a professional pilot.”

So, the moral of the story? If you want your child to become an athlete capable of filming with David Attenborough – surely the greatest job in existence – you know what to do. Chuck them off a cliff when they’re six years old.

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