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Flight of the Swans – the big Flight prep

Sacha over forest

There is nothing so magical as flight. If you’ve ever been asked what your preferred superpower would be, I bet it was high on your list. In September I will summon my inner superhero and begin the first ever attempt to follow the migration of Bewick’s swans from the air, flying 7,000km from the Russian Arctic back to Gloucestershire.

Unfortunately, I won’t have superpowers on my side. Instead I will be flying a paramotor – basically I will be dangling from a wing of fabric, with a propeller strapped to my back.

Each year the swans fly back to their overwintering grounds at WWT’s Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire. Those of us lucky enough to work at Slimbridge watch and wait for the first swans to arrive – it is always a magical moment – but over the last twenty years the number of Bewick’s swans in Europe has almost halved.

Flock of Bewick's Swans flying at Slimbridge
Flock of Bewick’s Swans flying at Slimbridge

Many of the swans that come to Slimbridge return year after year, sometimes bringing families with them, sometimes arriving on their own and over the years we’ve got to know many of them. It is difficult to imagine the hardships they will have faced on their journey to get to us, everything from hunters and telegraph wires to heavy storms, extreme cold and sea crossings – I will face all this first hand on my own flight.

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Why paramotor?
The paramotor is the closest I can get to the swans, it means that I can fly at the same height and speed as them. I can also take off and land when and where they do (within reason!).

I plan to follow the first wave of swans and expect to be flying for around 10 weeks, but as the speed is totally up to the birds it could be even longer. The expedition will take me across 11 countries and I’ll have a ground crew for most of it, but I’ll have to fly the first 1,000 km unsupported from the ground because the terrain makes it impossible to cross.

Keeping warm in sub-zero
Obviously I am not built in the same way as a swan – I lack the necessary feathers needed to keep warm at sub-zero temperatures. With the likelihood that I’ll face temperatures of up to minus 20 under the wing of the paramotor (largely due to wind-chill), how to keep warm has been a major preoccupation for me.

Sacha over tundra landscape
Sacha over tundra landscape

Extreme cold is unpleasant but our concerns for this expedition go well beyond my comfort. If I get too cold not only do I face the dangers of hyperthermia and frostbite but my ability to grip will suffer and flying the paramotor will become a lot harder than it needs to be – perhaps even putting the expedition in jeopardy.

The right kit

As training has stepped up I have been trying to get as much experience as possible of flying in freezing conditions. Testing out clothing has been an important part of that.

During a recent trip to Sweden I was lucky enough to try out some great gear from Páramo. When I first talked to Páramo about the expedition I had some pretty out-there requests when it came to clothing – I need to be able to run, jump and fly in whatever I wear. Mobility is a big issue and I need the ‘warm and dry’ element to be super high-spec because of the extreme weather conditions I will be facing.

Sacha's preparation - cold weather testing in Sweden
Sacha’s preparation – cold weather testing in Sweden

During flights in Sweden last month, where I flew for the first time in extreme cold and practised landing in ice and snow I was really impressed by the quality and comfort of the clothes. So impressed that I think I am wearing them in almost every piece of footage we have of our training exercises (I even admit to wearing them in the odd meeting).

Put to the test

Back in the UK we put ourselves and the kit further to the test in the cold chamber at the University of Portsmouth. With skin sensors attached to my fingers, face and toes, I braved two hours at minus 20 degrees seated in the same position I will be flying in.

Cold chamber testing at University of Portsmouth
Cold chamber testing at University of Portsmouth

In the chamber I was wearing three layers of Páramo clothing:

Upper body:
• Grid Technic
• Ventura Jacket
• Torres Jacket

Lower body:
• Long Janes
• Cascada Trousers
• Torres Trousers

The Páramo gear did a great job and my body withstood the cold well, it was my hands, feet and face that suffered. When I came out of the chamber the infrared heat-sensing camera showed severe heat-loss to my toes – I’ve now added heated footwear to my must-have equipment list.

Team work
On an expedition like this it’s important that we have the right partners and supporters, they are crucial to our success, not only for the trip but also to ensure a future for the Bewick’s swan and our native wetlands too.

Swans flying over water on the Tack Piece at Slimbridge
Swans flying over water on the Tack Piece at Slimbridge

With Páramo’s passion for conservation and their ethical stance on the environmental practices that impact our wetland habitats, it’s great that they’re a part of the Flight of the Swans Expedition.

Find out more about the Expedition here.

FOTS and WWT logos

1 thought on “Flight of the Swans – the big Flight prep

  1. My first reaction is that the swans will be terrified; have they been accustomed while at Slimbridge?

    Having used Paramo in South Georgia last year I am sure Sacha will not feel cold!

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