Take one step. Stop for one full minute. Rest and breathe. Take another step. Stop and breathe for 60 seconds. Repeat for hours.
Am I describing exercise at a retirement home or hospital? No, actually the actions of young, healthy, well-conditioned men. The difference is that these individuals are nearing the top of the world. This step-and-rest technique is used by climbers ascending the summit of Mount Everest.
At 29,035 feet, the mountain’s summit is the highest place on Earth. In this thin airspace, the hazards are great-even if you’re standing still. According to pilot Richard Meredith-Hardy, the time of useful consciousness is less than 1 minute without oxygen.
At 29,035 feet, most aircraft also run out of air. Few GA or sport aircraft can come close to this altitude. Now imagine flying at this staggering height over some of the most forbidding terrain imaginable. Top off the complex scenario by towing a large object in an open-cockpit aircraft that weighs less than 1000 pounds.
Does this sound like a fun Sunday afternoon of flying?
An Amazing Accomplishment
Launching at 7 a.m. on May 24, 2004, hang glider pilot Angelo d’Arrigo began a flight that would set a new precedent for hang gliding worldwide. “The man who has already crossed the Sahara and Siberia with his hang glider made history: he flew over Everest with his hang glider,” the press release exclaimed.
Meredith-Hardy, a highly accomplished ultralight pilot, towed d’Arrigo toward the summit via a thin line attached to d’Arrigo’s modern rigid-wing hang glider. Both machines were carefully chosen.
Meredith-Hardy flew a British-certified Pegasus Quantum trike with a 115-hp Rotax 914 turbo engine. In turn, d’Arrigo’s Icaro Stratos is a supplemental weight-shift hang glider with a carbon-fiber D-cell leading edge that can achieve close to a 20:1 glide. Neither aircraft has any enclosure, and it was as cold as the Antarctic.
Not only did these two men accomplish this impressive feat, they did so on a modest budget and beat a deadline planned two years in advance. Their flight may not have faced the same technical obstacles of Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOneachievement, but it isn’t far behind. And the Over Everest flight undoubtedly placed greater demands on the two pilots.
Although KITPLANES® readers are more familiar with Rutan, d’Arrigo is highly accomplished as well. He’s won numerous international hang gliding contests and has flown his hang glider 1000 kilometers across the Sahara desert. He made the first solo flight across the Mediterranean Sea-in a hang glider under tow. He has also spent much of his life working with migratory birds with a special focus on endangered species such as the Himalayan Eagle.
Dawn at the
Top of the World
Although conditions are always changing at this altitude, the weather gods smiled on Englishman Meredith-Hardy and d’Arrigo, an Italian. Meredith-Hardy had trouble starting his engine, and repeated tries had drained the battery. Fortunately, before a second battery brought just for this reason also expired, the engine came to life.
After checking and rechecking their gear, the tow line was attached to the trike tug and to the hang glider. The moment of truth had arrived.
At this height and in these conditions, takeoff was achieved at about 70 km/h (44 mph) after a long run. Both pilots had already been breathing oxygen for about 30 minutes, part of the acclimatization to prevent nitrogen bubbles from forming in their bloodstream.
Takeoff went well, and the initial climb out started. Meredith-Hardy writes (much of my research was conducted via e-mail interviews with the two pilots) that his trike lifted from the rough mountaintop airstrip “with about 100 meters to spare. I circled round to the right…and it was only a minute or two before we were high enough to be able to land back again. That first bit is really scary-there’s simply nowhere to go in the event of an engine failure or propeller damage on takeoff.”
After their climbing cross-country flight, d’Arrigo chronicled a key moment: “South of Everest and 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 tow rope to break at the safety link.
“We were at a height of about 9000 meters; I was 500 meters south of Everest, about 150 meters over the peak. I released what was left of the tow rope 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.”
Then the situation again became grave. Originally, d’Arrigo would have stayed on tow and planned his release for free flight over the summit. He and Meredith-Hardy could have maintained visual contact with one another. However, the turbulence that upset the flight and broke the tow line’s weak link left the trike pilot unable to see his aerial companion.
Meredith-Hardy writes: “I realized we had a line break, and by the way my machine leapt forward I could immediately tell it was at my end. Whether it was the safety weak link that had broken or something else, I had no way of knowing. With all my high-altitude gear on, I didn’t have much neck mobility, so I couldn’t look back 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!”
Now, many miles from his preferred destination, d’Arrigo has been suddenly cut loose and had to fend for himself. Neither could he locate Meredith-Hardy and the Pegasus trike.
His story continues: “I had identified 10 possible emergency landing sites. I had marked them all on a map with their GPS coordinates.” He eliminated several options and focused on an Italian research station near the base of the Everest summit. Thanks to careful planning and steely nerves strengthened from his earlier exploits, d’Arrigo was able to make his emergency landing.
“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 meters from the ground, my speed was still 100 km/h.
“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.).”
A few minutes after landing, d’Arrigo spoke euphorically via satellite telephone: “It’s a great honor to have flown over Qhomalanga, Mother Earth (the name given to the highest mountain by the Tibetans). The weather forecast had predicted weak winds, when in fact they were very strong. This proved particularly difficult over the southern peak, where the difficulty started.
“The flight was extraordinary, I took off from the Khumbu Valley and flew over [the peaks of] Namche, Amadablam, Nuptse and Lotse until I reached Everest, where I saw the Italian expedition climbing the northeast peak, and they saw me too.
“At about 10 a.m., I landed at a very high speed at the Pyramid of Everest-the Italian Scientific Research Centre-and I met Beppe Monti, the director, with his men. They were the first people I saw. Later, I rejoined my team, who were preparing a party for me at the base camp.”
The initial idea-that of being towed aloft and then to release, subsequently gliding up on the powerful ascending currents blowing up the north face of Everest-was not possible. D’Arrigo decided that the hang glider would have to be towed up to a sufficient height near the peak of Everest, approaching from the south and then gliding over the summit after having released the tow rope.
This is no ordinary long cross-country flight. It took months of preparation, planning and conditioning. D’Arrigo arranged for himself and Meredith-Hardy to work with medical staff experts in high-altitude physiopathology from the Aerospace Medical Centre of the Italian Air Force. He conducted experiments and investigations on his own physiology and the problems caused by high altitude, testing his body’s reaction to rapid altitude changes in hypobaric chambers. With the help of the Air Force staff, d’Arrigo devised and perfected the equipment required for the oxygen-breathing apparatus.
Other studies used cold weather facilities owned by sponsor Fiat Auto. A wind tunnel was also employed to mimic the harsh conditions ever-present on Everest.
Finally, the Over Everest team moved to Syangboche, Nepal (elevation: 12,350 feet msl). This village is a few hundred meters above Namche Bazar, the city that has become a symbol of the Sherpa population of the Solo Khumbu valley, which runs up to the Everest base camp.
This location was chosen partly because it has a beaten earth runway, built many years ago by Sir Edmund Hillary-the first person to climb Everest-in order to transport building materials used for the schools and hospitals constructed for the local population.
When they arrived, d’Arrigo and his team discovered that the runway no longer existed. It had become a pasture for yaks. For some years the Pilatus Porter aircraft were used for communications in these valleys. But they had been replaced by Russian twin-rotor helicopters, surplus from the war with Afghanistan, and so the runway had fallen into disuse. With help from their film crew, d’Arrigo and Meredith-Hardy labored to return the runway to usable condition.
Birdman of Everest
Angelo d’Arrigo is not only a pilot, he also studies those true masters of flight-eagles. “Part of the Over Everest project was reintroduction of a pair of Himalayan eagles in the Nepalese Khumbu Valley, where they have been extinct for some years,” he said. He reared the pair in captivity, bringing them to a stage of independence sufficient to give them a chance of survival in their natural habitat.
“After we reached Kathmandu, we had to wait for a few days before the bureaucratic procedures had been completed, after which we would have been able to continue our journey towards the upper valleys of the Himalayas. During this brief period, the eagles unfortunately caught a virus. We immediately took them to a veterinary center, where they were treated. The female reacted well to the medical care, but the male remained rather sickly. When we left for the high valleys, I thought it better not to take him with us. He was too weak, and exposing him to that habitat could have been dangerous. So we just brought the female-Gea.”
D’Arrigo frequently flew with her in the valley, using both 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 Gea to hunt so that she could survive independently,” d’Arrigo explained. “In the end we freed her in her native valleys. Before we released her, I fastened a microtransmitter onto her, which, by means of a sophisticated system, transmits a signal allowing us to monitor her movements and activities in the area. Later we will be able to trace her during her migratory flights.”
For most of us, the Everest flight by itself would be the achievement of a lifetime. For d’Arrigo, the flight and the eagle release seem all in a day’s work. Aviation now has two new heroes to stand alongside giants like Burt Rutan.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, visit d’Arrigo’s web site at www.angelodarrigo.com or visit Meredith-Hardy’s site at www.flymicro.com.
To review all “Light Stuff” columns that have appeared in KITPLANES®, visit www.ByDanJohnson.com, which links to the KITPLANES® web site with articles of interest.