Bring out the gimp ... Dr Matt Wilkes in the field. Photo: Matt Wilkes
Features

In a heartbeat: The Free Flight Physiology Project

Monday 15 January, 2018

What happens to our bodies when we fly? Dr Matt Wilkes has been investigating exactly that. Welcome to the Free Flight Physiology Project

As my first instructor once told me: pilots crash, not paragliders. In other words, accidents aren’t due to equipment failure, they are due to human error. Just thinking about that as I progressed made me truly grateful for the ways in which our community has tried to keep us safe: from friendly advice on the hill, to wisdom shared in magazines, books and podcasts, to the calm instruction of SIV.

I am not a psychologist, nor an expert in human factors. As a doctor though, I did start to wonder: what if we better understood what happened to our bodies in flight? Maybe with a better appreciation of the context in which our brains made key decisions, we could further improve our safety and performance?

So, in late 2015, I joined forces with Gin Team Pilot and Professor of Zoology Adrian Thomas, altitude physiologist Dr Martin MacInnis and Dr Lucy Hawkes, an expert in studying high-flying birds: the Free Flight Physiology Project was born!

Free-Flight-Physiology-Trace

A high altitude tracklog flying to 7,000m in the Karakoram

What to study?

Human physiology is complex at the best of times. Throw in cold, wind, low oxygen, UV radiation, turbulence, G forces and fear and it becomes even harder to pin down. In other fields, researchers have studied rapid decompression from pressurised aircraft or the slow, exhausting ascents of mountain climbers. But what about paragliders? From their work, we might expect changes in heart rate, breathing, vision, reaction times, working memory and mood in paraglider pilots flying above about 1,500m.

But paragliding is unique: we ascend over hours, not seconds or days, and we are constantly exposed to the elements. Maybe our physiology would be different to these other groups? The extraordinary flight of Antoine Girard to over 8,000m without oxygen in 2016 made the idea even more intriguing.

We knew we were getting into a longterm project. This first phase would just be the beginning. We also weren’t sure what (if anything) we would find. So, we started by asking two short questions…

Read the rest in Cross Country 187 (Feb/March 2018)

Never miss an issue

Our subscribers receive 10 issues a year, the annual Travel Guide and exclusive access to competitions and offers

Subscribe today
Back to Features
Back to Features

Got a story?

If you have news, great images or a story, let us know

Get in touch

Join the family

By subscribing, you support the only worldwide paragliding, paramotoring and hang gliding magazine and you get:

  • Ten issues delivered to your door through the year
  • A 100+ page Travel Guide to the world’s best flying sites delivered with the Feb/March issue each year
  • Plus: Win a paraglider in our annual subscribers’ draw each January
  • Pay annually or monthly with paypal or credit card
Subscribe today

Subscribe and never miss an issue

Print edition

  • Published since 1988
  • The highest production values
  • Gorgeous photography
  • Perfect-bound, collectors’ issues
  • Ten times a year each issue is airmailed to you

Digital edition

  • Read offline on your iPad, tablet, laptop or phone
  • The same content as the printed magazine
  • Delivered through award-winning Zinio software

Print and digital

  • Read the digital issues on your iPad, tablet, laptop or phone
  • Keep the print magazines on your coffee table!
  • Ten times a year, each issue is airmailed to you and sent via Zinio
News and special offers. No spam ever
SIGN ME UP