Comps and Events, News

Wings of Kilimanjaro: ‘The experience of a lifetime’

Tuesday 4 September, 2012
Vision ... Kilimanjaro ahead. Photo: Wings of Kilimanjaro

Vision ... Kilimanjaro ahead. Photo: Wings of Kilimanjaro

Sometime last year an Australian pilot had a crazy idea: a mass hike-and-fly of Africa’s highest point, Mount Kilimanjaro. Adrian McRae wanted to get 200 pilots to fly from the summit at the same time, and raise a million dollars for charity along the way.

This isn’t easy for several reasons: Kilimanjaro is 5,895m high (19,341 feet), the air is thin, altitude sickness is a real possibility, and launching from such a height can be tricky. Not only that, paragliding, mountain-biking – anything other than hiking really – has been traditionally banned on the mountain for the longest time.

But craziness is what makes this sport great, and it’s also infectious. After a false start earlier this year the organisers got serious, spent forever negotiating permits, carried out a recce climb, and now plan to make their historic hike-and-fly in early February 2013.

Around 70 pilots have signed up and paid their $500 deposit to charity so far (pilots must commit to raise $5,000US for charity, plus pay $3,500 ground fees for the peak permit, the week long trek to the summit, and as a helicopter bond) and it’s all happening.

We asked Adrian and his safety officer Peter Bowyer, chief flight instructor of the Australian Paragliding Centre, what it was all about.

On approach ... the walk up. Photo: Wings of Kilimanjaro

On approach ... the walk up. Photo: Wings of Kilimanjaro

Adrian, what inspired you to create Wings of Kilimanjaro?
I learned to fly in 2008, five years after climbing Kilimanjaro for the first time. I always knew I wanted to go back to Tanzania and try and fly it. The idea to raise serious money for local initiatives came about at the same time – and here we are, planning to fly 200 pilots from the summit in February 2013!

What are you hoping to achieve?
Firstly the obvious – a hike-and-fly from the world’s tallest free-standing mountain for a large group of people. These pilots (and passengers) will all have had to train hard, work hard and also sacrifice plenty to be there financially after raising considerable money for charity for the privilege of taking part.

Secondly, (and more importantly) we expect to do some pretty awesome things on the ground in Tanzania from a philanthropy point of view. Environmentally, we expect to fund literally hundreds of micro-finance savings-and-loans groups and in the process plant in excess of two million trees around the foothills of Kilimanjaro.

We also expect to be able to bring clean water and educational facilities to literally tens of thousands of people in extremely impoverished areas of Tanzania.

We are supporting two key charities to make this happen: Plant With Purpose based out of the USA and The One Foundation, based out of the UK. Who would have thought a single paragliding event could have such a massive humanitarian impact? I’m just so excited to be a part of this.

Dawn start ... The hike to the summit on the final day. Photo: Wings of Kilimanjaro

Dawn start ... The hike to the summit on the final day. Photo: Wings of Kilimanjaro

So who’s along for the ride?
Confirmed pilots include the likes of Mike Kung, Squash Falconer, Sano Babu Sunuwar and Kari Castle. We’ve also got interesting personalities like the UK’s Senior Commissioner of Police Adrian Leppard. We’ve also had some interest from many great adventurers around the world who have yet to commit – Will Gadd and Chris Santacroce for example.

However, much more importantly, we will be auctioning tandem seats and we hope to raise some big money for charity. So, any tandem pilots who want to do something cool like climb and fly Kilimanjaro and allow us to sell their tandem seats (100% for charity of course) are more than welcome and we’d love to have them along.

What kind of training are the pilots getting in before the challenge?
Most pilots, being outdoors types, are well aware of the training required to climb a mountain such as Kilimanjaro. A good level of fitness and a definite high pain threshold and determination factor will be required. People are outlaying so much energy into this event, I doubt anyone will not make the top.

Although that being said, some people just do not go well with altitude and others don’t like to push themselves. I’ll be really sad if we don’t get at least 95% of people to the top. Of course there is also the flying training required and minimum flying experience required before we can consider any pilot. Great ground handling skills and flying in crowds must be second nature, as the brain works in low gear in half the oxygen as sea level on a mountain like Kilimanjaro.

View from the top. Photo: Wings of Kilimanjaro

View from the top. Photo: Wings of Kilimanjaro

Pete, you’re in charge of safety while on the mountain. Tell us about that.
We’ll be climbing the mountain over an extended seven day period in order to lessen the risks of altitude sickness. During the climb phase we’ll have a rescue helicopter on standby every day – this isn’t normally done for trekking groups – and during the flying phase of the trip we plan to have two helicopters on standby. Those helicopters won’t be able to fly to the summit, but if anyone needs it pilots will be evacuated lower down the mountain by Kilimanjaro guides using wheeled stretchers. This is what normally happens on the mountain for trekking groups.

On the summit when pilots are launching we’ll have four safety crew up there, all on oxygen pulse meters, to help pilots lay out. We’re also monitoring our applications – we’ve turned away those who have just started flying or recently qualified and are only accepting applications from pilots with a degree of experience.

And Adrian, sum up for us. What kind of experience does the challenge offer pilots?
Hard one to answer, but I guess in a few words, the experience of a lifetime. For most people, climbing Kilimanjaro and reaching the summit is in itself a life achievement and highlight. To be able to fly off it will have different meaning and importance to all involved. For everyone it will be a life changing experience to see how our sport and our actions can make a massive positive impact and change many people’s lives in Africa for the better.

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