On December 16th 2015, Sacha Dench touched down on her paramotor trike at Gloucestershire's Slimbridge Reserve, HQ of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT). Her landing brought to a close the Flight of the Swans odyssey, an epic of around 5,000km from Russia‘s arctic Pechora Delta region. Her flight was made to raise awareness of the predicament of the Bewick‘s Swan.
Sacha took up paragliding in Australia and converted to paramotoring about five years ago, having taken a dislike to hill soaring after a mid-air collision in the UK. Now working for the WWT, she became concerned at the plight of the Bewick's swan. Although officially protected in every country along its annual migration route from Siberia to the UK, the Bewick’s swan is in decline. In the last 20 years numbers have fallen by over 60%; not all the causes are understood but habitat loss, hunting, wind turbines and power lines are implicated.
Sacha's idea was to follow the route of the migrating birds, who leave northern Siberia in October and November to winter in coastal lowlands of northern Europe, including their long established second home at Slimbridge. En route the swans use wetland staging areas around Russia's Lake Onega and White Sea, and in Estonia.
Her three-month paramotor journey from northern Siberia covered 11 countries. Sacha was broadcasting her progress the whole way using a team of professional media production volunteers in her ground crew, and working with partners of different nationalities. By landing and staying in the communities over which the swans fly she succeeded in making them aware of the swans“ plight.
Two years of planning culminated in a reconnaissance trip in August to tag several swans with GPS trackers to keep tabs on the migrating birds. When the swans began to move Sacha got going too, assisted by a ZOO-strong team of volunteers. She left the Russian arctic on September 19th; by the time she arrived at Slimbridge she had flown over Russia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Denmark, Netherlands, Belgium,France and southern Britain.
There were few roads in the first 1,000km of her route over Arctic Russia and she had to fly without the large ground crew who attended later stages of her flight. A small team of pilots from different countries flew with her on successive stages of the flight. Having media professionals as part of her ground entourage enable Sacha to gain almost saturation newspaper and TV coverage in every country she flew over, which was of course her primary goal.
Early in the flight, while still in Russia, Sacha dislocated her knee while taking off. Russian paramotorist Alexander Bogdanov, a flying partner on the expedition, stepped in and sourced a paramotor trike which enabled Sacha to continue and complete the flight. On December 5th she left Saint lnglevert in France's Pas—de-Calais, crossed the English Channel and landed just north of Dover. In doing so she had become the first first female paramotor pilot to fly across Channel.
As well as leading the expedition, taking time out from her day job as WWT's head of media, Sacha‘s team included an Expedition Manager, a Flight Manager, a Team Mechanic and Engineer and a medic, plus cooks, weather forecasters, video and stills photographers and even a drone operator. As well as her paramotor flying partners Sacha was backed up in the air by British microlight pilot Rob Keene in the role of airborne search and rescue.
On the ground, Project Partners rose to the challenge and put on a range of events timed to coincide with Sacha's arrival at the location. The expedition got off to a strong start when Moscow State University's Zoological Museum hosted a launch event attended by eminent Russian ornithologists, British embassy staff and the BBC. This was followed by workshops, conservation meetings and conferences, demonstrations and even the development of a charter for paramotor pilots in the West Flemish wetlands. Schools engaged in letter—writing, lessons devoted to the swans and their habitats, art competitions, singing and community events. As result of this activity, assisted by Sacha's professional media crew, over 700 related articles were published in local and national newspapers and periodicals and around 1,000 mentions were made on TV and radio. The initiative provided connections with diverse groups that are important for swan conservation: politicians, schools, hunters, farmers, windfarm companies, conservationists, government officials, scientists and local communities, and all these will continue their efforts into the future.
As a symbol of humanity‘s triumph over adversity in the service of conservation Sacha‘s flight breaks new ground. In terms of the amount of enthusiastic volunteer support and sheer professionalism it dwarfs earlier efforts. As an effective tool for publicity to raise the profile of the Bewick's swan, and to reveal mankind's unwitting damage to the basis of their existence, it is unparalleled. And as a demonstration of sheer determination, flying solo on a tiny machine from above the arctic circle to the relative warmth of southern Britain, it has few equals.