Obituary | The Human Condor | Story

Obituary | The Human Condor: Angelo d'Arrigo,1961-2006


The Sicilian aviator and ornithologist Angelo d’Arrigo claimed that he ‘followed the dream of Icarus’. Flying was his passion and ‘No Limits’ was the logo on his helmet, and his email address. After a career as an instructor in skiing, hang gliding, and paragliding, he turned to competitive sports, and when he withdrew from that circuit after years of world titles, he returned to the place he loved on the slopes of the volcano Mount Etna in Sicily, Italy, where he was based in his later years. 

On these invigorating and dramatic slopes, where the elements of earth, water, fire, and air mingle, d' Arrigo established his hang-gliding school, the No Limits Etna Centre, It was here that he organized his annual charity ‘Carnival Fly’ with hang gliders and paragliders from around the world, all in fancy dress, raising money for the children’s charities which were dear to him. It was here, too, that he indulged in his other great passion: ornithology. 

In his aviary on the slopes of Etna, d’Arrigo had nurtured two Andean condor eggs. He covered the aviary with a black and white condor-shaped hang-glider to get the 1 chicks used to the shape of their absent mother without whom condor chicks will never normally learn to fly. Before the chicks hatched, d’Arrigo talked to them to make them used to his voice, as he planned to imprint himself onto the chicks: he would become their ‘mother’ and teach them to fly. Wearing a condor mask, he had already been taking the young birds, called Maya and Inca, on flying lessons around Mount Etna. The sight of the birds following the black and white condorshaped hang-glider over the volcanic slopes epitomized d’Arrigo’s extraordinary superhuman spirit. He was planning to release the birds in their natural habitat in the Peruvian Andes later in 2006. 

D’Arrigo’s recent successes displayed the perfect marriage between extreme aerial sports and ornithological research. Showing extraordinary ingenuity and determination, he spent an astonishing 15,000 hours flying with great gliding birds, such as migratory vultures and eagles, to learn flying techniques and routes from them and prepare for his ventures. In 2001 he completed the first free flight over the entire Sahara Desert and the Mediterranean, following the migratory path of desert hawks. As part of a Russian ornithology project in 2003, he ‘guided’ a flock of Siberian cranes, born in captivity, for almost three and a half thousand miles to show them their species’ traditional migratory route from the Arctic Circle, across Siberia to the Caspian Sea. D’Arrigo flew with the cranes for six hours a day, instructing them how to conserve energy by using the upward thermal currents. I Studying the flight of native South American condors enabled him to overfly the Tupungato Volcano in the Andes in a hang-glider, using the air currents to soar up to 9100 meters in 2006, which broke his previous record of height for a hang-glider.

D’Arrigo’s most astounding feat, however, was the fulfillment of his dream to fly over Mount Everest in 2004. Flying experts told him that it could not be done: the air would be too thin and cold with temperatures as low as -5O degrees Centigrade and wind speeds would be over 100mph. It was a mission impossible to all but d’Arrigo. He prepared diligently for the project for more than three years, working in special chambers and testing his gear in wind tunnels. He and his British microlight pilot, Richard Meredith-Hardy, studied weather forecasts a year in advance of their planned flight in minute detail. In May 2004, they were waiting in the Himalaya, ready to fly the moment a window of opportunity in the weather opened. 

At 3:30 a.m. d’Arrigo woke at his usual time to see a clear sky speckled with stars. The mist had lifted, the air humidity had changed. The team seized their chance. Piloting his microlight and towing d’Arrigo on his hang-glider, Meredith-Hardy headed for Ama Dablam, crossed the glacier, and headed directly for the peak of Lhotse. Astonished climbers gazed in amazement at the strange birds in the sky, never seen before or since. Close to the peak, the microlight ran into a gigantic area: of turbulence which dragged it downwards and at the same time projected d’Arrigo violently upwards, breaking the tow rope. At a height of around 9000 meters and about 500 meters south of the peak, d’Arrigo released the remains of the tow rope, and in his helmet and oxygen mask soared up and over the highest mountain in the world. His dream of Icarus had been realized, but he gave full credit to his team who enabled him to achieve his extraordinary feat. ‘I was the person who flew over Everest,’ he said after the flight. ‘But it would not have been possible without the extraordinary professional skill of a supporting team. Each member of the team had a specific role and each was indispensable in attaining the result.’ 

In March 2006 at an air show in Italy, just two months after his record-breaking flight over the Andean volcano, Darrigo was a passenger in a light plane. By a cruelly ironic stroke of fate, it stalled and plummeted to the earth from 200 meters. Inspirational sky-climber d’Arrigo, the Birdman of Everest, was killed along with his highly experienced pilot. Like Icarus, he finally fell from the skies, but not before he had scaled the heights in his hang-glider as no one before had ever dared even to attempt. 

He leaves behind a wife and three children-and the condor chicks which will now have to find their way over the Peruvian Andes. 

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