Our group was founded when mountain doctor and paraglider pilot Dr Matt Wilkes met physiological ecologist Dr Lucy Hawkes in 2015. They decided to fuse Matt’s work in altitude and human performance with Lucy’s experience of studying extreme animal migrations to investigate the beautiful and fascinating world of free flight.
Matt and Lucy were soon joined by biomechanicist and pilot Professor Adrian Thomas, physiologist Dr Martin MacInnis, aerospace engineer Michael Vergalla and Red Bull Athletes Tom de Dorlodot and Horacio Llorens.
Together, the Free Flight Physiology Project was born. Our aims? To improve the safety and performance of pilots, and to push the boundaries of comparative physiology research.
Dr Matt Wilkes
Matt is a Registrar in Anaesthesia and Critical Care, a Doctoral Student at the Extreme Environment Laboratory, a Research Fellow at the Centre for Altitude, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine and a Director of Adventure Medic Ltd. He has worked as an anaesthetist in the UK, New Zealand and Nepal; a researcher in New York and the Bolivian Andes and a Flight Physician in East Africa with the AMREF Flying Doctors. Passionate about paragliding, Matt founded the FFPP to improve safety and performance within the sport he loves. Matt’s MSc was in Mountain Medicine, focussed on the pathophysiology of cerebral altitude illness and in 2017 he began a PhD looking at the interaction of altitude and cold in paraglider pilots.
Dr Lucy Hawkes
Lucy is a physiological ecologist who is interested in animal migration, particularly the adaptations that animals exhibit to excel in extreme environments. Her research focuses on the costs and drivers of migratory strategies in vertebrates using emergent technologies such as satellite telemetry and physiological logging, as well as physiology techniques such as respirometry and blood gas analysis. Her work has also focused on the impact of external forcing factors, such as climate change and disease ecology, on migration and breeding ecology. Lucy’s future research will make inroads into migratory physiology using emerging technologies and multi-technique approaches using nature’s medal winning athlete, the bird, as her model species.
Dr Martin MacInnis
Martin is a postdoctoral fellow at McMaster University, specialising in exercise and environmental physiology. His research program uses an integrative approach to understand human adaptations to stress. He studies the roles of exercise intensity, exercise duration, and nutrition on skeletal muscle responses to aerobic training, with a focus on skeletal muscle mitochondrial content, metabolic health and cardiorespiratory fitness. Martin’s other line of research, which was the focus of his PhD, is the process through which humans adjust to high altitude. His research attempts to understand the variables that explain the variability in human responses to high altitude, with a focus on acute mountain sickness.
Professor Adrian Thomas
Adrian Thomas is a Professor of Biomechanics at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford and an accomplished competition paraglider pilot. Biomechanics, Aerodynamics and Evolution: the adaptations of animals for aerodynamic and biomechanical performance provide a unique opportunity to analyse evolutionary processes because the optimal designs for particular aspects of performance can often be predicted a priori, and independently of the evolutionary history of the animals involved. Professor Thomas uses aerodynamic theory to predict optimal morphologies for specific aspects of flight ecology (flight missions), and test the predictions with phylogenetically controlled comparative methods, with mechanical model organisms, and with free-flying or swimming animals in the laboratory, or in the field. Professor Thomas is Director of Studies in Biological Sciences at Lady Margaret Hall and runs the animal flight research group in Zoology. He is also chairman of the Flight section of the Bionis International Biomimetics Network. Professor Thomas is an aerodynamics consultant with Airwave GMBH paraglider, hang glider and ultralight aircraft manufacturers.
Michael Vergalla is a California based Aerospace Engineer, Pilot and Researcher. He founded Free Flight Research Lab to use his experience in spacecraft design and payload development to unlock the potential of free flight as an airborne test platform. His projects focus on advancing weather science, land/species conservation, and free flight safety. Michael has worked since 2013 on understanding, addressing and managing motion sickness in free flight through both self-regulation training and bio-metric instrumentation.
Sofia has been a globetrotter since her early years. Living from one country to another, including Argentina, Paraguay, Belgium and Morocco, she grew up in a multicultural environment, immersed in different languages and embracing other cultures. She moved back to Belgium in 2010 where she obtained her Bachelor’s Degree in Communications. She gained high professional skills working in television and radio. Also fascinated by the performing arts, Sofia got a two years experience in one of Belgium’s best acting schools, Institut des Arts de Diffusion (IAD). Being fascinated by foreign countries and collaborate with people from the most diverse backgrounds, she soon found her way into the exiting world of SEARCH Projects that combines hard work and her passion for the outdoors.
Tom de Dorlodot
If Tom de Dorlodot had a day job, his office would be a paraglider harness. Tom is one of those rare breeds of professional paragliders and paramotor pilots, who spend their time travelling around the world seeking for new adventures. Tom learned how to fly as a teenager, skipping some essential rules while testing new skills; he flew his paramotor over cloud layers before he could even navigate. This forced him to find his own way back home after questioning locals who were more confused than he was. Once he gained sufficient experience, Tom de Dorlodot became the first pilot to fly over the Machu Pichu in 2008. However, he also became a 24 hours “guest” in the local jail. Two years later, he broke the record distance in La Caeja (Mexico) and managed to land, during a beautiful sunset, in Sahuayo; one of the country’s most dangerous ganglands. He was kindly escorted out of the city by a truck driver who, though politely, insisted he should get the “hell out of here”. So what does Tom’s life look like when he is not beating world records in Pakistan or competing in the Red Bull X-Alps? Lets just say his thirst of adventure never ends, leading him to fly over the Maya pyramids in Guatemala, travels with his paramotor from Belgium to Istanbul, and cross the African continent (north to south) in search of the best flying spots. In addition of a committed adventurer, Tom is a keen pilot with a major talent in photography and cameraman. All those adventures around the globe inspired Tom to develop the idea and concept of the SEARCH projects. Together with his production crew, he travels the world with his fully equipped AMAROK. Thanks to those trips, the SEARCH crew portrays unique paragliding footages, emphasizing each country’s beauty and habitat.
A pioneer of aerobatic paragliding, Horacio Llorens began his life with wings at 14, when watching his cousins fly at his uncle’s paragliding school in the Spanish industrial aviation hub of Albacete. After training with his cousins Raúl and Félix Rodríguez, he took to aerobatic paragliding, and together they set up the SAT (Safety Acro Team), a team which would travel the world, achieving great success. At 18, he entered his first competition, one of the very few synchronised aerobatic paragliding tournaments that existed in those days, as the discipline was regarded as too dangerous. Despite the lack of events, Horacio persevered, attempting complicated manoeuvres in a bid to develop the sport. His work paid off; in competition he had advanced much further than anybody else. Not long after placing second at Red Bull Vertigo in 2002, he found his synchro partner, Argentine Hernán Pitocco. Step by step, Horacio has helped aerobatic paragliding to have a solid place alongside the rest of aerial sports. He always pushes himself to the limit – in 2012, Horacio smashed the world record for infinity tumbling – achieving 568 revolutions after jumping from a helicopter at 19,700 feet above the Mayan ruins of Takalik Abaj in Guatemala, and experiencing up to 6G with each rotation. He’s also the reference in competitions, having been crowned World Champion five times to date.