The Free Flight Physiology Project

The Free Flight Physiology Project

The Free Flight Physiology Project made its debut this year at the Coupe d’Icare, aiming to improve the safety and performance of pilots, and to push the boundaries of comparative physiology research.

The group is led by expedition doctor and paraglider pilot Dr Matt Wilkes and Exeter University physiological ecologist Dr Lucy Hawkes. It also includes Oxford biomechanicist and PWC pilot Professor Adrian Thomas, physiologist Dr Martin MacInnis, aerospace engineer Dr Michael Vergalla and Red Bull Athletes Tom de Dorlodot and Horacio Llorens.

Tom, Matt and Lucy
Tom de Dorlodot, Dr Lucy Hawkes and Dr Matt Wilkes at the Coupe Icare 2016

The first phase of the project studies Hypoxia, Safety and Performance. Understanding the physiological demands placed on pilots is key to establishing systems to prevent injury or loss of life. 

In a recent trip to Pakistan, Red Bull athlete Tom de Dorlodot ascended to 7,450m on his paraglider while the team measured his heart rate, respiration rate and oxygen saturation.


Paraglider pilots offer a unique study opportunity because they ascend fast without acclimatisation, they do so with limited physical effort and are completely exposed to the effects of altitude.

Understanding hypoxia is relevant to everyone, because it underpins anything that depends on precise management of oxygen delivery (e.g. heart attacks, strokes, acute asthma).

Over the coming months, they plan to expand their work to a wider range of paraglider pilots, to try to understand what happens to our bodies when we fly.

To learn more about the project, please visit