He’s no stranger to white-knuckle moments (remember that 288mph crash) but flying with vultures for his new show almost ended in another catastrophe for Richard Hammond
17:25 GMT, 4 November 2012
After Richard Hammond was left with life-threatening injuries from his horrific 288mph crash in a drag racing car back in 2006, you’d imagine the director of his new series would have thought twice about letting the Top Gear star do his own stunts.
Not Graham Booth, who put together Hammond’s new series Miracles Of Nature. In fact, the first thing he did was make Hammond jump off a 500ft cliff in a flimsy paraglider – and it almost backfired with terrible consequences.
The heart-stopping moment came as Hammond was attempting to ride air thermals with South African Cape vultures for the series, which looks at how characteristics unique to certain animals have inspired scientific breakthroughs for humans.
Richard Hammond is no stranger to white knuckle moments after his car accident
‘It was the first scene we shot,’ recalls Graham, 50, from Bristol. ‘We wanted to show how African Cape vultures can soar along air thermals despite their relatively short wings, and I came up with the idea of filming Richard flying among them in a paraglider.
Richard has a helicopter and loves flying, so he agreed instantly. But when we got to the edge of the cliff in South Africa, the reality of leaping over the side was terrifying. It wasn’t just Richard who was petrified – we all were. Richard was flying tandem with an expert, but with a sheer drop of more than 500ft, any error might prove fatal.
‘We rigged the paraglider up with cameras, and I could hear everything Richard was saying after they jumped. Suddenly they hit an air pocket. It whipped them several hundred feet up in the air so violently my heart skipped a beat. For a second, Richard could hardly talk. I think the force took the air from his lungs.’ On the film Hammond confesses, ‘I’m scared – on an Olympic scale.’
That was just one in a series of remarkable stunts in this fascinating new show, the idea for which Hammond came up with himself. ‘He loves animals, he’s passionate about science and he likes an adrenaline rush,’ says Graham. ‘So a series looking at how nature inspired some of science’s most exciting breakthroughs was perfect for him.’
After landing safely, Hammond plunged to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean in a tiny two-man sub called a Superaviator, to demonstrate how the vultures’ ability to float in the air on thermals can be used to help humans navigate on the seabed.
Richard on the tandem paraglider
The sub turns the principle upside down, using its short wings to glide beneath currents and keep it down on the sea floor. But riding in the craft, says Graham, took nerves of steel. ‘It’s tiny – anyone with claustrophobia would have a panic attack. The cameramen were saying, “I’m not getting into that,” but Richard jumped in without hesitation.’
Some of the scientific breakthroughs in the series also prove how natural phenomena can be used to save lives. ‘We know scientists are studying the spongy bones in the skulls of woodpeckers, which act as shock absorbers for their brains when they hammer their beaks into trees,’ explains Graham.
‘They believe the same principles could help design safer motorcycle helmets. Our engineer made a carbon-fibre cylinder with soft layers, fibrous material and sponge to recreate the layers in a woodpecker’s skull. Then we dropped it from space with a lightbulb inside.
'We sent the cylinder up with a helium balloon and at 80,000ft it was dropped back to earth, travelling at 700mph. When we got it back, we found the lightbulb intact. Helmet manufacturers are now actively looking at the system.’
For Dan Smith, a 21-year-old student who went blind two years ago, the show meant the chance to ride a bike for the first time since being struck down by a rare genetic condition, thanks to the principles behind bats’ sonar.
Dan, from north London, says, ‘My twin brother Michael went blind first. Once doctors discovered it was due to the genetic defect Leber’s Optic Neuropathy, we had to wait to see if I was going to be affected.’
Unfortunately, Dan’s vision started to go in 2010. He continued studying aeronautical engineering at the University of Bristol but had to stop the sports he loved, including cycling. Then Dan was contacted by Hammond’s team. ‘They asked if I fancied trying out a new “bat bike” which uses sonar. I said yes – though my mother wasn’t happy!’
The ride of Dan’s life took place in August. Reacting to vibrations sent to the handlebars of the bike from sensors mounted at the front, Dan was able to steer his way round the course. ‘I did fall off a few times,’ he says, ‘and my mother gave the producers a piece of her mind!
'It was incredibly scary – riding at 25mph when you can’t see what’s in front of you is a huge act of trust. I spent two hours riding and when I finished I was weak with exhaustion. But I loved it. Now the same technology is being used for the Ultracane – a cane with a sensor in it.
‘I’m a huge Richard Hammond fan. He does mad things for TV, and I love his crazy stunts, but this series takes it to a different level. It shows how ideas from the natural world can change and save lives – there’s no better television than that.’
Richard Hammond’s Miracles Of Nature is on Monday at 9pm on BBC1.