When Christian Moullec saw that lesser white-fronted geese were struggling with their migration from Germany to Sweden in 1995, he took to the skies to help them. Today, weather permitting, he soars with birds on an almost daily basis.
A meteorologist by trade, the 58-year-old Frenchman didn’t start out as a pilot. But inspired by an Austrian zoologist known as “the man who walked with geese,” Moullec adapted a two-seater ultralight aircraft to fly alongside the vulnerable species to guide them on a safer migration route. Now, from March through October, he takes tourists up to fly with birds.
Some of his visitors travel more than 15 hours by plane for a 35-minute ride with Moullec and his avian companions, often spotting cranes and geese like the brent, barnacle, red-breasted, and greylag species. The passengers take in aerial views of castles, deserts, bridges, cities, and mountains, sometimes flying as far as Edinburgh, Scotland and Venice, Italy.
Moullec has only been taking tourists for trips for a handful of years, and his conservation efforts continue.
Who are your clients? What are they hoping to get out of the experience?
My passengers come from all over the world and are all kinds of people, especially Europeans. The flight inspires in me a huge respect for nature and I can communicate this respect to my passengers. There are also people with disabilities and those who want to experience a great time in the sky with the birds before leaving this world. It is an overwhelming spiritual experience. The most beautiful thing is to fly in the heavens with the angels that are the birds.
How did you get started in flying among birds?
In 1995 I wanted to reintroduce lesser white-fronted geese into the wild in Lapland [north of Sweden]. At the beginning it was very difficult for me. The birds didn’t want to follow me.
Do you have a favorite story from flying with the birds?
My favorite was a big flight with 33 lesser white-fronted geese, from northern Sweden to southwestern Germany. My wife was on board with me and she was [five months pregnant and] expecting our first son. The trip lasted 5 weeks. With my wife and some biologist friends, we hope to continue to make other migrations for the success of the reintroduction project of lesser white-fronted geese in the wild.
What do you do when you get up in the air with the birds?
We fly over beautiful valleys, near the largest ancient volcano in Europe [the Plomb du Cantal]. When there are clouds, we fly above them. I also like taking pictures of these flights. This is an opportunity for me to testify about the disappearance of migratory birds in Europe, because of the use of chemicals in agriculture.
A third of wild birds have disappeared from Europe during the last 30 years, because of man. It’s a disaster. My beautiful images with flying birds should be used to tell this story. The famous French writer Victor Hugo said that the beautiful is more useful than the useful, so I hope that the beautiful images of my birds in flight will be useful to migratory birds and to humans.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This article was first published by National Geographic on 04 Jan 2018.