Joanna Lumley, 75, recalls the vivid shock when she learned that one of her ITV co-stars had died on the job while they were filming her latest documentary. The actress was shooting another project in Berlin at the time of the accident, when two colleagues collided while flying conventional paramotor – a one-person flying machine that’s powered by battery rather than a petrol engine – in mid-air.
Joanna had been working with Sacha Dench and her support pilot and photographer Dan Burton when tragedy struck.
Sacha is well-known as the Human Swan after she flew a paramotor from the Russian Arctic to the UK along the migratory route of endangered swans in 2016.
The passionate environmentalist planned a daring, 3,000-mile journey round the British coast and after reaching out to Joanna to help her draw attention to problems such as coastal erosion and the plastic waste that litters our beaches, the presenter believed it was something ITV would cover, and they agreed.
“I went to ITV and said, ‘There’s this phenomenal girl who is doing this amazing thing, shall we do something with it?’” she recalled in a new interview.
“And bless their hearts, ITV said yes in a nanosecond.”
But as Sacha was just days away from reaching the end of her journey, on 18 September in the Western Highlands, she and Burton collided.
The 54-year-old father of two from Devon was sadly killed in the accident, whereas Sacha luckily survived but remains in hospital with critical injuries.
As she wasn’t filming with them when it happened, Joanna was sick to her stomach when she learned of the “unbearable, heartbreaking” tragedy.
“Dan’s family bravely insisted that we complete the film, and Sacha sent a message, despite her critical injuries, saying, ‘Get the film finished,'” Joanna said.
“I was terribly moved.”
She continued to gush over Sacha’s willingness to raise awareness of the climate crisis in this way, describing her motivation as “fantastically brave”.
“I can’t tell you even the weight of the backpack she wears,” Joanna exclaimed wide-eyed.
“Then there’s a huge tug pulling you backwards just as you’ve got to run forwards at speed before you can start the motor to take off into the wind. She’s massively skilful!”
There were points though, where Joanna’s “heart was in her mouth” after her colleague suffered some technical difficulties which caused the starter motor to keep cutting out.
But once her anxiety settled, the actress was in awe of her.
“My heart was with her all the time, but once she’s up and flying, she’s just like a goddess, she really is a human swan.
“She’s flying in the air, and it’s wonderful to see.”
Joanna Lumley’s full interview is available to read now in Radio Times