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Russia's Putin takes to sky to lead flight of cranes

Russian President Vladimir Putin has piloted an ultralight to lead a flock of young Siberian white cranes in flight. NBC's Karl Bostic reports.

MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin took his love of wildlife to new heights Wednesday by flying with endangered cranes to help lead them on a migration route.

Putin donned a baggy white costume with a spacious helmet and goggles and was shown in media reports flying with a copilot in a motorized deltaplane light aircraft.

Putin flew a test flight followed by two flights with the cranes, Russian news agency Ria Novosti reported.


"They got used to it. They are not afraid, they are overtaking the deltaplane," a smiling Putin said after landing, broadcaster Rossiya 24 reported. "They are overtaking, approaching the wing from the left, from the right, from above. Well done. Beautiful guys. Cute. They are 3 months old but already quite big."

Alexei Nikolsky / AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin

The cranes were raised at the Kushevat ornithological sanctuary and had to be shown the route to wintering grounds, Ria Novosti news agency reported. Kushevat is near the city of Salerkhard, close to the Arctic Circle.

PhotoBlog: Russia's Putin takes to sky

When the cranes were released Wednesday, only one followed the flying leader on his first flight. Five birds followed on the second flight, Ria Novosti said, although only two kept pace for 15 minutes.

The exercise was aimed at prompting the birds to follow the plane and prepare them for their migration route -- part of the "Flight of Hope" project to protect the endangered Siberian white crane.

Visibly pleased, Putin said it had been his idea to fly the deltaplane, although it appeared to be steered most of the time by another person in a similar white costume sitting behind him.

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"I liked this program," Putin said, telling Ria Novosti that he had become interested and bought a motorized hang glider with his own money, which he said he would hand over to the scientists.

"I advise everyone to try it," he said.

Putin has tracked a Siberian tiger and posed with a polar bear as part of an effort to create the image of a clean-living, nature-loving person during his 12 years as Russia's leader.

AP

Russian President Vladimir Putin, (foreground) flies in a motorized hangglider alongside two Siberian white cranes on Wednesday on the Yamal Peninsula, in Russia.

Macho stunts by Putin, who turns 60 in October, have helped his image but have also irritated some Russians and become fodder for for satire by opponents.

There was widespread disbelief in 2008 when Putin appeared to save a television crew from a rare Amur tiger in far eastern Russia by shooting it with a tranquilizer gun, the Guardian newspaper of London reported.

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The Kremlin's press service admitted last year that Putin's dive in the Black Sea had been staged -- Greek amphorae had been placed on the sea floor for Putin to "discover."

Putin, a former KGB spy back at the Kremlin for his third term in office, in the winter faced the largest wave of dissent against his spell over Russia since he first became president.

Though the protests have lost some steam, opposition activists on Wednesday eagerly jumped on the latest stunt by reinterpreting the lyrics of a 1980s disco song, "Deltaplane" -- "Possibly, only a hang-glider will help me" - as heralding Putin's eventual departure from power.

During a question-and-answer with Russians while he was president, he was asked why he looked more comfortable with wild tigers and leopards than with his own ministers, the Guardian reported.

"The more I know people, the more I like dogs," Putin replied. "I simply like animals."

This article includes reporting by Reuters.

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