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|| News Item: Posted 2002-07-31

Gas-bags I have known
Following a balloon around the world

By Trevor Collens, The West Australian

Photo by Nathan Richter / Brisbane Courier-Mail

Photo by Nathan Richter / Brisbane Courier-Mail

Photographer Trevor Collens of "The West Australian" at the outback landing site with the partially deflated Spirit of Freedom.
You don't get assignments like this every day: Cover billionaire adventurer Steve Fossett's sixth attempt at a solo circumnavigation of the Globe in his balloon "Spirit of Freedom". All the way ? around the World ? a luxury private jet? many countries?...Where do I sign?.

My brief was to shoot pool pictures for distribution to the wire agencies, along with coverage for my own newspaper, "The West Australian". Steve Fossett would be providing his Cessna Citation X business jet as the chase plane and (courageously)his credit card for expenses.

The proposed itinerary had us visiting some of the most out-of -the-way places in the Southern Hemisphere, and perhaps the odd thriving metropolis, as Fossett floated his way around the World.

Once again the small town of Northam, 100 kilometers east of Perth, was chosen as the launch site due to it's location in the Avon valley providing the still air necessary during the balloon's four hour inflation process.

Last years balloon launch became a farcical exercise that was delayed after a launch mishap tore the balloon, then again delayed for nearly two weeks until the wind conditions were just perfect for the lift off. We all had unhappy memories of a long, long night huddling on a camera platform in freezing condition waiting for the launch. I swear it took three days for my feet to defrost.

Welcome news at this year's launch was a heated press tent, and the fact that Fossett's new sponsor was a brewery. Aussie photographers and reporters do enjoy relaxing with a beer or ten, and were most pleased to note that the sponsor, a large American brewery, had amply stocked the press tent with their product. We were looking forward to sampling a few coldies during the long hours waiting for the balloon inflation process to begin. Beer always tastes twice as good when it's free.

As the night wore on there were several delays before the balloon was successfully inflated in perfect dawn light. None of us had relished shooting the launch by flash as the envelope is made of reflective space blanket material that flared badly on digital camera's, blowing out the highlights and taking most of the rest of the frame with it. Wearing a hard hat and parachute, Fossett climbed aboard, waved to the large crowd and with little fanfare floated off. I had time to move a few pictures then head to Perth airport to board the jet for our first rendezvous.

Fosset's plane, the Citation X is the fastest non-military jet in the world that is still currently in production. Steve Fossett and Pierre d'Avenas, our chief pilot for this trip, broke an around the world record in it last year. Even more importantly, it has a fabulously stocked bar! . I shared the cabin with three other passengers, American videographer Phil Yunker, British video engineer Andy Milk and fellow Aussie, media consultant Errol Considine, and d'Avenas and co-pilot Doug Travis. The pilots tell me the Citation X is absolutely state of the art as far as technology and avionic systems go, superior to even the newest airliners.

Fossett's balloon floats as high as 35,000 feet, which is waaay too high for a chopper or unpressurized light aircraft to reach. That altitude is higher than most airliners cruising height. It had to be the jet, which also had the range to reach the balloon over the vast expanses of open Ocean.

The first air to air rendezvous was above the salt-scarred desert southeast of Kalgoorlie. My steep learning curve was about to get vertical. I had been concerned about shooting through the windows of the jet and the effect on my images, so it was with some trepidation that I acquired the files on my laptop as soon as we finished circling the balloon, but nothing had prepared me for that special kind of angst when every frame proved to be out of focus. And I don't mean just soft, I mean seriously furry. Err....can we go back, please?

If you've ever tried to shoot through a car window you'll know all about distortion and the defocusing effect on the subject. Now try shooting through two car windows, each one about 4 inches apart. Factor in a curve that follows the shape of the fuselage without a flat pane anywhere, then put a tint over the outer pane that reflects back at you. I tried polarisers, huddled under a black cloth, shot from the other side of the plane, blacked out the cabin as much as possible- all equally as bad. If all that wasn't enough to deal with, the perspex windows caught and scattered the light if the sun was at the wrong angle forcing us to plan the approach like a Japanese WW2 fighter pilot attacking in his zero with the sun behind him.

Photo by

Chase plane crew in Santiago, l to r: Capt Pierre d'avenis, Trevor Collens, cameraman Phil Yunker, video engineer Andy Milk, first officer Doug Travis and media manager Erol Considine.
There was no choice other than to select my sharpest out-of-focus pictures to transmit and resist the temptation to unsharp mask them within a pixel of their miserable soft-edged lives. Time to go and have a good cry.

After spending some time studying objects through the window, I worked out that the aircraft window, much like a tennis racquet, had a sweet spot that would allow me to get a reasonable result provided I held the camera at a perfect right angle to the glass. The following rendezvous in the middle of the Tasman, between Sydney and Auckland, New Zealand was a little better. By utilizing the sweet spot the pictures were "sharpish". Although nowhere near crisp, this was as good as it was going to get.

The rendezvous procedure was dictated by the necessity to keep our distance from the balloon to avoid creating turbulence that would disrupt Fossett. The jet circled Spirit of Freedom at a distance of about two kilometers so videographer Phil Yunker could get long, uninterrupted tracking shots, while engineer Andy Milk downloaded footage from camera's mounted in the balloon via a microwave link. Meanwhile, media consultant Errol Considine would conduct an air to air interview with Fossett to provide sound bites for TV and radio.

Then the pilots would perform two closer, higher passes for me to get some tighter shots. The speed difference between the balloon and the jet becomes apparent on these fly-bys as it flashes past the window. It's a little like photographing a ten story building rushing past at about 500 kmh through a porthole.

I used a 300/2.8 and 1.4 converter on a Canon 1D, the most suitable combination that I could still hand hold while being bent out of shape by the G-forces from the tight banking. I don't normally suffer from motion sickness but I soon became disoriented looking through the camera, and on a couple of occasions I nearly graced the plushy carpeted cabin with a splendid Technicolor yawn.

From this point the balloon and the jet took divergent paths. Fossett headed way south across the Pacific, while we headed to Tahiti for two days of seafood and snorkeling. The crew began a daily salutation to Fossett each evening- while enjoying a sumptuous meal we would toast "Captain Steve" and his MRE (meal ready to eat) military ration packs he was living on.

Back on the flying gentlemen's' club for the flight to Easter Island, again without a rendezvous with the balloon. There are limited landing spots over the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean that determined the chase planes route, but Spirit of Freedom was too far south, beyond the fuel range of the jet.

Spending nearly three weeks in close confines with 5 other people could be most unpleasant if there is disharmony in the group, but fortunately I was lucky enough to teamed with a good bunch of guys who enjoyed a laugh and had a wonderful sense of the bizarre.

Easter island was a fascinating two day stop over. Known mainly as the home of the giant heads carved out of volcanic rock by a mysterious tribe who became extinct, the tiny island is about 5 hours flying time off the west coast of Chile. The airstrip is the only one within 3 thousand kilometers, so planes have to wait until the previous flight has landed safely before they can take off for Easter Island, because if the previous flight crashed and made the runway unusable there is nowhere to divert to.

We managed to hire 3 enduro-type motor -cycles in town and went sight-seeing, along the dirt trails that crisscross the island. There are stone heads scattered all over the island but the main concentration is near the extinct volcano from which they were quarried. Truly amazing to think how they were carved out of rock and moved all over the island without heavy equipment. Pilot Pierre took the award for motorcycle crash of the day, right into a patch of Easter Island mega mud.

Since I hadn't filed pictures of the balloon since crossing the Tasman I lined up a couple of pictures of local air traffic controllers tracking the balloon's progress to fill the void, but was unable to move the pictures. The island phone service had stopped working completely, a common occurrence according to the locals. I couldn't even get out on my sat phone. The main POR satellite that serves the island (and my sat phone) was out of service for some reason. I managed to move one picture on the pilot's Iridium phone, but that took numerous re-connections and about 40 minutes for one highly jpeg'ed pic. I hope it was used by someone somewhere as it cost about $500 to transmit.

Fossett had his own troubles, getting caught in a downdraft that pushed him to within 400 feet of the Ocean. The jet was dispatched to Punta Arenas, Chile at the southern tip of South America to be on standby in case the mission needed to be aborted. We hadn't seen the balloon for several days and I was anxious to get some pictures out.

The obvious money shot was the balloon crossing the Andes, but failing that a coastal entry or exit would suffice. I was becoming increasingly paranoid about the cloud cover. One picture of Spirit of Freedom floating high over cloud cover looked much like the next. I really needed to get some land features in the picture to get a sense of location.

We spent the night in Punta Arenas, toasting Captain Steve at a restaurant where, if you wish, you can order conger eel prepared seven different ways. There was snow and ice everywhere, a bit of a novelty for a west Aussie like me, but the weather disgusted everyone else.

Worst case scenario occurred the next day as Fossett crossed the coast and the Andes at night. We headed for Santiago with a consolation rendezvous near Puerto Montt in Chile. Over more cloud cover.

To make a more interesting picture I wanted to shoot directly down on top of the balloon from above, so Pierre had a think about how to do it without creating undue turbulence. The technique was to get to the correct height and slow the plane as much as possible, do half a barrel roll, fall on your face into the window because the wall is now the floor, have all your camera gear hit the back of your head as it falls onto the wall/floor, aim your camera out the window and get as many frames of the 500 kmh ten story building as possible. Simple really.

Photo by Trevor Collens / Marathon Racing Inc.

Photo by Trevor Collens / Marathon Racing Inc.

Pilot Steve Fossett's Bud Lite Spirit of Freedom balloon floats at 21,500 feet, 95 nautical miles inland East London, South Africa , Sunday June 30, 2002.
We waited at Santiago airport the following morning for what seemed forever awaiting instruction on our next destination. We were hoping to go to Ascension Island in the middle of the Atlantic to refuel, but it is a US military base and civilian aircraft are strictly not allowed to land there. Mission control were trying to get permission to land as we were part of an aviation world record, but were waiting on clearance from the Pentagon, of all places. The problem was a certain Aussie photographer being a member of the Press.

If we were unable to refuel at Ascension we would have to take a circuitous route and land in West Africa at Abijan, Ivory Coast. I wasn't keen on this, particularly when AP Sydney picture editor Russell McPhedran had told me two weeks previously that the last four agency photographers killed in action had been based in Abijan. The chase plane crew threatened to hand me over on landing so they could relax for the rest of the stay.

In the meantime we were told to go to Rio de Janierio. Oh well, if you insist. We flew across the Andes with clear skies, which was just sensational, but I couldn't help but pine for what might have been. Spent the evening in the bar at the Sheraton watching the gigolos dance with face lifted old ladies. Talk about a living cliche, it was just hilarious.

We had to leave early the next morning but as Brazil were playing in the soccer World Cup final in two days time I wanted to try and get a preview picture. I had to be up and out before dawn to have enough time to get to Copacabana beach and back before we left for the airport. Unfortunately dawn is not the best time to find animated Brazilian soccer fans.

Permission for our refueling stop at Ascension Island was granted, so we began the long haul to the island, then on to Cape Town, South Africa. There were two things I really liked about South Africa: Castle Lager, and the exchange rate. The Rand is about on a par with the zloty, and is one of the few countries in the World where the Aussie dollar is actually has some value. As long as you don't buy imported goods everything is very cheap. For us, that translated to food and drink.

Captain Pierre, who appreciates the finer things in life, found out that the best seafood restaurant in Cape Town was near our hotel. It was sensational. The Oysters were wild, not cultivated, and the shrimps were the size of lobsters - I've never seen anything like it. All washed down with several bottles of excellent South African wine and a few hundred cans of Castle lager.

Fossett had crossed the South African coastline at night and was floating over the interior, heading for an exit over the Natal coast south of Durban. This meant a 4am departure to catch him over the interior, then land at Durban to refuel before having another crack leaving the coast.

Photo by Pool / Trevor Collens

Photo by Pool / Trevor Collens

5?{e?ve Fossett's Bud Lite Spirit of Freedom balloon crosses the Natal coast 45 kilometres south of Durban, South Africa at 27,000 feet, Sunday June 30, 2002.
We left the hotel early, heading for the airport in a minibus that promptly ran out of fuel. There were curses galore as the minibus coughed and spluttered it's way down some dodgy looking back streets before a gas station miraculously loomed out of the darkness. We literally coasted up to the bowser with the tank drained dry.

I had high hopes for getting some good pics over Africa, with the Drakenburg mountains inland of East London being on the projected course.....but when we got to Spirit of Freedom there was thick cloud yet again. We did our usual thing, but it was so disappointing to have cloud cover yet again when we hadn't seen the balloon since South America. Ten minutes after we left Fossett, the skies cleared, the sun came out, the snow capped mountains stretched to the horizon, and there wasn't enough fuel to go back. Dammit!

Durban was only a refueling stop, but we waited a couple of hours for the balloon to catch up to have another crack at it leaving the Natal coast. We had lunch at a dodgy cafe while I moved some pictures. Among the delights was a hamburger with monkey gland sauce, and ladies rump steak. We weren't sure if ladies rump was a smaller rump steak for smaller appetites or if … never mind.

South Africa was one of only two countries where my cell phone would work, and gave me the chance to give the excellent new Bluetooth transmission system a workout. I had heard lots of reports about flaky performance but I was impressed, mine never missed a beat.

At last!, I finally, finally got some good clear cloud free pics with background feature as Spirit of Freedom left the Natal coast of South Africa and headed out over the Indian Ocean on the final stretch back to Australia. We flew ahead and spent the night in Mauritius before having to rush back to the airport and get airborne as soon as possible because Fossett had got into a screaming jet stream traveling about 350 kmh, and was gaining on us.

Photo by Trevor Collens / Marathon Racing Inc.

Photo by Trevor Collens / Marathon Racing Inc.

Steve Fossett's Bud Light Spirit of Freedom floats over the south Australian coastline near Ceduna. Fossett became the first person to complete a solo circumnavigation of the globe in a balloon.
An eventful stopover in the middle of the night at the Cocos (Keeling) Island when the plane refused to start. A jet starter motor refused to ignite, so had to be jump started by an old piece of equipment that hadn't been used for years. At one stage it looked like we might be stranded and miss the landing.

Long flight and an early morning arrival in Perth to complete our own circumnavigation of the Globe. No rest yet, though. I managed to get home overnight, and left early telling my wife I was headed for Kalgoorlie. Raging winds had blown Fossett steadily eastwards so the destination soon changed to Forrest, a railway siding in the middle of the desolate Nullabor plain, before being again changed to Ceduna on Australia's southern coast.

My luck changed for the better. I managed to get some great pictures in perfectly clear sky of Spirit of Freedom crossing the Australian coast near Ceduna but the wind was so strong it was clearly impossible to land a balloon safely, so we were dispatched to the isolated outpost of Woomera.

Woomera airport had turned into a staging post of sorts, becoming crowded with various media choppers and fixed wings. Two days before a major news story had occurred in Woomera with a mass breakout from the detention centre that houses illegal immigrants who claim to be seeking asylum in Australia. Many news crews had just returned to their home base from the remote town and simply had to turn around and retrace their steps.

One legacy of the breakout was that all the phone lines had been cut to the airport and cell phone coverage is just a dream in a town this remote so I was forced to crank up my excruciatingly slow sat phone.

Woomera was still way too windy so we headed to the iconic Australian outback town of Birdsville in deepest darkest Queensland. Over dinner that night the logistical operation of the recovery were discussed in anticipation of a dawn landing in the open country near lake Yamma Yamma.

Plans were made, maps were looked at, ines were drawn, experts were consulted, schedule were made up and people were assigned. Two choppers were going to fly out to the proposed landing site in the middle of the desert near Durham Downs station. I was to share a slow chopper with Phil, and the landing team were travelling in the faster one. We were going to hover overhead and get pictures of them guiding the balloon to the ground, then land and get pics of Fossett emerging victorious from the capsule (or dead, if the landing didn't go well).

Photo by Trevor Collens / Marathon Racing inc.

Photo by Trevor Collens / Marathon Racing inc.

V?t Spirit of Freedom lies partially deflated in the desert north-east of Australian outback town Birdsville, Queensland shortly after touchdown. Pilot Steve Fossett became the first person to complete a solo circumnavigation of the globe by balloon.
We left Birdsville at 4am for the two and a half hour trip. Once in the air the carefully laid out plans went out the window, and we were left straggling behind as we stopped to refuel while the main chopper went ahead and landed the balloon. We missed the touchdown completely which was a bitter pill to swallow after having chased Fossett literally around the World. Our chopper arrived about 5 minutes after touchdown so I had to put my disappointment aside and salvage whatever pictures I could from the landing.

Fossett was infectiously happy, having achieved a goal he has single-mindedly pursued for several years. After posing for pictures and a flurry of satellite calls, Fossett joined us in the chopper for the ride to a nearby gas field where a hot shower and his Citation X were waiting.

Three black limo's were waiting for us on the tarmac at Sydney airport which avoiding the waiting media scrum. I felt so cool and important that I wore my sunglasses indoors. Fossett was to hold a major press conference shortly, which Errol wanted to focus coverage on rather than grabs at the airport, so we were whisked out a side entrance. Photographers descended on the car as it pulled into traffic, shooting through the black tinted windows of every car to try and snare a frame of Fossett like he was a high profile murderer.

Being on the inside of the storm for a change was a real eye-opener to me, I particularly noticed how confronting and intimidating the behavior of a rabid media scrum can become, and this was a good news story! Their behavior seemed a little pointless considering Fossett was holding an open presser in 30 minutes where good pictures would be there for the taking.

The presser was one of the biggest seen in Sydney since the Olympic Games. And all too soon it was over. That evening the crew convened in the bar for farewell drinks, leaving a space out of respect for a missing Andy Milk whom was left behind in the outback to de-rig the capsule.

Although the balloon chasing trip is without doubt a career highlight, it has ruined travel for me forever. I had to fly home commercially, sharing an aircraft with members of the public!

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