A phone call from Flight Sergeant Chris Thorn, a good friend in the Royal Air Force, first set the ball rolling. Did I want to become involved with a new world record and provide all the photographic coverage for the attempt?
Attempt! What attempt? Well, take one of the world’s largest hot air balloons, add a leading explorer and balloon pilot along with an ex-special forces mountaineer and explorer, hang a dinner table and chairs beneath, fly the whole combination to 25,000ft, mix in a large dollop of danger, the constant threat of hypoxia and then eat a three course meal before parachuting back to earth! A typically British example of sang froid and understatement.
I have always been keen to push my photography to the limits and beyond if the opportunity presented itself so, almost without hesitation, I agreed, before wondering what I was letting myself in for.
Since 1971 I had run a stock photo library, the Military Picture Library, concentrating exclusively on the armed forces of the world. Working closely with the UK armed forces had given me an insight into the professionalism and skills required by our forces to undertake tasks that the general public frequently have very little concept of. More by accident than design, I had become closely involved with every aspect of airborne operations - parachuting to the uninitiated. Airborne operations cover all areas of troop insertion from the air, whether by parachute, by helicopter or by aircraft. They require a vast range of skills and logistic support not found in many other areas of military troop movement. Parachuting into combat is not new, with the first British operation taking place in Italy in 1941, but it must be emphasised that it is only one of the many ways to get soldiers to combat, just as a lorry, a bus or feet are able to do. Underneath the mystique it is only a means to an end. Nonetheless, over the years I had come to specialise in the photography of British airborne training and operations, working closely with the RAF and the Army. Naturally this meant that I had to become an expert on all things airborne. This was the hook that Chris used to reel me into this story.
Explorers and record breakers are a strange bunch of people, driven by an inner compulsion to go beyond the boundaries accepted by most of us. Thus it was that I found myself in the company of and , two of Britain’s leading explorers and adventurers. David is a renowned long distance balloonist and polar explorer, whilst Bear is a mountaineer and adventurer, at that time the youngest Briton to climb Everest and return alive. He followed that feat with an unsupported crossing of the north Atlantic in an open Rigid Inflatable Boat (RIB). More remarkable is the fact that Bear suffered a broken back in a parachuting accident in the TA SAS and was told that he would be lucky to ever walk again. Two years later, defying the critics, he stood on the summit of Mount Everest. Bear’s two books, 'Facing Up' and 'Crossing The Frozen Ocean', became best-sellers and he joined David on the lucrative motivational speaker circuit.
Bear had the wonderful idea of dining at high altitude after coming across a similar record, set by in the Himalaya. His active mind reckoned that this was a record waiting to be beaten, but how? He was loathe to risk life and limb climbing again, particularly as his wife Shara had suffered months of worry during his Everest attempt and his son Jesse had almost lost his father, so he cast around for an alternative approach. Meeting David Hempleman-Adams was the catalyst he needed and the idea was hatched of ascending to a record-breaking altitude at a formally laid dinner table slung beneath a hot air balloon! Once the formalities of dinner were over Bear would return to earth under a parachute. That, he concluded, would take some beating.
Like all hastily concocted ideas, this one had to have the rough edges smoothed off and a sound logistic base created in order for it to work. During his time in the Territorial Army SAS Bear had done his parachute training, as do all other British military parachutists, at No 1 Parachute Training School at RAF Brize Norton where he had become firm friends with one of his instructors, Chris Thorn. I had met Chris, or ‘CT’ as everyone called him, in the late 1980s and we immediately clicked. The friendship resulted in my induction into the specialist world of the airborne soldier, with many thousands of hours spent in Hercules and on drop zones around the world photographing parachute operations. Once again Bear turned to CT for advice and, before he realised it, CT had become the Operations Manager for the record attempt, which fitted in nicely with his RAF resettlement scheme as he was approaching the end of a 35 year career.
Early in the programme CT knew that documentary evidence of the attempt would be needed and turned to me to provide photographic support. It appeared that I was ideally qualified for this role; experienced at all aspects of airborne operations and just mad enough to say yes! Initially the intention was merely for me to cover the record attempt, set for June 2005, but we determined from the outset that my role should be expanded to cover everything that happened - both in the limelight and behind the scenes. Our reasoning was that one day, someone somewhere would want to see what happened during the training and hopefully there might be a book in all this. Anything to bring some money in, as needless to say, the whole deal was done on a “I’ll do it for fun and expenses” basis.
CT and I spent many days examining all aspects of the record attempt, trying to establish the precise requirements of the previous successful world record, working out what parachutes would be most suitable, what oxygen equipment would be required, the temperatures that would be met at altitude, along with a thousand and one more essential questions. From my point of view, I had to establish the limits of the working environment for photographic equipment. Would digital cameras work at temperatures as low as minus 45C? How would remotely mounted cameras be triggered? How long would batteries last? How could images be transmitted from the balloon? The list seemed endless and the problems almost insurmountable.
Behind the scenes Bear had his own worries. Jumping from a high flying balloon is not something that can be done over Britain without ticks in all the correct boxes. Whilst Bear was a qualified military parachutist the qualification fell far short of that needed to allow him to do what he planned. Clearly something would have to be done to overcome the problem. At this stage Lady Luck stepped in. In recognition of his trans-Atlantic crossing Bear, in company with Dame Ellen MacArthur, was granted an honorary commission in the Royal Navy Reserve with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. So, suitably commissioned, a phone call from Bear to Admiral Sir Alan West, the First Sea Lord, secured the support of the Royal Navy and in particular the services of the .
Led by Lt Cdr Alan Veal RN, the Raiders brought much needed skills and resources to the project. Foremost was Alan himself. A vastly experienced parachutist just back from an operational tour in Iraq as a weapons expert, Alan was co-opted into the team as a second 'diner'. Former sailor Phill Elston, the team’s rigger, packer, assistant secretary et al, took on the roles of parachute trainer and safety standards officer. 'Big Phill', as he quickly became known, was a stickler for safety and rapidly became one of the key people in the rapidly growing team. It was he and Alan who quickly acknowledged that Bear would have to go on an intensive freefall course to qualify for a display licence, needed to drop in the UK. in California was chosen as the venue for the training because the weather allowed for virtually perfect conditions throughout the limited time available, so the trio left for two weeks of hard work, culminating in Bear qualifying for his licence after completing 200 jumps.
Back home the momentum was building. , the PR agency that Bear had used for his trans-Atlantic crossing, were masterminding the operation and acting for GH Mumm, the leading champagne producers, who were sponsoring the whole project. Numerous meetings had to be coordinated between all the main players in the project and egos had to be handled with care! Two diametrically opposed standards faced us. On one hand, from the operational point of view, safety was paramount. Anything undertaken at nearly five miles above the ground, under a hot air balloon, is intrinsically dangerous. Add in all the variable factors such as weather, wind strength and direction, temperature, oxygen supplies, clothing, communications and manifold other worries and you have an extremely life threatening environment to work in. However, on the other hand you have a sponsor who wants, above all else, to display to the world a triumph, both for the men involved but, just as importantly, for the sponsors. Operational requirements and safety are not highest on the list of concerns to sponsors; they naturally want the matters sorted to produce the best possible PR results. This lack of understanding of the basic necessities of ballooning and parachuting was to have potentially dangerous implications later.
From the word go I decided that all photography would be shot using digital equipment to the highest possible standards. This meant that producing RAW files, the digital equivalent of colour negative film, would be our standard. Some argued that RAW would be overkill for such a project and put unacceptably high demands on media cards and camera systems then available, when in fact all that the project called for was simple photographic recording of what happened. My argument for using RAW files at all times was simple. No photographer would shoot a project on film and then lightly sand his negatives or transparencies before reproducing them, which is in effect, what shooting on JPEG does. JPEG compression destroys vital colour and tonal detail irretrievably at the shooting stage - detail that can never be recovered - so that you are effectively recording history and then destroying part of it at the same time, purely to save a little space on your media cards.
I had been a staunch advocate for RAW since its inception and had only used JPEG when circumstances, or the type of equipment available, forced me down that route. There are only two downsides to using RAW; a smaller number of images can be stored on each media card compared to JPEG and the burst rate of cameras shooting the larger file sizes is smaller. The former is always going to be a factor determined by the capacity of ones media cards, whilst the latter can be overcome by either changing ones equipment to cameras with larger buffers or adapting ones shooting style to compliment the equipment. I chose to use larger cards and adapt my style to my current equipment.
I have used exclusively throughout my career and saw no reason to change now. For the majority of the project I was going to use Nikon D100 cameras, with a new Nikon CoolPix 7900 7.1mega-pixel camera as a loan camera for the adventurers, as well as Nikon F4s and F5 film bodies in situations where I needed a remote control camera that would work at lower temperatures than the digital cameras were capable of operating. They were also, relative to the digital cameras, looked on as being disposable if the worst came to the worst! A remote underslung rig containing a Nikon F5 with a Fisheye-NIKKOR AF 16mm f/2.8D lens was carried below the balloon basket and triggered automatically. Despite the sub-zero conditions it worked perfectly.
Having determined the conditions in which I expected to use the cameras I then contacted Nikon UK and Kodak Professional for support. Sadly David Kitchin at Kodak Professional was unable to help as Kodak were in the process of ending production of their superb full frame DCS Pro SLR/n digital cameras, loaned to me earlier for another project, whilst Nikon UK simply shrugged their corporate shoulders and left us to get on with our own devices! This was a shame as the resulting publicity at virtually no cost to them would have been wonderful for all of us.
The project was to be divided into several sections, starting with trials of equipment and personnel, moving through specialist testing and determination of resources to the press launch, culminating in the record attempt. The record attempt was scheduled for 30th June 2005, with the initial trial followed by the press launch a mere ten days earlier.
As luck would have it the schedule altered fairly early on when it became apparent that we would require significantly more time between our test flights and the proposed record attempt, in order to iron out any bugs. Thus the press launch was rescheduled for 10th May, with a full dress rehearsal scheduled for the next day.
Finding a site for the landing venue also turned out to be more difficult than originally anticipated. The site had to be in relatively open countryside, ideally contained within the confines of a stately home or country park, capable of providing facilities for a large number of guests and media, whilst at the same time being downwind of a balloon launch site in line with the prevailing wind direction. Lucknam Park, near Chippenham, was our initial choice, but this proved to be less than ideal after it was discovered that the park was directly below the Heathrow-America flight path and within a military low flying area, making it an impossible choice. Further investigation by CT led us to , to the south-west of Bath; a Paladin mansion set in open parkland, sufficiently far from low flying areas and main flight paths to be ideal.
CT and I went for an initial reconnaissance and found the site to be perfect for our needs, with the staff immensely helpful and attentive to all our seemingly outlandish requests. Liaison with the local Police also had to be undertaken and Shepton Mallet police proved to be well up to speed, informing us about an air exclusion zone in place around Glastonbury on the date of our scheduled attempt. At this stage in the project all our information led us to believe that we would be launching the balloon somewhere to the south-west of Ston Easton. Normally balloons launch with no great thought of where they intend to land, letting the wind waft them where it wills. For this record attempt things were different.
wanted the two parachutists to land in front of the assembled guests at 10:30 so this dictated firstly the rough position the two jumpers would start their freefall. Working back from this, knowing the ascent rate of the balloon, we could establish that with a climb rate of around 500ft/min the balloon would require approximately 65 minutes from launch to arriving over the target at the right height. David Hempleman-Adams was armed with volumes of paperwork, much supplied by the Special Forces navigators based at RAF Lyneham, which would allow him to plot flight parameters accurately. In conjunction with invaluable assistance from Ian Hurst at the Meteorological Department at RAF Lyneham, a flight plan could be roughly established 24 hours prior to launch and refined four or five hours before launch.
A balloon was obtained, but it proved to be too small for the task and another envelope was purchased from Sweden and taken to to be overhauled and sign-written. At 180,000cu ft it was to be the largest balloon in the UK and one of the largest in Europe. The majority of balloons one sees on mild summer evenings are a mere 35-45,000cu ft; roughly a quarter the size of our seven story monster. And therein lay another problem. Balloons are, by their very nature, fragile, skittish beasts subject to every whim and vagary of the wind. The smaller the balloon, the easier it is to manoeuvre on the launch site. The launch is the most critical part of the whole operation and to be successful depends on a variety of factors coming together at the right time. Strong winds make launching a balloon very difficult if not impossible. Lighter winds are usually to be encountered at dawn and dusk, along with fewer thermals which contribute to smoother, more consistent flights. The larger the balloon the more the problems are magnified. Sadly for GH Mumm and their guests, the time that they wanted the parachutists to land, based on the allowance backwards to the launch time, meant that the giant balloon would have to launch at around 09:00. This was around 2½ hours later than good judgement and the weather conditions should allow!
The beauty of shooting RAW files, rather than JPEG or film, is that one does not have to worry about colour balance under any conditions encountered - that can be corrected in post-production. I tend to shoot a Kodak colour chart and a grey card as my first shot under the prevailing light, then using the correction from that shot in the Camera RAW plugin in Photoshop to apply a basic correction factor to all the other shots taken under the same conditions; something that cannot be done with TIFF or JPEG and certainly not with film. At Henlow, for example, the lighting was a mixture of fluorescent, incandescent and fill-flash, so RAW made it incredibly easy to pick the correct ‘neutral’ point where there was any possibility of variation from the grey card.
Whilst all this planning was going on Phill and I accompanied Bear and Alan to RAF Henlow, the home of the . Here we had safety lectures on the risks of hypoxia and learned how to recognise the symptoms. After that Bear and Alan underwent preliminary medical tests, followed by high altitude testing in the 100,000cu ft hypobaric chamber.
After the duo drew helmets and oxygen masks from the stores, signing on the dotted line for them and undergoing equipment checks, we moved on to the purpose-built chamber. The high altitude tests, conducted under the eagle eye of aviation medical specialist Dr Ollie Bird, took Bear and Alan up to 25,000ft and required that they complete simple maths and hand to eye coordination tests whilst breathing oxygen and then again at altitude, but without the benefit of oxygen. In this hypoxic state one has only a minute or so before death follows unconsciousness and it is often difficult to recognise ones own symptoms, hence the buddy system that is used wherever possible. Laughingly, Bear’s mathematics were as bad at 25,000ft as at sea level, rendering that particular part of the test null and void, but both he and Alan finally passed the tests and left Henlow with their certificates.
However, without one more important item of equipment the world record could not be achieved. The table and chairs that were to be slung beneath the balloon were the brainchild of , a self-taught engineer, designer and owner of , a Dorset-based company building paramotors - essentially motorised parachutes. I first met him at the at Netheravon whilst shooting Bear undergoing initial parachute training with Phill Elston. Phill warned me to look out for a “twelve year old driving a car” and he wasn’t far out in his description. Boyish he might have looked, but Gilo had an acute mind, a lateral way of looking at problems and no sense of time at all - the archetypal mad scientist! I went down to his workshop in a small village in Dorset, expecting to find a modern industrial unit, but instead discovered a dark, cluttered converted barn full of beautifully crafted, hand-made parts used to construct his paramotors. He even designed and built all the parts for his engines, apart from the crankshaft and conrods. The standard of his engineering was superb.
Standing amidst all these items was one of the smallest table/chair combinations known to man, constructed in aircraft specification welded aluminium. Gilo’s fabricator was busy welding it when I arrived to take shots, but proudly showed me around a workshop full of lovingly crafted items, some discarded and some complete. For anyone with a spark of engineering in their veins it was a mouthwatering exhibition of design and quality. Nonetheless, the design and construction of the underslung combination was not without its problems. The plans, so far as I could discern, were drawn on the back of a cigarette packet and appeared to change from day to day. The final product had to pass tests in order to gain a Certificate of Airworthiness licence and ultimately did so. I photographed it being welded and then, despite many requests for details of potential camera attachment points and the like, never saw it again until the day of the full dress rehearsal! Communication was never going to be Gilo’s strong point.
Soon I was asked to accompany the team to France to cover their visit to the headquarters of GH Mumm in Reims and then shoot a launch and flight of the new balloon, G-MUMM, over the Mumm vineyards at Verzenay. Three days spent in the heart of champagne country was not to be turned down.
I collected Phill's and Bear’s parachute rigs from JSPC at Netheravon and then drove down to Folkestone where I would be meeting Alex Rayner, MD of Captive Minds, and transferring all my kit to his Range Rover. The newly purchased oxygen kit, imported from America, was already in his car and I was supposed to ensure that it continued with us on our journey through France. We couldn’t afford to have it stolen from my car if it had to be left in Folkestone. Nonetheless, I found myself hurtling down the autoroute towards Reims in Alex’s Range Rover, less the oxygen kit forcibly left in my car for lack of space! Entertaining, irreverent, funny and hugely disorganised just about sums up Alex! We averaged 90mph on the trip from the Eurotunnel to Reims, overlooking any possibility of speed cameras catching our every indiscretion, arriving in time for a quick meal in the evening before crawling into beds in a rather seedy hotel; something that I hadn’t really anticipated. Still, a bed is a bed when sleep calls.
The next day dawned with fine weather and the likelihood of a flight that afternoon. After a quick visit to GH Mumm, where we met up with pilot Dr Jonathan Mason and the balloon vehicle, we set off in convoy with a Mumm PR girl to Verzenay, some miles south east of Reims. We intended to launch the balloon that afternoon with Hempie piloting, Jon acting as co-pilot and Bear going for the ride, along with one or two Mumm guests. The football field at Verzenay, high up over the town, looked to be an ideal launch point, enclosed on the upwind side by a tree shrouded hill. To the north-east stretched miles of vineyards, ending abruptly at a military training area. We had been warned not to even think of landing the balloon in the vineyards with their priceless crops. Apparently, prime vineyards were valued at €1,000,000 an acre whilst outwardly identical adjacent land, under other crops, was only valued at a mere €40,000! Such was the power of champagne. The flight was going to be relatively straightforward but the landing was going to be tricky.
Bear believed that he would be parachuting out of the basket, little knowing that I was under strict instructions from Phill to make sure that he didn’t jump, pulling the ripcord on the ground if necessary. This was because Bear still did not have a British Parachute Association display licence and would be jumping under the Royal Navy banner, rather than as a civilian, and also because he did not have any experience of spotting from a balloon. Spotting is the art of determining what ground obstacles there might be, such as power lines, streams, fences or restricted areas that are frequently unseen by inexperienced eyes, and of determining a precise jumping point based on experience and complex charts. In addition, Bear was not qualified in self-dispatching - checking ones own parachute and ancillary equipment to a safe standard. We couldn’t risk Bear throwing away all the team’s hard work on a moment of glory, possibly damaging crops and worse still, himself, in the process. To facilitate the jump, Phill Elston was driving out to Reims on his motorcycle, aiming to arrive later in the afternoon. If he missed the launch I was to put Plan A into operation!
Back at the football field Jon and his girlfriend sent up weather balloons to check wind speed and direction before manoeuvring the balloon launch vehicle onto the playing field for our first glimpse of G-MUMM. Jon, Alex and I lifted the balloon container from the Transit and the first thing that struck me was how small the bag was. With little effort the balloon was extracted from the bag and laid out on the football pitch - which it covered. It was immense. With no wind on the launch site it looked a docile enough beast, but we were warned that a breath of wind would transform it into an uncontrollable monster, capable of lifting a couple of 4-tonne lorries like a child lifts Dinky Toys. The basket was, by contrast, tiny and we seriously doubted if all the guests that Mumm had invited could squeeze in alongside the main players. Still, that was a decision that Hempie would have to make.
It was then time to bundle the envelope back inside its bag, akin to trying to stuff wet spaghetti up a drainpipe or that recalcitrant sleeping bag back into its stuff sack. To my surprise it proved easier than I anticipated and soon the Transit was loaded and we were on our way back to Reims, halting only briefly at a local aerodrome where Alex booked a light aircraft so that Phill, arriving later, could spot for Bear from it, not realising that a spotter must be in the same location as the spottee!
The early afternoon was reserved for a visit to the Mumm cellars - some 16 kms of champagne-filled underground delights where we learnt all about the complexities of champagne production. We emerged from the Stygian depths to be greeted by torrential rain - no chance of a flight that afternoon. Hiding our disappointment well we retired to the VIP suite to drink champagne and ponder the future of our French sortie. We still had an early morning slot booked for a launch if the weather permitted, followed by an official lunch at GH Mumm, before the dash back to Calais and home. So far I had only taken a few shots in the cellars and some more of the balloon on the football field and felt distinctly unfulfilled. That evening Phill arrived, late after encountering appalling weather on the motorcycle trip down from Calais. A brief tour round the sights of Reims, the discovery of a superb Apple computer store, followed by a convivial meal for the two of us, brightened up our evening after we discovered that we were not invited to the Mumm ‘do’ at the chateau. It was good to know where we came in the pecking order!
The next day I woke very early, expecting a call from Alex outlining the launch plans. I got up, showered, packed all my kit, checked the parachutes and helmets and waited for Phill. Nine o’clock arrived and it was by then obvious from the strength of the rain that there would be no flight! Never mind, I reasoned, the weather is always something that can’t be accounted for, but I still have the official Mumm lunch to look forward to.
With that to look forward to Phill, a fluent French speaker, and I breakfasted and then awaited transport to take us to Mumm. An apologetic Jon Mason arrived in the Transit to ask me to let Phill go in my stead, as he had come down to France but been unable to achieve anything. I consoled myself with the thought that I could properly check all my kit, catch up on my sleep and read a good book back at the hotel while I waited to be collected after the bash. Phill departed for the chateau and I returned to the hotel where I managed to get a mere forty winks before the phone rang. The hotel manager asked when I was intending to clear my room. Looking round my room, crammed with equipment, I answered that it should be later in the afternoon after the team returned. Not a good enough answer! Our rooms had not been rebooked and I must vacate “toot sweet see voo play”. No amount of bribery or persuasion could change the manager’s mind so I was cast out into a soaking Reims with one concession - all the expensive kit from the room could be stored in the manager’s office. I found myself faced with a repeat tour of a by now wet, deserted city - deep joy! I spent four long hours tramping round sights already seen in sunlight, getting damper and more disheartened. Finally my transport arrived back from what was, by general consensus, a superb dinner. My consolation prize was a bottle of Mumm Cordon Rouge delivered by Bear!
Inception To France