Desert Air: Paragliding and Photographing with George Steinmetz

George Steinmetz has spent the last 25 years photographing remote corners of the world for National Geographic and GEO magazines. His awards include two first prizes from World Press Photo, as well as awards and citations from Pictures of the Year, Overseas Press Club, and the Eisenstadt Awards. George recently published a new book entitled Desert Air, which features his stunning aerial photographs taken over a period of 15 years.

Celebrated exploration photographer George Steinmetz takes his art to a new level in Desert Air, the first comprehensive photographic collection of the world’s "extreme deserts," which receive less than four inches of precipitation per year. Steinmetz has spent 15 years on this epic body of work, capturing remarkable and surreally beautiful visions of deserts, from China’s great Gobi Desert to the Sahara in northern Africa to Death Valley in California. Much more than a visual journey, these images are enriched by the exciting stories behind Steinmetz’s adventures in some of the world’s most difficult and challenging areas—from smuggling his paraglider into Libya to getting arrested for spying in Iran, to crashing into a tree in western China. Desert Air reveals extraordinary desert ecosystems that together form a kind of disparate family of coevolved landscapes; similar, yet each unique in its own way.

About George's Flying

"Most of the aerial photos you see on my website were taken from the seat of the lightest powered aircraft in the world, a motorized paraglider. The aircraft consists of three components: the "wing" of a paraglider (similar to an aerobatic parachute), a back-pack mounted motor, and a single-seat harness that ties the three pieces together. It is launched by laying the paraglider out on the ground behind me like a kite, and with the motor idling I run forward, inflating the cells of the glider as it rises overhead. When I give it full throttle, my Fresh Breeze motor has about 175 lbs of forward thrust, which lifts me off the ground after some twenty to 100 steps, depending on altitude and wind conditions. The wing flies at only one speed, approximately 30 mph (48 kph) and I steer with a combination of weight-shift and pulling on the kevlar lines attached to its trailing edge. These act like flaps on a conventional airplane. Pull (and lean) right, turn right, etc.. The motorized paraglider is in many ways the best possible platform for aerial photos, as I have an unrestricted view of 180° in both horizontal and vertical directions, like a flying lawn chair. It’s also relatively quiet in flight, like a moped, and it lets me fly low and slow over the ground with a minimum of disturbance to people and animals below. I’ve launched at elevations ranging from 14,450 ft (4,400 m.) to -1,388 ft. (423 m.) below sea level. While I can usually gain as much as 6,000 ft. (1,800 m.) on a flight, I find it most effective at 100-500 ft. (33-160 m.) above ground. This gives me a more intimate view of the landscape, and as I’m piloting it myself, I can search out the precise point in the sky to visualize a picture."

"The whole thing packs up into three bags weighing less than 72 lbs (32 kg.) which is the limit for standard baggage on most commercial aircraft. Thus I enter most countries without significant problems from customs or aviation authorities. I don’t need an airfield for take off or landing, only a clear area a little larger than a basketball court. So far I’ve flown my aircraft in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Botswana, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, Oman, Chile, Namibia, Chad, Niger, Mali, Rwanda, Kenya, Morocco, Mexico, France, Germany, and the United States. The US aviation authority considers it an experimental aircraft, and no license is required for either pilot or aircraft. Upon arrival I have to spend a few hours assembling and tuning the motor, and then it all fits through the rear door of a 4x4 car, or onto the back of a camel, speed boat, or canoe. With ten liters of gasoline mixed with 2% oil, I can fly for 2-3 hours. It’s a beautiful thing."

"For taking photos I rely on one camera body and a couple of lenses. Digital cameras have made my life much easier, as there is no film to change and many of my Canon lenses have image stabilization built into them. They also get exceptional results with higher ASA settings than I could use with film, which lets me shoot in dimmer light. I prefer zoom lenses in flight as they save me from having to change lenses often. On a motorized paraglider there is nowhere to put anything except for a few zippered pouches strapped into my flight harness. Flying this kind of aircraft is an exercise in minimalism, and anything that adds weight or complication detracts from airworthiness."

"Flying for me is a little hectic, as I have to pilot while I take pictures. Because it’s so light, it’s safer in emergency landings than almost any other aircraft. The complete aircraft with fuel weighs less than 100 lbs (45 kg.) and I land on my feet, with my first steps being skid marks. There is no wheel to get stuck in the sand or bounce on irregular terrain. I’ve had my share of mishaps, like landing in the ocean while photographing whales, or getting dragged across a dry lake in a sand storm, but generally speaking, if I had used any other kind of aircraft than this for what I’ve been doing, I probably wouldn’t be alive today. One always has to fly prudently, and this is a stripped-down aircraft with no back-up systems. If the motor quits for any reason, you simply glide to the ground with a 7:1 glide ratio; seven units forward for every unit down. I have a firm rule never to fly over an area where I can’t make an emergency landing. This means no large forests, big cities, volcanic rocks, or large expanses of water without a safety boat. The glider is quite stable in calm conditions, thus I try to limit my flying to early morning and late afternoon, which also provides the best light for photographs. Turbulence and high winds are to be avoided, as the wing could collapse causing catastrophic results. After more than ten years and thousands of hours of prudent flying, this has never happened. I do this kind of flying because it gives me the opportunity to photograph remote areas in a way that they have never been seen before, and in a way impossible with any other kind of aircraft. I’m a photographer who flies, not a pilot who takes pictures, and I always have to balance my desire for getting a unique image against the realities and unknowns of each situation."

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