The View From Above

Q: What is your fear factor in the glider? Are you one of those fearless adrenaline-junkie guys?

A: No. Oftentimes when I am flying, I get really frightened. On my first trip in Africa with the glider, I went up to about 5,000 feet for a view of a big volcanic crater, and it scared the crap out of me. People just don’t belong up there. You’re basically in a lawn chair with a harness on, and it’s quite frightening, and I thought, “I might die up here, but at least I should get a picture before I die.” That was the biggest altitude gain I ever attempted.

Q: You take many safety precautions, yet you’ve still had some mishaps. Best crash stories?

A: Everybody wants crash stories. All right. My splash story was in Mexico, where I was photographing whales in Baja California. It’s one of the biggest breeding grounds for California gray whales, and the mothers were out there with their newborns. I thought I could get a unique image from low, like a few hundred feet above the water. Then the motor stopped. I had a world champion of motorized paragliding with me as my assistant in a boat below, connected by radio. As soon as the motor quit, I called Alain on the radio. Bad move. I should have headed straight for the shore, where I might have been able to glide to safety. Save yourself before you call for help! I crashed into the water.

“I was asked by National Geographic to do a big project on the global food supply and how to meet the growing demands of the population.”

Alain was not watching me from the boat when the motor stopped, but still got to me within a couple of minutes and pulled me up before I sank. I had a lot of safety gear — I was wearing a life vest that inflates on contact with salt water with a CO2 cartridge, so it inflated automatically — and I probably wouldn’t have drowned, but it was very expensive and a major catastrophe. The motor was trashed, and so were my camera and my radio. We had had to think it out for ourselves; there’s no license for this kind of flying.

Q: I’m sure going into the water was scary, but wouldn’t crashing on land be worse?

A: Unfortunately, I did that, too. In 2006, I was assigned to do an aerial portfolio of China for National Geographic. It was a great gig, to cover the whole country. I decided to start in the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang province. It was a dry riverbed in a steep valley, with poplar trees on both sides and a big gravel bar in the riverbed. Alain and I had arrived late the night before, so we couldn’t scout the location beforehand. The next morning, we were rushing around in the predawn light and had to work quickly so I could be in the air before sunrise. We were a little groggy, and the equipment probably wasn’t set up quite right. Just as I took off from the gravel bar, the wing came up and — boom — I veered right into a tree. I tried to clear it, but I was at full throttle and hit the treetops seconds later. I woke up on the ground a bloody mess. Alain thought I was paralyzed at first, but I was OK. They took me to the hospital, which had a facial surgery department, and I was first in line. The doctors who sewed me up did a great job, and it cost like four bucks. After a day of rest, I continued on our trip.