June 12, 2008
Having made more than 1,000 skydives, some 600 with a camera, daredevil adventurer Andy Keech has hot-dogged it with the best of adrenaline junkies. He’s photographed skydivers boogie boarding and diving through hula hoops mid-air; jumping from single-seat cockpits, having been crouched inside with the pilot; launching from standing positions on the wings of a plane; and forming aerial configurations known, creatively, as the caterpillar, horny gorilla and the Starship Enterprise.
Keech started skydiving in 1959, when the sport was just taking hold in his native Australia and became the first in his country to make contact with another jumper in a free fall. Keech went on to become a national champion parachutist and a top scorer for his team in a world competition. When he came to the United States, he continued skydiving, resumed piloting (which he started at age 17) and became one of the world’s top freefall photographers, earning assignments with Sports Illustrated, Time and other publications. He has compiled his work in a three-book series, Skies Call. Keech recently spoke at the Air and Space Museum, where he volunteers when not setting records (in his autogiro, a 16.5-foot, engine-in-front plane—another hobby). “Behind each picture is a half-hour story we could talk about,” he said. And so he transported me back to 1976 in the drop zone above a North Carolina airport, where he orchestrated the photograph above. Here’s what he told me.
“During the decade of producing the three Skies Call books, I found images would come to me while asleep. I kept a writing pad next to my bed where I would sketch the image that came to me. Over time I had as many as a dozen images that had not yet been translated into photographs.
Generally, I had no solution as to how to prepare the scene and get the camera to the position. This was one such image. [It was] four years before the solution came to me.
I traveled about 400 miles to North Carolina with my equipment and my close buddy Paul Reed, who is a masterful technician and expert jumper. We had a dozen subjects—a mixture of civilian and military weekend jumpers (the really jump-hungry ones who never got enough jumping during the week)—who were keen for the picture.
We also had the ideal aircraft, the Lockheed 10E. It had very docile characteristics while on the verge of aerodynamic stall. It would mush downward with the engines at idle. This allowed jumpers to climb outside the airframe without strong airflow blowing them off. It was sufficiently calm in the bubble of air on the top of the wing so that people could talk to each other.
There was a thin overcast at 7,000 feet. So I set the camera exposure for blue-sky brightness above that layer, and we proceeded with the briefing, rehearsal and loading for take-off. At 7,000 feet, we climbed through the light layer and found, to my alarm, that there was another layer at 25,000 feet. Therefore, lighting was significantly subdued, over two stops in exposure terms and almost certainly beyond the latitude of the film. We had no way to reset the exposure and were therefore committed to proceed.
The jumpers began to climb out onto the wing. In perhaps 15 to 20 seconds all were on the outside of the fuselage, and I had just begun to trigger the camera when the nose began dropping. The airspeed began slowly to increase and quite rapidly we were all going down.
As we reached 120 mph, the first jumpers began being blown off the aircraft, and by the time we reached 140 mph, all the jumpers had departed like rag dolls in a windstorm. The pilot regained control and returned to the airport. On the ground, I was most concerned until all the jumpers reported in. I was relieved that no one was hurt.
In the debriefing, I went over the possible causes of loss of control. By popular vote (or guess), it was agreed the weight shift forward was the cause. I also mentioned the unfortunate under exposure and that almost surely the pictures would come to nothing. All immediately insisted on doing it again. So, we went ahead with the retake.
The second run-in involved putting less people on the wing and more up astride the fuselage near the center of gravity. As soon as people were in position, the loss of control event repeated itself, but with a more rapid onset. People were blown off the aircraft. Rag doll time again.
Our revised view of the dynamics was that blocking air from the elevator is what caused the nose to drop. Much wiser now, we called off any further attempt. As it happened, the exposures from the first attempt were just inside the limit of the film and were the most suitable for composition. This image was the best on the roll.”
Keech prefers to keep the logistics of where he was when he shot the photo a secret. Any guesses? Tell us in the comments area below.
(Photograph courtesy of Andy Keech.)
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