By Roger (28 August 2016)
As you read in our last blog, Mark and I stopped by the Bealeton Flying Circus, for their balloon festival. I've always loved these events. I have photographed several balloon fests, in the past, so I had high hopes, based on my previous experiences.
My first balloon fest was in Augsburg, Germany, back in 1981. The balloons there were the old style balloons, with helium, instead of hot air. The balloons were encompassed in nets which were staked down as the balloon was filled with gas. You can see the nets weighed down in the first photo. Just prior to liftoff, the pilot attached the net to toggles in the cockpit; sandbags and tether lines were released; and the balloon took off. These photos are both shot with a 50mm lens, on my trusty Canon F-1. As you can see in the second photo, we could get right next to the balloons.
I shot several of these events over my two assignments to Germany. In more recent years, I've continued to get in close to the crews during their preparations. The draw now is the flames from the burners. They put out some really cool flames. Again, I have used normal or shorter telephoto lenses.
I mention the lenses because, as Mark said in his blog, I made some assumptions for the Flying Circus event and wasn't as prepared as I could have been. In short, I didn't bring a long telephoto lens. It turned out this balloon fest was different than the others I've attended. Since the airfield was active, with several bi-planes landing and taking off, we were not able to get close to the balloons while they were being prepped. My longest lens was a 70-200mm; not long enough to get close in photos. I was disappointed, but I was there, so I had to photograph something before I went home.
At first, I made the same photographs as Mark. We both shot the two plane formation. with the moon in the background. And both saw the planes flying behind the yellow balloon and knew the compression, from the telephoto, would make it appear as if they were flying in close formation.
I was a little disappointed and ready to leave when I realized it was time to adapt to the situation and change my plan of action. Since the pilots were offering rides, for a small fee, I decided to get a different perspective on the balloons. The slow speed and open cockpits of the bi-planes make them a great platform for aerial photography. I talked to the pilot, and he agreed to help me out by flying around the balloons. It made my day a success.
After climbing over the wing and into the front cockpit, I settled down for the ride. The pilot asked me to keep my hands off the controls; that was a pretty easy request to honor since it's pretty sparse in the Stearman cockpit.
The ride was spectacular. I've been up in many types of aircraft, including an interesting trip in a doors-open military helicopter flying at high speed and nap of the earth, but this ride was pure enjoyment.
The pilot went right to work for me. Many of the balloons were beginning to land, and he knew where they would probably touch down. He flew over a vineyard, with a balloon down by the pond, and put the plane into a shallow bank to give me a shot without the wings in the viewfinder. I had switched to my 24-120mm zoom, and that was the perfect lens for the job, and I didn't have to worry about vibration from the wind buffeting the longer (and heavier) 70-200mm.
He took me by balloons flying over trees, in hay fields, and by farms. We saw six different balloons and were on our way back when we saw one last balloon. It was still flying and just getting ready to cross over a pond. I was getting ready to point it out when he told me to make this one good because it was time to return to the airfield. I made my favorite photo of the day from the two circles he made.
On the way back, we passed over the airfield, so I could get a shot of the small hanger, at the end of the grass airstrip. The trip was worth every penny it cost (hint: it was less than $100). I had not intended to spend the money for the ride, but I was really glad I did. It made the day for me and provided a completely different perspective from the other balloon fest photos I have.