The Wall of Pyro

On a recent assignment photographing the 2023 Red Bull Aerial Camp, I was tasked with covering a wide array of sky divers, wingsuit skydivers, paragliders and more. On one evening, the crew got the idea to set up some pyrotechnics for the team to swoop through when coming in for a landing. This is not an unusual idea as I have photographed similar situations before with the Red Bull Air Force — and the day before the team was swooping through a giant wall of colored smoke.

For those not accustomed to the term “swooping” as it relates to sky divers, when coming in for a landing advanced sky divers will pull down on their canopy and fly at high speeds horizontally just before touching down and sliding to a stop. At this moment the sky divers can still be flying at speed in excess of 60 mph (96 Kph). Hence, the term swooping is used to describe this dynamic maneuver.

In this instance, the crew were setting up the Pyro along a shallow pond right at sunset. The team went up on the last jump plane just before it started to get dark. Having photographed this sort of scenario before (more on that later) I set up on the opposite side of the pyro and made sure we were well lit so the sky divers could see us as they came through. I had an assistant hold multiple bright headlamps right where we were positioned. The pyro was set up so it wasn’t a dense wall but so that the sky divers could actually see through it. But just before Sean MacCormac came through a few additional pyrotechnics went off thereby creating a wall of smoke and bright white pyro, which made it very difficult to see anything on the otherside.

Because it was already pretty dark, I opted to use a 50mm f/1.2 lens, which meant being closer to the pyro than I really wanted to be with the oncoming sky divers swooping through. Three of us bunched together and crouched down to make ourselves as small as possible. The first several skydivers came through just fine–and were able to see us because there were gaps in the flying sparks. But when the additional pyro turned on and created a wall of white sparks and smoke Sean couldn’t see anything. The image above, at the top of this blog post was captured just as he blasted through the wall of sparks. As can be seen in the series of images below–captured at 20 frames per second–he came right at us.

From experience, I knew the best option was to stay put so I didn’t move. Sean, with his incredible reflexes pulled his legs to one side at the last millisecond so he didn’t hit me squarely but even so he still clipped my camera, which collapsed the lens hood over the front of the lens barrel, and then scraped the side of my face. Behind me the two other people dropped to the ground and thankfully didn’t get hit. My camera was fine, the lens hood was shattered but getting a new lens hood is not expensive. Sean took a bigger hit than I did because the lens hood impacted his lower leg pretty hard. He had a big bruise on his shin. Because my face was bleeding I got patched up by the EMTs on site and checked for concussion. Sean got checked out as well and they used a pressure wrap to keep his leg from swelling. We both felt horrible about the incident and apologized profusely to each other, but I was really mad at myself for even putting myself (and two others) in that position as I should have known better and did know better.

A few years earlier, on an assignment for the Highlight Skydiving team I was in a similar situation. As shown in the image below, the sky divers were swooping through a wall of fire. In this instance, I was shooting with a 70-200 lens and stood quite a ways back from the flame anticipating the sky divers not being able to see us on the other side. This was also at dawn, so it wasn’t full on bright sunlight but it wasn’t dark either.

Most of the sky divers came through and flew by our position easily but one came through and very narrowly missed my head by just a few inches while moving at over 60 mph. She moved her legs at the last second to avoid hitting us. I didn’t move but felt her go by knowing it was pretty close. A few people standing about twenty feet behind were filming the whole thing and captured the near miss on video. I heard them exhale loudly right when it happened, which let me know it was closer than I realized. Upon watching their video I saw it was pretty dang close and both myself and the skydiver could have been seriously injured. Luckily, it was only a near miss. I swore to myself I would never put myself in that position again. Hence, this is why I was so mad at myself after the accident with Sean MacCormac.

After the accident with Sean, I didn’t check my camera or the images until after getting checked out by the EMTs. I was perhaps still a bit dazed by the accident and everyone rushed over to check on us–and seeing blood on my face rushed me over to the EMTs. They did a comprehensive job checking me out and patching up my face. It was only after all of that when I checked the camera to see if we had captured anything and I saw the image at the top of this blog post. I was floored by the image as it happened so fast I just mashed the shutter release down and blasted away. I was also amazed that the image was in focus, especially since I was shooting at f/1.2 in near total darkness. This is definitely the best image of the entire assignment.

My sincere apologies to Sean for lining up in a bad spot. I am so glad that everyone, especially Sean, came away relatively unscathed. It was a blast to hang out with all of the athletes and the crew supporting them. And it was especially cool to meet and work with the international athletes that I had not met prior to this aerial camp. Below is a photo of all the athletes lined up on one side of the pond.

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