Soaring above deserts on a 'leaf blower'

Thom Patterson, CNNUpdated 28th May 2015
(CNN) — Several years ago, in Gadhafi-controlled Libya, George Steinmetz found himself hidden in a kind of "safe house" where he was assembling his personal aircraft.
The secrecy surrounding his unusual trip had nothing to do with international intrigue or espionage. Steinmetz was simply trying to get a look at the landscape in a very different way.
You see, Steinmetz -- a professional photographer -- captures stunning images of the world from a unique perspective: up.
Way up, in fact, flying hundreds of feet high in a portable, motorized paraglider.
"In a lot of countries it's impossible to get permission," Steinmetz said. But his aircraft is so small and lightweight, he doesn't need airfields to land and take off. That lets him keep a low profile.
"If you're not using an airfield, and you take off early in the morning, by the time they figure out what's going on you've landed and you're gone," he said.
In Libya, Steinmetz hid the flying machine under tarps in the back of a Land Cruiser. "Then we drove into the desert and went flying," he said. "As long as we were in an unpopulated area, we had no problem."
Photographer George Steinmetz
Photographer George Steinmetz
George Steinmetz/Contrasto
Why Libya? This man loves the desert.
Take a look at his breathtaking aerial images, and you'll feel it. You'll see light dancing off multicolored sand and dust as it stretches across a landscape that sometimes includes mountains and wildlife. From high above, natural patterns on the earth's surface form a fascinating artistic design.
The desert captured Steinmetz' heart in the 1980s, when he hitchhiked through the Sahara as a 20-something college student. The beauty of the region sparked an idea: "Wouldn't it be amazing to see this land from the air?"
In 1997, he purchased a paraglider and began a 15-year, round-the-world odyssey combining photography and aviation.
"I learned to fly just for this project," Steinmetz said. "What I love to do as a photographer is to show people things that they haven't really seen before. And these desert environments from the air, they've never been photographed that way."
“What I love to do as a photographer is to show people things that they haven't really seen before.”
Photographer George Steinmetz
He started in the African nations of Niger and Chad. Then he took his flying machine to the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts in Asia and the Atacama Desert in South America. He finished up the project three or four years ago in a Himalayan region called Ladakh, where arid valley farmers rely on glacial water from nearby mountain peaks.
"One of the more interesting things about desert environments is how people and animals can survive in the very limits of existence, and find very creative ways of finding water and cultivating food in the desert," he said.
Creating spectacular photographs is hard enough. But try doing that while flying a motorized paraglider. Nonetheless, Steinmetz sees himself as "a photographer who flies -- and not a pilot who takes pictures."
His contraption weighs less than 100 pounds. It has no fuselage. No windshield. No wheels. To take off, Steinmetz attached himself to a parachute wing, straps a motor to his back and starts running.
George Steinmetz on his motorized paraglider. "It sounds like a big moped," he said.
George Steinmetz on his motorized paraglider. "It sounds like a big moped," he said.
George Steinmetz
"It's not easy," he said. "It's a little bit tricky and it's really quite hectic. It's not like an airplane, where you just push the throttle forward. You have to watch out for your kneecaps."
If all goes well, the parachute wing grabs the wind and he's airborne.
"It's like a big leaf blower with a parachute," Steinmetz joked.
Portable? Yes. The parachute wing folds easily. The motor disassembles into a small package. It's all small enough to check as standard baggage on a commercial aircraft, he said. When you get to your destination, the whole thing assembles in about an hour.
Up in the air, it's not exactly quiet. "It sounds like a big moped," he said.
One of his rules for flying is to stay near a safe landing point at all times, "because the motors are not that reliable." That rule helped Steinmetz avoid a potential disaster over Lake Natron along the Tanzania-Kenya border.
As he flew away from the water's edge, he began to think about the real danger of having to ditch in the lake. "The lake is really rich in a caustic form of soda," he said. "If you land in it, it burns your skin. It's kind of like landing in battery acid."
So he returned to shore.
"I ran out of gas during the landing," he said. "It turned out there was a problem with the carburetor and it was going through fuel three times as fast as normal. If I had stayed out there to take pictures, I would have gotten really messed up.
"Your gut instinct tends to save your butt."
The next day, Steinmetz went up with a small plane and pilot who helped him capture an amazing photo of the brilliant red lake from about 800 feet up. Look closely at the image -- No. 3 in the gallery above -- and you'll see the shadow of the chartered Cessna 206.
Steinmetz has had a few scary flights. But he said desire usually outweighs fear: "Once I get up in the air, sometimes I think, 'What the hell am I doing up here?' Then I remember I have a camera around my neck, so I think, 'If you're going to die, at least die taking a picture!'
"I'll start taking pictures. Then I'll think about pictures instead of the fact that I'm 500 feet above ground with nothing between me and eternity."
Artist George Steinmetz has photographed the world's most extreme deserts from the air.
He sees the paraglider as just another photographic tool that will help him capture the image he envisions. Now, he's interested in newer technology.
"I just bought a drone," he said. "There are things I can do with drones that I can't do with a paraglider."
But when it comes to exploring, Steinmetz believes in the power of a human photographer being present in the sky.
"It's really about exploring places," he said, "and I love exploring the world from the air."