After 26 days covering the Olympic Games in Rio for Getty Images it was time to go home.
Traditionally as soon as the closing ceremony finishes and the Olympic torch is extinguished the race to get home is on. The world’s media, athletes, coaching staff and spectators descend on the airports eager to get away as quickly as possible and generally this means chaos.
However, this time I was to be spared the pandemonium.
British Airways in its role as official airline partner of Team GB were to fly the whole team back to a hero’s welcome at Heathrow Airport and they needed a photographer on board to document the flight home. Getty Images were commissioned for the task and I was then lucky enough to be given the responsibility of this exclusive job.
After meeting the BA crew at their hotel in Barra I was soon on the crew coach discussing a shot list with Liza Ravenscroft, the BA press officer, and speeding to Galeao International Airport. We were to be on a special VIP charter flight laid on just for the athletes. The British Airways 747 was given the flight number BA2016, renamed “victoRIOus” and had the nose repainted gold!
After clearing customs in record time, I had chance to photograph the crew preparing the aircraft before the first of the Team GB athletes started to filter through customs and to the departure gate.
My brief was relatively straight forward, get pictures of the athletes mingling each other and with BA staff around the departure gate, pictures of them boarding the plane and then generally enjoying the flight experience. 77 bottles of champagne had been loaded on to the flight and the BA cabin crew were creating a party atmosphere as each athlete boarded the plane. Seating had been strategically done and the medal winners were spread around First Class and Club World. Many of the athletes were having picture’s taken in the flight deck and happily posing with their medals.
However, the client wanted what could be termed a ‘money’ shot, an image of our glorious medal winners which would stand out and be used across the UK media. As you can imagine, being on a plane is quite limiting. So, we decided to try and cram in as many medal winners in to the First Class cabin as possible just before take-off and I would take a picture of everyone having a selfie taken with one of the flight attendants. It was quite challenging getting everyone in to position but the athletes were in good spirits and they really helped make the picture work.
My next challenge was then to get the images out before we took off so they could be used while we were in the air. There was no Wi-Fi on board and the communications were poor out on the runway. My dongle wouldn’t connect and I was left with only a slow connection from my iPhone. The images were still slowly dripping over to the picture desk at Getty Images as the plane was thundering down the runway and taking off. Luckily, I managed to send a few images out before all communications were completely lost for the 11-hour flight.
I carried on taking pictures with the medal winners for the first couple of hours of the flight and these would be sent out when we landed at Heathrow but once the party really got going my cameras were put away so that the athletes could relax and enjoy themselves.
Eventually we landed at Heathrow to jubilant scenes and it felt good to be home. As I walked through Heathrow Airport it was great to see that despite the time difference my images which had been sent as we took off were on the front pages of the morning newspapers.
It was an amazing experience that I won’t ever forget. – Alex.