Aerial Photography(Editor's Note: This issue has been delayed due to our new website having just been implemented. Those of you who have "opted out" of receiving Weekend Edition may still be on our list. Please accept our apologies, and visit your profile to re-enter your preferences.)
The weekend, May 12 (the day before Mother’s Day) I have been asked to start a project which will take me flying to all six New England states. A client needs me to come back with aerial photos for forty-seven locations, mostly athletic fields. The sites range from Burlington, Vermont down to Hartford, Connecticut, up to Maine and down to Rhode Island. Just imagine: getting paid for what I love to do! I’ll be flying over MIT, Harvard, and other local colleges and universities.
My airplane of choice is a Cessna Cutlass, a 172RG with retractable gear, constant speed prop, cowl flaps and other items typically found on a complex airplane. The Cutlass has a 180 horsepower engine and the basic idea for this design, I suppose, was to get some complex training and an endorsement without having to move up to new and unfamiliar equipment. If you can fly a Skyhawk, you can fly a Cutlass. The Cutlass is not all that much faster.
The retractable gear makes a lot of sense when you are hanging out the window (figuratively, of course) and trying to frame the shot without having to worry about the wheels getting in the way. All that is needed is to avoid getting the wing strut in the photo. I find that twenty inches of manifold pressure, 2,200 RPM and ten degrees of flaps gives me an airspeed of 85 knots, trimmed for hands-off flight. The window stop which limits the opening is removed before flight and the window is held up against the underside of the wing just by the airflow. But I always use a homemade brace in addition to prop the window securely from the bottom of the frame. This wooden brace in turn is tied back to a seatbelt behind me so that I don’t have to worry about dropping it overboard.
The altitude selected depends on the field of view I am trying to cover. I have found that 1,300 to 1,500 feet AGL works for most football fields and other athletic facilities. For individual buildings I try and get a little lower, but never below 1,000 feet. Obviously, a current sectional with elevations of nearby towers and hills is an absolute necessity. I use a Canon digital camera with an 18mm-135mm zoom lens and shoot at 1/1,000th of a second. The fast shutter, combined with the camera’s “image stabilization” feature, cancels out most vibration. I’ve learned never to brace myself against the airframe or window frame, as this transmits whatever small vibrations there are right to the camera. The drill is to hold the camera loosely and let the shutter do the work. Of course I ALWAYS have the camera strap around my neck. I like using a single lens reflex so that I can see what the lens is seeing. Range-finders or point-and-shoot are fine for pretty pictures, but I need to know how the composition is working out.
This will sound obvious, but when you are shooting a view which includes the horizon, always try to get the horizon to line up horizontally with the frame. Having an angled horizon looks amateurish and it’s relatively easy to avoid. This weekend, my trusty Cutlass is not available so I will be using the Skyhawk 172. The wheel will not be too much of an issue since I have found that I can slip it out of the way with right rudder while in a thirty degree left bank. As the flight instructor who showed me this technique said, “What’s a little uncoordinated flight between friends?”
Some years ago, I purchased a Pentax 645 film camera with a motor drive and telephoto lens for my aerial work. The photos always came out well, but the film loader only had room for 16 frames, after which I would have to unload the film in flight, take the new loader out of the camera bag, insert it into the body and advance the film to the first frame. A little awkward. Now, with a 32 gig card, I can get approximately 3,500 shots on a single card. The camera will bracket the exposures and can be set for continuous shooting. What’s not to like about the technological advances photography has seen over the last ten years?
And if anyone out there has additional tips, experiences and/or equipment suggestions I’d be very, very glad to hear about them. I once rented a stabilizing gyroscope to attach to the Hasselblad camera I was using but now find this unnecessary, in the same way that 120mm roll film is no better that 35 mm images, what with all the pixels available. And, one final note. If you are flying in a radar environment with approach control, use the VFR advisory feature. But if you’re over the wilds of Maine or Vermont with only center radar available, take along a safety pilot. My worst fear in all of flying is running into someone up there. Or having them run into me. I remember one afternoon, returning from Nantucket Island to Norwood, and talking with Cape Approach. A Baron had taken off right after me and was heading to Boston. I heard the Baron pilot telling Cape “there’s a plane up ahead, looks like a Cherokee, and we’re about to eat his lunch.” I thought, hmmm, I’m flying a Cherokee, just as Cape ordered me to make an immediate right turn. As I looked to my left, the Baron whizzed by: I could see them and they could see me. So perhaps my cautionary words should be amended: ALWAYS take along a safety pilot.Revolutionary Flight Planning Atlas with IFR/VFR Charts plus
FREE Membership in