Time Building In San Francisco

I got to fly a few hours with BoatPix down in San Francisco over the July 4th weekend. Time building with BoatPix comes in one of 2 flavors–in my case, I was sitting in on their photo contract, with the eventual goal of taking a contract pilot position with them. This happens weekends and holidays only, and you’re flying around taking pictures of boats. You need to at least be a commercial pilot for this, preferably a CFI.

Our plan was for the 500-hr CFI to demonstrate a few of the maneuvers we’d be using in the Bay, then we’d head out to shoot a sailboat race near the Golden Gate Bridge. The weather wasn’t working in my favor though, and we quickly scrapped that plan and diverted to Lake Berryessa. Totally different environment (hot, higher, calm, and sunny) compared to the Bay (cold, low, windy, and foggy), but turned out to be a good learning environment. He’d flown it several times this year, so we knew where the obstructions were (wires on the southern inlets). I was able to grab a bit of fair quality video–I haven’t exactly had much of a chance to test my video set up, and it’s stowed so I can’t check it in flight. Okay, it’s a downright shitty video, but you can kind of get the idea of what the flying was like.


I have to admit I was pretty nervous going out for this flight. Probably 85% of my flying is in the pattern, 14% off-airport, and the remaining 1% is maneuvering close to the ground. What surprised me though is that I had all the skills I needed to do it. By the end of the day, I was getting comfortable with maintaining my airspeed during the circuits around our subjects, had a good sight picture for our altitude over the surface, and maintaining good separation from the moving boat.

After a few hours at Lake Berryessa, we flew back to Napa (KAPC) to refuel (they pass out free bottles of wine if you fuel up enough there) and take a break. Then we flew into the delta east of our base at Concord (KCCR). This is a cool area–all these interweaving waterways, islands in the middle of swamps with a restaurant and bar, and ad hoc assemblies of boaters just hanging out. Here we also saw everything from the big dollar yachts to houseboats that were held together with plywood and wire. Flying here was even more challenging than over the lake, because most of the water ways were narrow. This concentrates the traffic (more evasive maneuvering) and put us over land during some passes (obstructions, wires). We got to working together pretty well, with both of us reconning the area, verbalizing instructions and the plan for making the photo pass, dropping in and taking the shot, and calling obstructions again.

After an hour or so, we made our turn back to KCCR and fought a headwind back to base. Definitely the most challenging flying I’ve ever done, and the longest I’ve been in the seat flying in one day. I was surprised at how quickly my basic skills came back and how much I learned. In one day we hit 2 class D airports, were on with NorCal Approach, went from sea level to 3200′ DA, flew low level and cross-country, and saw a few things I’d never seen before (that’s another post tho).

2 thoughts on “Time Building In San Francisco”

  1. The audio setup for this is absolutely great, I want a rig like that for myself! What are the specs? The video camera, however–well, helicopters have always been a challenging internal photo environment; but what we really needed was a swivel mount of some kind so the video showed the boat being photographed–that would come closer to giving the full impact of the flights.

    One thing I do wonder about is that the apparent camera angle (both of them) appears to have been unusually high–that is, we’re looking DOWN not sideways, at the shoreline and wakes, suggesting that the photo pass was at perhaps 100′. Not the usual; essentially all of these photo passes are (normally) at between 8′-30′ over the water. (Scary? Well, Chris doesn’t mention that the helicopters are all Mariners with fully-inflated floats). (from a BoatPix.com pilot)

    1. Thanks Dave! The audio is fairly simplistic–just a microphone placed inside the cuff of my headset. I’m a bit surprised that it worked as well as it did.

      The camera doesn’t do a great job of reflecting the altitudes in any of the video I’ve captured so far (from this flight in San Francisco, or from several flights I did with your CFI in San Diego). The camera lens–in this case a wide-angle on a fixed mount–distorts the view, and I was testing different mounting angles. In this case, we descended from 100-200 AGL down to 20-40 AGL for the photos, and flew so that we were pacing the boats for a few seconds while shooting photos. I also have the recording unit for the video system stowed under the seat–at these altitudes, no additional cockpit distractions are needed!

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