Aerial Boat Photo

Bit of a challenging flight, but thanks to my flying with Boatpix I was able to do it. This was a larger boat than I’d photographed before, so I didn’t plan the positioning of the GoPro very well. The actual photos for the shoot were captured by the photographer’s equipment, and the GoPro was just for my own use. These clips give you a flavor of what we were doing.

Some of the issues we were dealing with were the changing weather conditions, including an impending storm system moving into the Puget Sound area; changing light conditions; flying door-off with temperatures below 5C; the client’s changing plans; the need for continuous communication and planning with the photographer and boat captain while flying the shoot; cold, fatigue, and fuel planning over the 1.7 hour flight; and a crowded waterway (small craft and regular ferry traffic).



Aerial Photo Cockpit Views

Had a second aerial photo flight with the same photographer. I thought it would be helpful to post both the initial request and video of how it comes together…seems like one thing student pilots will tell you they aren’t getting in primary training is exposure to commercial jobs. The air work was something I got specific training on (with Boatpix), but the beginning-to-end planning wasn’t. If I get enough requests, I’ll keep posting content like this as I can. For now, the view out the front is on my YouTube channel, and video/audio of an overlapping segment is that I captured from another camera is posted on the Contour Cam site.

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Aerial Photo (Navigating Adjacent Airspace) Scenario

This post came out of a question I had about navigating contiguous Class D airspace for a photo flight that I was asked to do earlier this week. I’ll add the “answer” to the communications question to the comments. I’d also be interested in the utility of this as a scenario: how useful would it be for pilot training? I try to do something like this for the students I have. Many of them have said outright that they’re “hands-on” learners, and haven’t really been able to understand or apply regulations or other topics just by reading or getting a lecture on them.

I do land appraisal evaluations, and one of your pilots has flown me around to evaluate properties before. It worked really well, so I’m willing to drive the extra distance to KPWT  to fly with you rather than working with somebody closer. Now I have a list of properties that I need to survey and photograph tomorrow. Since I’ll be taking the pictures, I need to have the door off and would like to be able to get as low as possible for pictures of the waterfront side of the properties. The other pilot was able to stop the helicopter so I could get the shots I needed. Here are the lat/long coordinates for the properties: [47.151275,-122.562098], [47.151902,-122.564464], [47.161102,-122.570134], [47.163393,-122.567173], [47.172277,-122.567822]. After you’ve had a look, call me back so I can get on your schedule.

  • As a commercial pilot stationed at KPWT, can you take this flight? If you do, what limitations might you place on the flight based on you experience (<1000 hours TT) and capabilities?
  • You have access to an R22 Beta (875 lb BEW, 103.71 long arm). Your weight is 172 lbs and the passenger is 200 lbs with 3 lbs of camera equipment. The aircraft has an auxillary fuel tank, non-moving map GPS (database expired in 2001), transponder, and single radio. Can you do the flight in this aircraft, and is it the right aircraft for the customer and mission?
  • The relevant TAF for tomorrow is 20006KT P6SM SKC, and the civilian forecast is for clear skies, low of 65 F, high of 85 F, with light southerly winds throughout the day, becoming cloudy overnight with rain showers, low 55 F to 75 F, with westerly winds 5-15 knots throughout the following day.
  • You haven’t flown in this area before. What airspaces will you have to navigate, and what communications, equipment, and regulations apply? What altitudes and airspeeds will you use enroute?
  • What are some of the external pressures that you need to keep in mind as you’re working with this customer? How will you manage them? If he shows up business casual (short sleeve shirt, khakis, and dress shoes), with a small point-and-shoot camera on his hip and a high-end SLR, and a stack of satellite photos of the properties so we can identify them from the air, does this raise any additional concerns or pressures for you?

helicopter aerial photography




LAX West Helipad Departure (and Commercial Approaches)

The one weekend I flew with BoatPix back in August I hit as many airports as I did during my entire flight training. One of them was LAX, which, if you haven’t seen it, has a pretty cool helipad to land on. We were flying by LAX on the way home to SNA (John Wayne/Orange Co) and needed to clean the helicopter’s bubble anyway, so…. Unfortunately, my camera has some issues with sun glare, and pointing it directly into the setting sun fried its sensor for the entire approach. Maybe I’ll get to do that approach another time, but the basic challenge on the approach is that Tower wants you above the runway complexes that flank the helipad in the center of the airport. You  bring the helicopter in high over the runways, then make a steep descent for a pinnacle landing to the helipad. (Although it’s a steep descent, the actual approach maintains a normal angle–the idea behind the steep descent was to get to an altitude where I could make a normal approach.)lax helipad

The departure is not as much fun, but it’s still very cool. This time, your flight path has to parallel the two runways that flank you (25 to the south, and 24 to the north). Eventually, you have to cross paths with departing airliners that are using those runways though. For this, the tower keeps you low along the shoreline until you clear the airspace. This turns out to not be that unusual, and earlier that weekend we were working off the departure end of North Island Naval Air Station (where we were moved out of the way of a C5 that was outbound).

The last part of this video shows me doing a less than smooth approach into SNA. I’m still stuck on the flight school mentality where I fly a pattern to land. If you’re working on your commercial ticket, you need to get experience breaking out of the downwind/base/final and 60 KIAS/200 fpm approach mentality. Yeah, I never did them during training; the school was more worried about noise complaints from the homeowners who bought houses next to the airport. To pull them off now takes a bit of brain power–something that’s running short when you haven’t flow a lot recently and you’re at an unfamiliar airport. There’s nothing difficult about them, it just requires you to break some ingrained habits.


All in a Half-day's Work

My Labor Day trip out to Atlanta with BoatPix was a last-minute deal. Initially I thought I was headed to New Bern, but they ended up needing me in Atlanta instead. That left me short of time to order and review those sectional charts, so I gave a few iPhone apps a try. In addition to a VFR charting app, one of the (GPS Lite from Mobile Arts) was a GPS tracker that could run in the background. On our last flight of the weekend, I started up GPS Lite after pre-flighting our helicopter during our first fuel stop of the day, and then again after having the phone on a charge on our last fuel stop. Just today I imported the tracks to Google Earth (if you’re into GE, you can download tours from the Clemson [KCEU] and Anderson [KAND] flights from this zip file).

We’d flown the southern end of Lake Hartwell for a full day on Saturday, and thought we’d work the northern end to see what the boat traffic was like there. Prior to landing at KCEU, we’d done a recon of the north end of the lake. Like the southern end, there were a few bridges (with wires) and multiple islands and dead-end coves. There were also lots of small campgrounds along the forested shorelines; given the close quarters, we wouldn’t be staying long in any one place lest we disturb the campers. The one difference was that it was narrower and lacked the wide open areas of the southern end. On the one hand, working a narrow area like that requires more planning so that you can maneuver for the photo shot with plenty of clearance from shoreline obstructions and other boat traffic. On the other hand, the boats pretty much line up for you, and they’re either coming or going. That’s what this track pretty much shows. Not much was happening near the Clemson campus (upper right corner), so we crossed over the bridge and shot a few boats as we worked south away from the campers. From there on we could fly long south-bound passes, weaving around boats headed the same direction, and then turn around and fly back north to catch boats headed the opposite way. It turned out to be productive, and it was much easier than I expected–the only thing that would throw a hitch in our rhythm would be an enthusiastic group that just happened to drop their skier right before we got to them.

That track covers 45 minutes during which we flew about 30 miles (after that my iPhone’s battery was drained). After the track ends, we kept working south for another hour before heading down to KAND for a fuel stop. That’s where the next track picks up, after our last fuel stop. The lower end of Lake Hartwell is much more open. Even in the narrow area south of the bridge, our track is shorter and less aligned. It was late in the day and we eventually had to move to an entirely different area. On the east side, our track wanders southeast out of a popular party cove, where we were able to follow a few boats out. But after shooting those guys, we again had to move. After about 45′, we turned west and climbed above the lake to head back to our base at Gainesville (KGVL).

Great flying that weekend. After I left, the helicopter went in for its 50-hr service and for an alternator squawk (we’d noticed on our pre-flight that afternoon that the belt was loose–turns out the mounting bracket had come loose). It’s since moved to Kentucky, and will soon be getting mothballed for the winter unless a student needs it.

Flying Fun Over Labor Day

This is just about a great weekend flying last weekend with BoatPix. Last week I got a call that there was an open seat for the Labor Day weekend in Atlanta (Gainesville actually, KGVL). Aside from the usual stress about flying in a new place, I really was able to look forward to this flight–I’ve got about 40 hrs of flight time in the R22 over the summer, so there’s no question that I can still fly. I know the basics of flying the photo contracts and what it’s like flying a full day. Joe, the CFI at KGVL turned out to be a great host, and, like the other BoatPix CFIs I’ve gotten to fly with, was into the work and knew what he was doing.

On top of it, the flying in Georgia was a little different than what we were doing along the California coast. On the inland lakes, the boats are smaller and we’re maneuvering a bit closer. Folks on the boat are able to see us and we can interact a bit more than we could with the larger boats that were operating offshore. It was also a long weekend, with sunny weather and a bunch of good people out having fun. We started off at Lake Hartwell–about 45 minutes east of KGVL–and spent Saturday there. Despite there being a Clemson game, the lake was packed. We spent a full day there before returning to KGVL right around sunset. Sunday we focused on nearby Lake Lanier, then moved over to Alatoona Lake (about 60 minutes west). Not my favorite place–Alatoona was smaller, narrower, had all kinds of obstructions on the lake (raised buoys mostly), and looked a little mucky. Monday we were back at Lake Lanier, working from north to south, and finished up the day back at Lake Lanier.

In total, I logged 24 hours–8 hours each day, starting around 9:00 and ending around 20:30. The last hour Monday was where I reached my mental and physical limit, and I was pretty relieved to be getting back to the airport that evening. Learned quite a lot about flying in hot, humid weather (a new one for me), dealing with the low level obstructions that you’d expect (the aforementioned buoys, birds, trees), cross-country flying in the South, and maneuvering with sometimes breezy conditions.

What was the best was the people, and I’m not kidding here. Almost everybody we photographed was pretty enthusiastic–not in the least because Joe was practically hanging out the helicopter waving at them. Got lots of people posing, waving, or dancing around. The jet skiers and fast boats were more than happy to show off for us, and we got some great shots of these guys sprouting massive rooster tails or flying over wakes.

Looks like I’m staying at home this weekend, but I’m looking forward to getting a few more weekends in before the cool weather sets in.

Helicopter Ground Handling Signals

I got busy. The first few weeks of this month I was in San Diego for work, and had the chance to fly with BoatPix again. I had the video camera with me again, and have about 10 hours of video that I’m sorting through. In the meantime though, I thought I’d post a short clip of our departure from KMYF. After we fueled up, the FBO attendant parked his truck, grabbed his batons, and took up station in front of us. Hand signals for directing traffic on the ground wasn’t something I’d ever studied, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In this case, it was pretty straightforward–when he saw that we were ready to pick up, he “cleared” us to alight, then directed us to the right away from the parked traffic. I say “cleared” because we were at a towered airport and communicating with the tower. For the most part, it was nice to have another set of eyes since we were parked in the middle of the transient area, with an active movement area behind us.

Of the 5 airports that we worked out of, 4 of them had personnel on the ramp to direct traffic into parking spaces (the exception was KTOA, which didn’t have much traffic at all, and no jet traffic that we saw). The BoatPix CFI that I was flying with had visited most of these airports before and already had an out-of-the-way parking spot for our little Mariner. But the FBO’s ground handlers directed the jets and larger helicopters where they wanted them. The AIM (section 4-3-25) has a couple of pages on the hand signals, but–given that the first 2 figures show positioning of a signalman relative to an airliner–this isn’t something that garnered much attention during ground school. In addition, none of the signals covered in the AIM seem particularly important for helicopter operations. That said, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group has a guide to hand signals for helicopter ground operations.

This short video is just a prop for this post–the signalman basically tells us to lift up and not fly over anything that we wouldn’t have flown over anyway. I let the video run for another 30 seconds so you can see the Skycrane parked on the ramp. Check back over the next couple of weeks…now that I’m getting to fly some, I’ll have some video of the me learning some aerial photography techniques and transitioning from “flight school flying” to commercial flying.

httpv:// hand signals

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).

Utility Helicopters on the Columbia

No flying for me this week, but I did get to go watch a pair of helicopters setting high voltage transmission lines. Out here, wind and hydroelectric power is pretty easy to come by, and most days you can see trains or trucks moving the components for wind turbines east. With that, there’s the need for expanding transmission capabilities. Getting power lines along the Columbia River Gorge back to the west side is a challenge because of rough, remote terrain. In this area, it’s easiest to do it with helicopters.

I watched an Erickson Skycrane setting the steel transmission towers. An MD500 orbited the area, checking out the set before the Skycrane released the tower, then moving to the next base to make sure it was ready for the upper part of the tower. Check out the downwash from the Skycrane…these towers are >200 feet high, and the Skycrane is easily kicking dust up. Later in the afternoon, a couple of F15s did a low-level pass over the river before pulling up and cutting back to the north. Not many days you can see a Skycrane and jets doing what they do best.


Cherry Drying Season

Spring is cherry season, which means all kinds of helicopters come into our area for cherry drying contracts. This year, I was fortunate enough to know one of the pilots working what turned out to be a pretty rainy season. Luck wasn’t all working for me though–I had a 1-week business trip and had scheduled my BFR right in the wettest period. I ended up with just 0.8 hrs actually flying the contract with him, but got to see him work a couple of fields from the ground as well as from the air.


Yeah, he’s doing it in an R22. I watched a UH-1 do the same field a few years ago, and it seemed like he was 50-75 feet up. In contrast, the R22 was right down on top of the trees. Once the R22 is low enough, the force of the downwash is the same though–it looks like the trees are going to lay over flat when you’re right over the top of them.

On the flight that I did with him, we covered what seemed to me to be a nightmare scenario. Lots of farmers out here have small cherry orchards–one of the reasons why you need to find a cherry contract is because those contracts serve lots of small plots. It’s not uncommon to find a house in the middle of an orchard which brings all the other obstructions. Rows of trees to break the high winds border many orchards, and there are usually wind turbines spread throughout for frost control during the cold desert evenings in the spring. This field had all those obstructions, plus an unusual layout, power lines running at an angle through the middle, uneven terrain, and a few birdhouses just for fun. It’s unnerving enough to be hovering so high (even though we were only a few feet off the tops of the trees) and in gusty conditions. Being surrounded on all sides by obstructions–and having to maneuver close enough to them to dry the trees below them–added to the fun. Just keeping track of what to look out for was beyond my ability, and I was content to watch this 1000+ hour pilot do his work.