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|| News Item: Posted 2004-06-30

First Time Aerials
By Cameron Davidson

Photo by Cameron Davidson

Photo by Cameron Davidson

Tobacco Farm in Southern Maryland near the Patuxent River as part of my Chesapeake Bay personal project. Hughes 500 Helicopter - Canon 1Ds - 85mm f/1.8.
You're excited! You have your first aerial assignment. You've always wanted to get up in the air. You're thinking: Cool! This will be fun, I'll take my girlfriend/boyfriend, my wife/husband or my best bud. We can go cruising over the city and shoot a few pics for myself or maybe a few as stock.

Slow down for a second. Let's talk. Let me offer some insights from twenty-five years of aerial photography experience around the world. Done correctly, aerial photography can be fun, exciting, and rewarding. Done incorrectly, it can be deadly. I've lost two photographer friends in aerial photography accidents.

I've known and flown with some amazing pilots. Pilots that not only astonished me with their precision flying in stiff winds, but continued to place me in the perfect spot, time and time again. Then there are the ones who scared the hell out of me in the first ten minutes of flight. Yes, I've had my fair share of scary flights and hope that I have learned to trust my instincts enough to never allow myself to fly with someone who does not "feel right." Hopefully, my experiences will allow you to choose the right pilot for your assignment and make it an enjoyable and memorable flight.

First things first. Two rules that you must understand and integrate into your thinking and planning: Safety Comes First and Less Weight Equals More Power. Safety Comes First It is the overriding concern that governs all of your decisions. Less Weight Equals More Power is absolutely critical. The more weight you add to the aircraft, the less power you have as a safety margin. (This is especially critical with helicopters!)

The type of assignment you have and your budget will narrow your choices on which type of aircraft to use.

As an example - a story on clear-cutting of forests that requires overviews to illustrate your piece - a high-wing aircraft (i.e., an airplane) is a smart choice. The Cessna 172 is the station wagon of airplanes: strong, dependable and flown by many pilots.

If you're shooting a story on traffic and need to get "low and slow" over multi-levels of highway interchanges, anything less than a turbine helicopter is fool hardy. This is where less weight equals more power comes in: if you are low and slow, over traffic, boats, buildings or people, then you need the reserve of power and reliability that turbine engines provide. One thing you need to consider when flying over congested areas: you and your pilot are not only responsible for your own safety, but that of people on the ground.


Overview stories and projects - landscapes, cityscapes and some construction progress images.

The FAA minimums for airplanes over congested areas are a thousand feet above ground level (AGL) and five-hundred above less congested areas. That can be open to your pilot's interpretation, but to play it safe, you'll need a helicopter if you are going to fly lower. The haze layer in many cities is around eight-hundred feet above the ground and even a good circular polarizer and crisp light are not going to help you.


Photo by Cameron Davidson

Photo by Cameron Davidson

Bell 206 BH. Built in 1967 and flown by Edwards and Associates in Bristol, Tennessee. This helicopter has close to 37,000 hours on the airframe. The paint job was added after 9/11.
My first choice is always a turbine. My favorite ship is the Hughes 500 - the sports car of turbine helicopters. It is the helicopter of choice for many film pilots - its power to weight ratio is exceptionally high and it is quick and nimble. The Bell Jet Ranger has an amazing safety record and is the most common turbine helicopter in North America. They're roomy, reasonably fast and are solid performers.

One of the pilots I fly with, is a twenty-thousand hour guy
who pilots a Jet Ranger built in 1967 with 37,000 hours on the airframe. Granted, there is hardly an original part left on the machine; other then the frame and the data plate. It is an incredibly sweet ship with a distinctive paint job. I'd fly anywhere with this pilot and helicopter. For higher-end advertising and corporate assignments with healthy budgets, the A-Star or Twin-Star (twin turbine engines) are incredible helicopters with lots of room.

Remember the mantra: less weight equals more power. I try not to fly with anyone else in the helicopter. I don't really need an assistant to help me change lenses or CF cards. I've had a few assistants feel the effects of quick pedal turns and start to feel sick. It is foreign environment and if you're not comfortable with tight banks turns while descending, you can get queasy pretty quick. Folks laugh, but I always suggest eating a bagel before a flight. All that bread in your stomach sucks up the juices and seems to help. Whatever you do: don't grab a breakfast from the greasy spoon on the way to airport, gulping down buckets of coffee to shake the cobwebs out of your brain. Your valiant attempt to be clear-headed at 5:30 will backfire. You'll regret every bite of those smothered eggs.

Piston Helicopters.

Photo by Cameron Davidson

Photo by Cameron Davidson

Flying over the Smokie Mountains of North Carolina in a Bell 206 Turbine helicopter.
OK, I'll admit it, I like turbines. I love the whine of a jet engine sitting over my head, sucking down the Jet-A fuel and pumping out 900 horses. Turbines are super reliable and their safety record is stellar. However, not all assignments or budgets call for a $600 - $1,400 per hour ship. A difference of opinion has always existed in aviation about piston versus turbine helicopters.

Turbine pilots tend to look down at the Robinsons and R-22 fans love their economical little ships. The Robinson R-22 or Schweitzer 300 are what most civilian helicopter pilots start flying while attending flight school. All branches of the U.S. military train their pilots with a variation of the Bell Jet Ranger.

The R-22 had some problems at first and earned a bad reputation with some pilots. Additionally, it is the only aircraft that has special rules in the Federal Aviation Regulations (SFAR's) that govern its operation. Those problems have been corrected and it is now a solid choice for certain types of aerials. It is the most common and popular piston helicopter in the world.

Again, Less Weight Equals More Power. A turbine delivers significantly more power for its weight than a piston engine. You can easily overload the limits of a piston helicopter. Example: say it is a hot summer morning (strike one!), you're a big guy around 200 pounds plus you're carrying your normal twenty-pounds of gear and an additional ten pounds for a gyroscope (strike two!) your pilot is also a big guy (strike three!). Guess what? If you have a full load of fuel, you are now over gross weight. Which means, you're not going anywhere. In a turbine, that is a piece of cake.

Robinson also makes the larger and faster R-44. It is giving the Bell Jet Ranger a run for its money in certain markets. It is smaller than a Jet Ranger and slightly faster.

Schweitzer makes the 300, an updated version of the Hughes 269. If a flight school is not using Robinsons for training, then they're flying the Schweitzer 300

Remember the Movie and TV show, M.A.S.H? That sweet little helicopter flying in the intro is the Bell 47. They're getting to be a little long in the tooth these days and have had some problems with counterfeit parts. They're a great ship for aerials and I know of several companies that still fly them. The question is: who performs the maintenance? Is your pilot a high-time guy in the 47? I fly with a pilot in the Florida Panhandle who is exceptionally skilled at making the Bell 47 dance. He is also a Senior A&P mechanic. His Bell 47 looks and flies like it was just delivered from the factory.

If you're shooting a story or project where your budget won't let you get near a turbine, then the Robbies (as Robinsons are affectionately known) or the Schweitzer are good choices- in the hands of a pilot with thousands of hours in-type. Which means, he or she has flown at least a thousand hours in Robinsons or Schweitzers and understands photography missions. This is critical. Choose the pilot first.

Scary Story One - I was lied to by a replacement pilot who claimed he had hundreds of hours of photo mission work in a Hughes 300. It was a simple shot of a bridge at sunset. The pilot forgot his sectional maps, did not know the codes for two of the three airports whose airspace we crossed, then proceeded to lose altitude with every pass around the bridge. On our final pass, he almost put us into the mast of a sailboat moored in a marina. After that I said, "we're done dude!", murmured a quick prayer and hoped we could make it to the airfield without any problems. I found out on the return trip that he only had 700 hours in the Schweitzer
and the majority of it was as an instructor (CFI-Certified Flight Instructor): most of his time was spent overseeing students not flying.

In piston helicopters, my rule is: at least 1,000 hours in-type, significant photo experience and the pilot is a CFII - an instructor
of instructors.

Photo by Cameron Davidson

Photo by Cameron Davidson

Chicahominy River - Virginia. Chesapeake Bay Watershed Project.
Scary Story Two: (not really) Same aircraft (Schweitzer 300), totally different experience. Editorial story on Western Wildfires. My assignment was to shoot wildfires along the Snake River in Northern Idaho. Because the fires were so widespread, every turbine helicopter in the region was tasked with fire suppression missions. Flying over a fire, in the mountains, is dangerous at best. I found an incredible pilot who had close to 10,000 hours in a Schweitzer 300.

He knew the region well, and felt that, with proper planning, we could safely fly the mission. We sat down, planned our flights, met with the Forest Service Air Boss, arranged to be in constant radio contact with other pilots who checked in with us every five minutes, made an escape plan if something went wrong, and made sure that we had fire blankets, radios, water and food on board. I felt totally comfortable with this pilot because I knew, he knew his ship, and we were prepared. I would have preferred a Hughes 500 or a Bell Jet Ranger, instead of a piston helicopter, but it came down to the pilot's experience and my comfort level with his skills.

As we entered the burn zone, the pilot of a Sky Crane called out to flight watch circling above "hey, I just saw a Schweitzer 300, what's he doing in here?" (Wildfires are big boy helicopter territory-The Sky Crane is the largest helicopter in the world - imagine a Praying Mantis with a rotor twice the length of its body and you'll be close)

We ended up flying next to fir trees exploding with flames reaching two hundred feet into the air. I shot an amazing scene where a mountain top fire burned its way to a valley and back up another mountain. Above the smoke cloud, five stacked lenticular clouds floated in crystal clear light while the rest of the scene was cast into shadow with fires smoldering in the darkness

The main key to shooting aerials is always think safety first.

Ask a lot of questions.
Plan your routes.
Plan your times.
Talk about safety.
Talk about hand signals if the radios go out.
Fly when the temperature is the coolest. The air is thicker and you get more power from the engine.

Listen to your gut, to that little angel on your left shoulder. If something doesn't feel right, trust it. If your pilot is cocky and brushes off your questions, walk away.

If you don't understand how helicopters work, ask. Use descriptive words for what you want your pilot to do. Don't stay stop. Actually, don't say hover, either. You never want to hover, unless you're pointed into a steady wind.

Always ask your pilot to keep forward motion.

There is an flight envelope you don't want to fly into - it is called Dead Man's Curve - it is a relationship between speed, altitude above the ground and power settings. In Dead Man's Curve, if something goes wrong, you're in a world of hurt. - there's not enough margin to execute a safe power-off (autorotation) landing.

I say this to scare you. It is called Dead Man's Curve for a very good reason.

Absolute Rules for Safety:

If something goes wrong - stay calm.

Photo by Cameron Davidson

Photo by Cameron Davidson

Mississippi River Flood in 1993 for National Geographic. Cameron flew in a Jet Ranger with floats over the Missiouri, Mississippi and Illinois rivers. There were four photographers covering the flood for the magazine.
If you have to make an auto-rotation (an unplanned landing if the engine quits or loses power) you are the pilot's extra set of eyes. Keep looking out for obstructions, wires or places to land. Once you're on the ground it is critical that you always go to the front or sides of the helicopter - stay in the pilot's vision.

Do not ever go toward the rear of the helicopter! You cannot see the tail rotor spinning. It will be your last haircut!

If you end up in the water without floats, stay calm. The key is to wait until the rotors stop spinning and then swim up and away from the helicopter.

I use a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) from West Marine. I purchased the model with harness loops. Attached to my PFD is a rescue whistle and beacon that activates as soon as it hits the water.

Keep gear secured: use carabiners and webbing to secure your bags. You do not want anything to fly out of the helicopter and strike the tail rotor. Keep film baggies, filters, CF cards and lenses inside your camera bag.

I know of a pilot in Florida who was flying low over the Saint John's River, the photographer in back dropped a lens and reached for it. His seat belt buckle opened and he toppled out of the helicopter and into the river below. Fortunately, the pilot did a quick pedal turn and placed the skids next to the startled photographer, who was then dragged to shore.

There are two schools of thought about taping your seat belt. The primary reason to tape your seat belt is to prevent your exiting the helicopter before you're ready. Some people suggest several wraps of tape around the belt buckle. I think that approach is foolish. In an emergency, you may not be able to pull the tape off of the buckle. I take a four-inch section of gaff tape (usually bright orange or green) and place it across the buckle so it will not open by mistake. I then fold a half-inch strip so I can grab and remove the tape if necessary.

Things to do before you shoot.

Get a good street map and mark your locations on it. On a copy machine, reduce the map down to 8.5" x 11" and give a copy to your pilot. If you can get the GPS coordinates, do. Give them to your pilot. He can then plot the best route to your site.

Delorme Software has an amazing CD series of maps that show the GPS coordinates when you mouse over a location. Delorme turned their back on the Macintosh market and do not have an OS X program. I use an older version that runs on OS 9. SunPath is an incredible program for finding the GPS numbers for just about any city in the world plus you can plot the SunPath from before sunrise to after sunset. This is a useful tool and essential for aerial work.

Plan your flight around the perfect light and weather. Cooler weather is always better. The air is thicker and there is less turbulence.

TFR's (Temporary Flight Restrictions) and Prohibited Areas.

TFR's are area where flight is restricted. The FAA's issues them for a variety of reasons: concerts, car races, sporting events, Presidential visits, etc. The TFR for Former President Bush's home in Maine expands and contracts. If he is in Maine that the TFR is larger. If not, smaller.

Prohibited areas: Don't even think about it. Prohibited areas are absolute no-fly zones. There are several in DC along with an Air Defense Zone that requires security clearances and special permissions to fly into.

Again, the key is talking with your pilot. Some cities have instituted flight restrictions outside of the FAA's authority. Chicago ripped up Miegs Field in the middle of the night because they considered it a security risk. They also placed a flight restriction through the FAA Class B Airspace over the city. Illegal? Probably. Will they get away with it? Yes.

Photo by Cameron Davidson

Photo by Cameron Davidson

Western Wildfires along the Snake River in Idaho. Shot from a Schweitzer 300 piston helicopter.
Does your pilot specialize in aerial photography? If so, do they do the maintenance in house? Do they have a Chadwick balancer to balance the rotors? My DC pilot has a full-time mechanic on staff. They pull one-hundred and three-hundred hour annuals in their hangar. Flying with people who are committed to aerial photography and safety is much more reassuring than flying with Mr. Tourist Bus driver in the wilds of lower Manhattan or the wilds of Hawaii.

One of the pilots I fly with, keeps an emergency pack onboard. Inside the pack are flares, space blankets, extra cell phone batteries, rope, water and power bars. Last fall we had to make a landing in rural Southern Maryland along the banks of the Potomac River. On the Virginia side of the Potomac, a line of embedded thunderstorms had formed that harbored a tornado. We waited for the storm to hit. A farmer saw us land, helped us secure the rotors with twine, took us to a seafood dive on Cobb Island where we kept looking out the windows at the rotating clouds above us. The local seafood sure beat a dinner of power bars and bottled water. Eventually, the storms passed and we found a hole in the weather and flew back to the airfield.

You should always try to be prepared for the unexpected. I think it is a good idea to stuff some emergency food into your camera bag along with water or the nectar-of-the-gods, Coca-Cola.

1 Make sure you understand my safety guidelines for working from aircraft.
2 Know your pilot and make sure you are clear on all issues with him before taking off.
3 Make sure you and your pilot know the route.
4 Try to make sure you are shooting at the right time of day for the best light on your subject.
5 Keep all equipment secure!
6. The Pilot is Pilot-In-Command. His or her word is gold, if they say no to your request or feel that it is not safe, than you have to trust their judgment.
7. Listen to your gut and be prepared to walk away.
8. Enjoy the flight and view!!!

(Cameron Davidson is an Arlington, VA - based photographer. His editorial assignment work for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Audubon, Preservation, Air & Space, American Way, Outside, USA Weekend, Spirit, Islands and National Geographic Traveler have taken him to over thirty countries. Three books of his photography have been published: Over Florida, A Moment of Silence (Arlington National Cemetery) and Our Nation's Capital: An Aerial Portrait. He is currently working on two aerial books to be published in 2004. His website is:

Related Links:
Cameron Davidson's member page

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