Aerial Photography: Helicopter vs. Drone

Picking the right tool for the job.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about aerial photography work with helicopters and drones and thought I’d take a few moments to share my thoughts and conclusions. If you think one or the other is the perfect aerial photography platform, think again and read on.

My Helicopter Aerial Photo Experience

I’m a commercial helicopter pilot and have been one for about 17 years now. Of the modest 3,600 or so hours I’ve spent flying, a lot of it has been on aerial photography missions:

    Airplane over Horseshoe BendOne of my favorite clients, Mike Reyfman, shot this photo of Horseshoe Bend near Lake Powell from about 3000 feet up. Note the tour plane, which was probably flying about 1,000 feet over the “shoe.”

  • Fine art photo flights over Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, Monument Valley, Canyonlands National Park, and the Four Corners area near Shiprock, New Mexico. (I’ve probably spent more hours with photographers over Lake Powell, mostly from 2006 to 2011, than any other commercial helicopter pilot. At one point, I could identify every point along the lake from an aerial photo.)
  • High speed desert racing photo flights at the Parker 425 in Parker, AZ.
  • High speed boat racing photo flights at Lake Havasu in Arizona.
  • Bike racing photo flights in the Lake Wenatchee and Leavenworth areas of Washington.
  • Automotive promotional photo flights over proving ground test tracks in Arizona.
  • Architectural and construction photo flights in major cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas as well as remote areas such as Burro Creek in Arizona.
  • Geographical photo flights along the Wenatchee and Columbia Rivers, Lake Chelan, and Stehekin in Washington, Colorado River in Utah, and Salt River in Arizona.
  • Agricultural photo flights in the Quincy, George, and Wenatchee Valley areas of Washington.
  • Wildlife photo flights over the Navajo Reservation and Verde River Valleys in Arizona.
  • Nighttime panoramic photo flights over a crowded football stadium at night in the flight path of Phoenix Sky Harbor airport.
  • 360° panorama photo flights over Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend, Goosenecks, and Bryce Canyon National Park.
  • Air-to-Air photo shoots with everything from another helicopter to the world’s largest biplane to a 747 outfitted for firefighting.

Each mission had a different purpose, a different focus (pardon the pun). Each required a different kind of flying, from 4,000-foot (AGL) hovers to low-level, high-speed chases in obstacle-rich environments. Some required top speed level flying just to catch a target, others required tight, often difficult maneuvers in a choreographed dance with the target. In each case, my helicopter and I were the tools the photographer used to get the shots he needed. The photographer provided instructions and I positioned us where we needed to be.

Desert Racing TruckThere’s nothing quite like chasing trucks through the desert with a helicopter.

I love aerial photo work, especially the challenging high-speed work I did over desert race courses. There’s nothing that can give me a buzz more than chasing a trophy truck down a twisty dirt track 80 feet off the ground at 80 miles per hour, so close I can hear his passing horn when he comes up on a competitor.

My Drone Aerial Photo Experience

As I’ve written elsewhere in this blog, I was not happy when I started losing aerial photo work to drones. I fought back for a while but, as technological improvements in both the flying and photo capabilities of drones made amazing results easier to achieve, I eventually got on board. I bought my first drone last winter and got my commercial drone pilot certificate soon afterward. (Yes, if you can’t beat them, join them.)

Here’s some footage from a recent practice flight around my home.

I don’t have nearly as much drone photo experience as I do helicopter photo experience, but I’m learning more every time I go out for a flight. I’ve been doing practice flights around my neighborhood, picking photo targets and flying around them for video fly-by shots and still images. I’ve also been taking my drone out to new locations to practice in target areas I find interesting. This winter, I’ll be using my drone to take photos of campsites out in the desert, as well as my activities on various Arizona lakes and rivers. Practice makes perfect and I’d like to get as good at drone photography as I am flying my helicopter on photo missions.

The Best Tool

I have, however, already come up against the limitations of drone photography, primarily related to speed, altitude, and operating temperature. I figured I’d list a few kinds of photo missions and explain which tool I’d pick and why.

Low-level, Low-Speed Operations

This is pretty much a no-brainer: when you’re operating below 200 feet at speeds of less than 20 miles per hour, a drone is probably going to be the better tool for the job. Yes, a helicopter can fly that low and that slow, but it’s far more likely to cause a disruption.

My best example of this is an aerial photo job I did for a local video production company. Believe it or not, they got the Wenatchee Symphony Orchestra to set up and play at dawn in a local park. The park had lots of tall evergreen trees and the orchestra was set up in a clearing. I had to get the videographer low enough for his closeups. The first time we passed, the helicopter’s downwash blew the sheet music off half the stands. (Oops!) A drone would have been a much better tool for this particular mission — and I actually said so during the flight.

Of course, blowing things around isn’t the only issue a low-flying helicopter can cause. It can also be a distraction to people on the ground. One of the flights I did for the same video company was a flight down Wenatchee Avenue not much higher than the highest buildings in the area. I had to fly sideways since the videographer was shooting out a side door. Although we got the job done, I think a drone could have done it better: it could have flown lower without distracting or disturbing drivers and pedestrians. The fight was short — we got the footage in less than 30 seconds — but a drone could have done the same thing without anyone on the ground even noticing it.

Better Choice: Drone

Low-Level, High Speed Operations

Of course, when you add speed, the drone simply can’t do the job. Consider my work chasing vehicles on land or over water. I’m usually flying at 50 miles per hour or more. (Seriously: on some of the boat shoots, I could not keep up; those things are fast.) I know that my drone’s top speed is about 22 miles per hour; even if a drone could go faster, could it keep up? I doubt it. And what happens when it gets out of range of the operator and his controller?

Better Choice: Helicopter

High Altitude Operations

While too many drone pilots seem to ignore drone altitude restrictions, they do exist and violating them is a good way to get into hot water with the FAA. Of course, trouble is a lot better than the possible alternative: flying into the path of another aircraft and causing a crash. As a helicopter pilot with no minimum altitude, I’m terrified that this might happen to me.

In the U.S., the FAA has established a maximum altitude for drones of 400 feet. Although it may be possible to get a waiver for a specific mission, it can take up to 90 days to get that waiver. How often do you know what you need to shoot 90 days in advance?

Helicopters, on the other hand, don’t have any altitude restrictions — other than those related to the helicopter’s performance capabilities. I’ve done photo flights where I had to hover at 9000 feet above sea level. Even if a drone could get up there, without a waiver it would not be legal.

Better choice: Helicopter

Operations Where Drones Aren’t Allowed

One of the things that really bugs me as a drone pilot is the number of places where drone operations are simply not allowed.

Some of them make sense — after all, do you really want to step up to the rim of the Grand Canyon and see a cluster of drones buzzing around in your view? Or attend an outdoor concert with drones flying back and forth over your head?

Meanwhile, drone restrictions in other places seem to make little or no sense. There are parts of Death Valley, for example, that are so remote they have few (if any) visitors and no wildlife. Why not let someone use a drone to take a few great photos that show off the barren wildness of the terrain?

Whatever.

The point is, there are places you can’t take a drone and, oddly enough, you can still take a helicopter. While flight over the Grand Canyon might be off-limits below 14,500 feet in most places, there are many national parks and other places where drone flights are prohibited but there are no restrictions on helicopter operations.

Let me be clear here: Most national parks are charted and pilots are requested to maintain at least 2,000 feet above the highest terrain in the area. Note the use of the word requested. I’ve written about this before. Although it is legal to fly lower in these areas, it’s not something you should do if you can avoid it. If you become a nuisance, you will be cited and will likely have to fight the FAA to keep your certificate. That’s why a lot of commercial pilots simply say no. Also, if people keep flying low-level through these areas, the FAA will make it illegal.

Until then — well, get those shots with a helicopter because without a waiver, you won’t get them legally with a drone.

Better Choice: Helicopter

As for flying low-level over crowds, that’s just plain stupid. Don’t do it with any aircraft, no matter what size it is.

Operation in Extreme Temperatures

All drones have operating temperature limitations, often due to battery capabilities. My drone, for example, will only operate in temperatures between 32°F and 104°F (0°C to 40°C).

My helicopter, however, doesn’t have any temperature limitations specified in the pilot operating handbook — although many people will argue that since performance charts aren’t available below -20°C or above 40°C, flight at those temperatures isn’t allowed. Newsflash: I’ve seen in-flight OAT temperatures of 112°F (45°C) in my helicopter and it still flew. I’ve also flown it when the outside temperature was about -10°F (-23°C) — the hardest part was getting it started; when it finally warmed up, it flew fine. (Unfortunately, it was a door-off photo flight; I don’t think I’ve ever been so cold in my life.)

The point is, if you need to do the shoot in very hot or very cold conditions, you might have to use a helicopter — or wait until conditions change.

Better choice: Helicopter

Operations Over Long Distances

I once had a photo shoot that included dozens of target locations along a 30-mile stretch of the Wenatchee River, a 50-mile stretch of the Columbia River, and the remote lakeside town of Stehekin on Lake Chelan. In my helicopter, we were able to knock off every location on the list in a total of three hours.

None of the flying was very special. It was relatively low and slow stuff, with some slow circling around points of interest. In fact, all of the shots could have been made with a drone. But that drone would have had to be driven to each location and launched for a flight there. It would have taken many hours to get all the shots and, if light was important — as it was for this shoot — the drone pilot/photographer probably wouldn’t have been able to shoot more than two to four locations each day. Add to that a half-day ferry ride to Stehekin, an overnight stay for the best light, and the half-day return trip and the project could have taken up to a month to complete.

Yeah, it would have been cheaper to do it with a drone. But time is money.

Better choice: Helicopter

Not Quite What I Expected

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In writing this and thinking about the kinds of aerial photo flying I’ve done, I’m surprised at how few photo missions are better handled by a drone than a helicopter. It seems to me that drone aerial photo flights are pretty much limited to situations where the camera needs to fly low and slow. Anything else would probably exceed the capabilities of the drone or violate the law. That might be where a helicopter can get the job done.

Fortunately for commercial drone pilots, there are plenty of missions that require low and slow flight. So there will never be a shortage of work for them.

But what makes me very happy is the knowledge that drones will never fully replace manned aircraft — including helicopters — for aerial photo missions. After all, that’s the kind of flying I really like to do.

Prepping and Planning for my Winter Migration

In waiting — and planning — mode.

Autumn is just about over. The leave are mostly gone and nighttime temperatures are dipping into the 30s. There’s been frost on the ground every morning. As the sun rises and fills the valley north of my home with light, odd little patches of evaporation fog form over the Columbia River 800 feet below the shelf where my home perches. I often stop my morning activity to watch, wishing I had one of my good GoPros around to create a time-lapse of the slow cloud formation and dissipation.

Of course, by the time that happens, I’ve already been up for a few hours. I’ve had my coffee and usually my breakfast. I’ve probably finished my daily journal entry and maybe even a blog post. I wake very early no matter what the season is, usually between 4 and 6 AM, although sometimes earlier. I’m a morning person and I have been for at least the past 20 years. It’s hard for me to believe that I had trouble attending 8 AM classes when I was in college. These days, by 8 AM, I’m usually ready for my mid-morning snack.

Sunlight and the Shadow Time

Living this far north — latitude 47.34° — the days start getting very short around the middle of October. By mid November, there’s only 9 hours and 15 minutes of daylight each day and we’re losing about 2 minutes of it every day. By the Winter Solstice, the sun is up for only about 8 and a half hours a day. That means the sun isn’t up for 15 and a half hours a day.

But worse than that is what I call the Shadow Time — the six weeks each year that the sun fails to clear the cliffs south of my home. For that brief period, sunlight does not shine at all on my house, although it does still reach out and fill the Wenatchee Valley. For the days leading up to the start of Shadow Time — December 1, I think — there’s less and less light on my house. Yesterday, there was about an hour of it starting around 1 PM. I love the way it shines into the high windows on the south side of my home, sending warm light at weird angles into my living space. But it’s weird looking out the north windows and seeing a big shadow in the foreground with the brightness of the valley behind it.

November View
I shot this photo yesterday afternoon from my deck. The clouds were great and the river was so blue. It’s a panorama for a reason — I cropped out the shadow in the foreground.

And I don’t have it bad at all. Some of my neighbors on the south side of the road have been in it for weeks already. Their Shadow Time lasts months. I can’t imagine living that long in the shadows, without the rejuvenating properties of warm, direct sunlight coming through the windows. Honestly, I don’t know why some of them built their homes where they did, especially when I see the occasional boulder coming down off the cliffs dangerously close to one neighbor’s backyard. It seems like it’s only a matter of time before one of those basalt columns lets go and ends up in their living room.

The Shadow Time is one of the reasons I go away for the winter. I’m a sunlight person — I need to be in the sun. That’s one reason why I like living on the east side of the Cascade Mountains. People think it rains a lot in Washington, but that’s not true. It rains a lot in Seattle. It doesn’t rain much here. And those short days turn into gloriously long ones in the summer time; it’s actually light out when I wake up and sometimes when I go to bed.

My goal is always to be gone during the Shadow Time and I’ve been pretty good about that for the past few years. But this time, I’m can’t get out quite as early as I hoped to.

Killing Time

So as November winds down, I find myself waiting for my departure date.

I’m spending much of my time at home goofing off and doing odd jobs around the house, with a few occasional forays down into town to catch a movie, have dinner or cocktails with friends, or run errands. My home and its menagerie — currently 13 chickens (including a rooster just learning to crow properly) and two garage cats (for rodent control) — are pretty much prepared for winter. There’s always something to do around here, but none of it is pressing and some of it has to wait until spring.

I’m also working on glass projects again — something I haven’t done for years. The goal is to create some recycled glass wind chimes for sale in Quartzsite, AZ in January. I’ve been working with my new kiln for a few days now but have had disappointing results. Apparently, I’ll be spending a few more days troubleshooting before I can start churning out new pieces.

And, of course, garage reorganization is something I’m always working on. I’ve still got boxes to unpack. I’m also prepping for a garage sale in the spring. I have a lot of stuff I don’t want/need anymore — some of it from my old home/life in Arizona. While Craig’s List has been instrumental in offloading the larger items, there’s a ton of little stuff I can sell cheap.

My helicopter business is slow this time of year — and only gets slower as winter creeps in. I do have a nice charter later this month; I’ll be working with two other helicopters to take a group of nine men on a flight to various points of interest (to them) around the state. I’m hoping our flight path takes us past my house; my next door neighbor’s kids love it when I fly by with other helicopters — they say it’s like an air show.

Then, of course, is the primary thing keeping me in the area: my December 3 flight bringing Santa to Pybus Public Market. This is a community service I do every year. (Last year was the first time I missed a flight but that’s because the helicopter was in Arizona for overhaul.) The last time I did it, about 300 kids and parents were waiting on the ground when we landed at Pybus in my bright red helicopter. There were photos in the newspaper. I usually shut down and stick around for a while so folks can come up to the helicopter and get their photo taken with it. I’ll do that this year if the weather cooperates.

Pybus Market
An aerial view of Pybus Public Market, shot with my Mavic Pro the other day. I land the helicopter in the corner of the parking lot in the lower right part of the photo, not far from the white building. One year, we rolled the helicopter into the main (gray) building where I left it on display for a week.

Of course, that doesn’t mean those are the only days I’ll fly the helicopter. There’s a pretty good chance I’ll take it out today. I have two wine club shipments waiting for me at Cave B Estate Winery down in Quincy. That’s an hour drive but only 20 minutes by helicopter. I figured I’d take a few friends down there for lunch — I fly for food — and pick up my wine while I’m there.

And the helicopter will go to California for its sixth season of frost control work, likely in mid February.

Going South

Once I’m done with the few things I need to do in the area, I’ll hop on a flight to Phoenix with Penny the Tiny Dog. My truck, camper, and boat are already down there waiting for me. With luck, a month from today I’ll be camped out on one of the Salt River Lakes, soaking up the sun while I explore the lake in my silly little boat.

I’ll spend Christmas along the Colorado River with some friends, camped out in the desert. The site I hope we get — we got it last year — has a boat ramp and easy access to a stretch of river that runs 76 miles from the Palo Verde Dam north of Ehrenberg, AZ to the Imperial Dam north of Yuma. I brought along my new tent and some tent camping gear so I can do overnight boat camping trips along the river. My friends are seriously into fishing and I know we’ll do some of that, too. Last year, we had fish tacos a few times. We have a campfire nearly every night; it gets cold but not too cold to enjoy the outdoors.

Sunrise at the River
We were treated to a few amazing sunrises during our stay along the Colorado River last year.

Then in January, we move to Quartzsite where my friend sells her artwork at a 10-day show at Tyson Wells. This year, I got a booth, too. I’ll be selling drone aerial photography services for folks camped out in the desert, as well as my recycled glass wind chimes (if I can get the problems with the new kiln worked out). It’ll be weird and it might not make any money, but I’m really in it for the experience more than anything else. Besides, my booth at Tyson includes a full hookup and it’ll be nice to get a bit of “civilization” after more than a month camped out in the desert.

After that, I’ll likely start heading north along the Colorado River with my truck, camper, and boat. I’m hoping to do some camping and boating at each stretch of the river between dams, all the way up to Hoover. I’ll definitely revisit Arizona Hot Springs — this time in my own boat — and tent camp for a day or two in the mouth of the canyon there.

In mid-February, I’ll come home (via commercial flight), fetch the helicopter, and take it down to the Sacramento area for its frost contract. From that point on, I’m “on call.” This is different from cherry season, when I need to stick around with the helicopter to be called out on a moment’s notice. Instead, I get my callout at least 12 hours before they might need me. That’s enough time to hop on a flight from wherever I am to Sacramento.

I’ll be in the Vegas area for a week or so in late February to explore Lake Mead, visit some friends, and see HAI’s big helicopter show. When that’s over, I’ll continue north and west, eventually ending up in the Sacramento area. I’ll stick around there, boating on Lake Berryessa and Clear Lake, wine tasting in Napa Valley, and hiking in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains until March. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a few callouts while I’m already there; this can really be lucrative when I don’t have to hop a commericial flight, rent a car, and get a hotel room. Then, depending on weather in California and back home, I’ll make my way back north. I did a coastal route last year, but I might try a more inland route this time. It’s all about going new places and seeing new things.

It’s the typical migratory route I’ve been doing with minor variations since 2013 but I’m going to make it count this year. It might be the last season I go to Arizona for the winter; I’m hoping to begin researching retirement destinations in Mexico, Costa Rica, Belize, and possibly New Zealand in future winter seasons. We’ll see.

Of course, I will be working every day. I’m writing a book about my flying experiences and am determined to finish it before I get home. So I expect to spend at least 4 hours at the keyboard daily — likely early in the morning — to knock out a manuscript. I’ll handle publication next spring.

While I’m gone my house will be in good hands. I have a house-sitter who will live there for the entire time I’m gone. We did a trial in October when I took a 2-week vacation south to visit friends, re-explore a few national parks in Utah, and reposition my portable winter home in Arizona. While I’m gone, he’ll make sure the chickens and cats have food and water and collect eggs. Maybe he’ll even put up my Christmas decorations, which I haven’t bothered to do in years.

Waiting

So I’m in a sort of limbo right now, waiting for my departure date to roll along.

I feel as if I spend most of my life waiting. In the old days, I was waiting for my wasband to get his head out of his butt and start enjoying life. It was frustrating, to say the least. The older I get, the less time I have left. Waiting for someone else was like idly watching my life slip by without being able to do anything to enjoy it.

Now, with him out of the picture, I do a lot less waiting and a lot more doing. I spend a lot of time traveling when I’m not busy with flying work. When I’m home, I spend my time building and learning new things. My life is much more full and interesting; my time is much more flexible.

But I still have responsibilities that tie me to my home, even if I’m not kept here by work. So I’m waiting for calendar pages to flip by again so I can do the few things I need to do.

And then I’m outta here.

Only an Idiot would Carry with a Live Round Chambered

A rant.

I own two guns, one of which is a semi-automatic pistol. I blogged about it here.

Yes, I do keep my gun stored loaded. It has a magazine that holds seven shots and that magazine is full and inserted. The gun is in its holster, with a snap strap to prevent it from falling out (even though it fits snugly in there) or inadvertently fired.

I don’t carry it, even though I have a concealed carry permit here in Washington and had one when I lived in Arizona. I consider it a line of last defense in the event of a home invasion (which is highly unlikely where I live) and I can’t get away from an attacker. If a fight or flee situation, I’m not an idiot — I’ll flee.

Like most semi-automatic weapons, a round needs to be chambered before it can be fired. If you’ve watched any kind of movie with a good guy or bad guy getting ready to go into a dangerous situation, you’ve likely seen him (or her) chamber a round by pulling back on the gun’s slide. “Racking the slide” like this brings a round out of the magazine and into the firing chamber. The gun can now be fired with a relatively light squeeze of the trigger.

In other words, when a round is chambered, the gun becomes a very dangerous thing to hold or carry.

And this was proved (again) just yesterday. From a New York Daily News article:

Ruger Semi-Auto
I don’t know what kind of Ruger this idiot was carrying locked and loaded in his church, but it could have been this one: Ruger American Pistol, Semi-Automatic, 9mm, 4.2″ Barrel, 17+1 Rounds

A Tennessee man and his wife were hospitalized after he accidentally opened fire during a discussion about church shootings at a local church.

The unidentified man was at First United Methodist Church in Tellico Plains on Thursday when he was showing a handgun to other attendees at a dinner, according to police in the town south of Knoxville.

His unloaded Ruger was passed around, though the man in his 80s allegedly put the magazine back in and chambered a bullet when it came back to him.

Police said that another person walked up and asked to see the weapon when the owner pulled the trigger.

“Evidently he just forgot that he re-chambered the weapon,” Tellico Plains Police Chief Russ Parks told the Knoxville News Sentinel.

The bullet hit the man’s hand before striking his wife in the abdomen. Both were taken to the hospital and are not believed to have life-threatening injuries.

He forgot that he’d prepped the gun for firing and shot himself and his wife.

Why in the world would anyone chamber a round if he wasn’t ready to fire the gun?

Well, that’s something that the NRA encourages.

You see, the NRA stays strong and powerful and keeps its membership ranks full by convincing people who can’t think for themselves that danger is all around them and they need to be prepared to fight back.

I saw this firsthand when I took a concealed carry course in Arizona years ago, when my wasband bought the first gun for our household. (Back then, the course was required to get a concealed carry permit; I’m not sure if it still is. But we took the course because it was the only pistol training course we could find in our area; I had no desire to carry and still don’t.) The NRA-sponsored course had a very heavy emphasis on the importance of carrying a gun at all times to protect yourself. As the only woman in the class who made it clear she was not interested in carrying, I got special attention. The instructor and his wife came up with numerous unlikely scenarios where I might be called on to shoot an attacker. It was absurd. They assumed I was either an idiot or was looking for trouble. (No, I don’t spend my evenings hanging out on the fringes of Phoenix mall parking lots or take long solo walks in the bad parts of any town. Sheesh.)

You can see this mentality again and again. When Googling “Can you fire a semi auto without first chambering a round?” for some additional information for this blog post, the second search result was this:

Search Result
This is the kind of crap that keeps idiots brainwashed to carry guns with chambered rounds.

So yes, there are a bunch of Second Amendment yahoos running around carrying semi-automatic pistols with chambered rounds, all ready to fire at a touch of the trigger.

And they apparently do so in churches.

Keep in mind that it takes literally a single second to rack a gun’s slide. Does waiting until you’re ready to fire really save you that much time?

I don’t think so.

So yes, I’m a gun owner. But I believe the NRA is harmful to our nation and its people. And that we need sensible gun laws that include education so morons like this guy understand just how dangerous a chambered round can be.