New client, new equipment.
I got the initial call about a month ago. A videographer from the east coast had to shoot aerial video footage of two properties in the Mesa/Chandler area of Arizona. Was I available?
There was more to it. The videographer was looking for someone who could fly 20 to 40 knots sideways so he could get point of view (POV) footage out one of the rear doors (which would be off, of course). He planned to use a Tyler Mini Gyro and would likely be dangling his legs out the helicopter door while shooting. He had his own harness and had worked with R44s before. This, however, was his first experience with the Tyler mount.
I met him at Falcon Field in Mesa, AZ last Tuesday. We met at the Heliponents ramp. I knew Barry from Heliponents from a shoot he’d done at Monument Valley about two years before. He’d been flying either a JetRanger or a LongRanger helicopter and they’d put a full-blown Wescam ball with counterweight on his ship. I’d been based at Monument Valley, at the Goulding’s airstrip to provide helicopter flight services for aerial photographers at the valley for a few days. We chatted briefly. I remembered him; he remembered me.
Heliponents has a Tyler Mini Gyro that it leases out by the day. This $30K+ device is kind of like a monopod with a heavy duty, gyro-stabilized mount on top. There are springs in the monopod base, which is short and designed to sit on the user’s lap or between his legs in use. A large battery box provides 28 volt power. There are two adjustable handles to hold the entire thing. The camera goes on top. The two main parts — base and tripod leg– get tied off to the photographer or aircraft so it can’t fall out during flight.
I should mention here that I’ve done some work with video and gyros and wrote a lot about it here. We’d used a much smaller mount from Blue Sky Aerials called a Micro Gyro Mount. Our conclusion was that the best solution would have three gyros. This Tyler mount, although much more difficult to work with in a tight space, had three gyros. I was very interested in seeing the results.
Barry and my client got the system set up. Barry ran up the gyros using one battery pack but planned to send us on our way with another, fully charged pack. I pulled both back doors off the helicopter. My client climbed into his harness. We brought the equipment out to the helicopter and wedged my client into the seat behind mine with it. We secured the big battery on the floor, then tied off my client and his equipment to the helicopter. He put his seatbelt on, too. I shot this photo before climbing in to start up. A while later, we were headed southeast, toward the first of two targets. I’d prepped in advance by converting the addresses to GPS coordinates using GoogleMaps, so we didn’t waste any time looking for the spot. We were on point within minutes of taking off.
The first site was difficult, with lots of high tension power lines. We needed to get footage of a golf course and two different clubhouses. My client likes sweeping, point-of-view shots, which meant I needed to do a lot of sideways flying while he shot straight out. The area was too confined to do any fast flying, but we did the best we could. One of the better series, which we repeated several times, had me flying sideways from north to south with the late afternoon sun at our tail. I’d start relatively high, off property, and come down lower as I flew in, breaking off near the clubhouse. The whole time, I was monitoring Falcon Field’s frequency, since we were right on the edge of its airspace.
We made quite a show for the folks on the ground, which is unfortunate. The video is supposed to just show the place from the air — but not with people gawking or waving (or perhaps shaking their fists?) at the camera.
For me, it was great, challenging flying. Sure, there are challenges in the other kinds of work I do, but aerial photo flying with a professional photographer who isn’t afraid to tell me exactly what he needs me to do is the most challenging of all. It forces me to really work for my money and it gets me in “the zone” — that place where I become one with the helicopter. And there’s nothing more rewarding than doing precision flying to complete a pass and having my client complement me when I’m done.
Of course, I have to admit that it was also easy. There was very little wind — less than 5 mph — and my single passenger weighed roughly what I do. The temperature was in the 80s, so density altitude was not an issue. I had no trouble flying sideways or even maintaining a lengthy, completely motionless, out-of-ground-effect hover. I couldn’t have asked for better precision flying conditions.
After spending at least 30 minutes over that property, we broke off to do the second property, which was farther south, in Phoenix Mesa Gateway (formerly Williams Gateway) airspace. As I was making contact with the controller, my client realized that the power cord had pulled out of the camera and the gyros had spun down. We flew lazy circles around the property for a good 10 minutes, giving the gyros a chance to spin up again. Then it was back to work shooting a clubhouse and some sports facilities. I think a shuffleboard competition was going on because the courts were full. The shiny court surfaces reflected the colors of the flags that flew on poles above them. And we realized that the folks waving to us from the pool might just be good footage to meet the marketing requirements of the videos.
We left Gateway’s space, then returned to our first property to redo a bunch of footage. We weren’t quite sure when the gyros got disconnected, so we redid most of it. Then we headed back to the airport. We’d flown over an hour on the mission; I’d also be billing for about a half hour or ferry time from my base in Deer Valley. (I’d like to note here that if I were still based in Wickenburg, I probably wouldn’t have gotten the job at all; no one wants to pay more for ferry time than mission flight time.)
Back at Heliponents, my client didn’t waste any time reviewing the shots he’d taken on a small video monitor he’d brought along. Most of them were great. He was very pleased. And I felt the kind of pride I usually feel when I realize that my helicopter and I form an important part of a photography client’s equipment.
As for the Tyler Mini Gyro, it costs roughly the same as the Blue Sky Aerials Micro Gyro Mount to rent (when you factor in shipping) and has the additional benefit of being available locally. I’m not sure, but it might be easier to use, too. While I think it’s overkill for my own little HD video camera, it’s a good match for the camera this client used or even larger models. I’m hoping I have an opportunity to recommend it to clients in the future.