Flying with Miss Veedol

My first photo flight of the year.

Early Tuesday morning, I lifted off from the ramp at Wenatchee Pangborn Memorial Airport in East Wenatchee, WA on an air-to-air photo flight with Miss Veedol for Voortex Productions and the Wenatchee Chamber of Commerce.

The Miss Veedol was the first airplane to fly non-stop across the Pacific ocean. A 1931 Bellanca J-300 Long Distance Special piloted by Clyde Pangborn and Hugh Herndon Jr., it took off in Japan with 915 gallons of fuel, jettisoned the landing gear to improve aerodynamics, and crash landed 41 hours later at Fancher Field in East Wenatchee, making history. You can learn more about it and its eventual demise on Wikipedia and the Spirit of Wenatchee website.

I recommend you watch this in full-screen mode.

The Miss Veedol I flew with on Tuesday is a replica of the original aircraft that is based at Wenatchee Airport. This isn’t the first time I flew with it — we did a video flight way back in January 2014. Footage from that flight (and a few others) was incorporated into the amazing We Are Wenatchee Part I video. (This video still brings tears to my eyes; I’m so glad I live here and so proud to be part of the team that made the video. I hope you’ll check out Part II and Part III, too.) It was a difficult flight, mostly because it was bitter cold and I was having trouble keeping up with the plane.

But Tuesday was a completely different story. It was a gorgeous morning when we gathered just before dawn. I parked near Miss Veedol’s hangar and discussed the flight plan with my clients from Voortex Productions and Miss Veedol’s pilots. Then we split up. I got the helicopter going while they started up Miss Veedol’s big radial engine. The two photographers climbed on board — I had already taken their doors off — I backed the helicopter away from where Miss Veedol would be taxiing, and then I followed her down the taxiway while the photographers shot photos. By that time the sun was up, illuminating the plane’s orange wings and fuselage and casting long shadows. We circled the plane in the run up area, then moved beside it as it taxied to the runway. We took off in formation, with the helicopter slightly above and behind the plane.

The conditions were nearly perfect for the flight. Light wind, blue sky, gorgeous early morning light. It was just after 6 AM when we reached the river and headed up on the East Wenatchee side. The plane would go up one side of the river and down the other while a photographer and videographer captured images and footage.

Miss Veedol Over Columbia River
Miss Veedol with the city of Wenatchee in the background. The snow-covered mountains are the Enchantments, west of Wenatchee in the foothills of the Cascades. Most of the snow will be gone by late June. (I can see the tops of these mountains from my home.) Photo by Charley Voohris.

One of the most frustrating things to me when I do photo flights is that I can’t take photos. I see the shot but I don’t have a camera handy and, even if I did, it would be impossible to work it properly with just one hand. I have to wonder if the photographers see the same shots I do. I like flying with Charley because he usually does see the same thing I do — or something even better — and gets the shot.

Miss Veedol Over Shadows
I distinctly recall when we were in position for this shot because the shadows beneath the plane made its orange color really pop in the early morning light. Photo by Charley Voorhis.

One of our target areas was a rock formation called Saddle Rock at the top of a hill overlooking Wenatchee. Every time we do an aerial photo flight, we spend time up and around Saddle Rock. (You can see it in the closing shot of We Are Wenatchee Part I above — seriously, you must watch that video.) Part of our mission was to get photos of Miss Veedol around Saddle Rock. Charley succeeded in getting several really good shots as we circled Saddle Rock twice.

Miss Veedol Flies up a Canyon
Spring time is always green here, but this year it’s especially green with all the rain we’ve had. I followed Miss Veedol up this canyon on our second pass for Saddle Rock. I love the textures and contrasts in this shot. Photo by Charley Voorhis.

Another target area was the Senator George Sellar Bridge — which I usually refer to as the South End Bridge. We circled twice at the end of the shoot.

Miss Veedol at the Columbia River Bridge
Charley managed to perfectly frame Miss Veedol between the Senator George Sellar Bridge and the historic Columbia River Bridge. Photo by Charley Voorhis.

Our Flight Path
Our flight path, captured by Foreflight.

After circling the bridges, Miss Veedol headed back to the airport for a few touch and goes before taxiing back to her hangar. We went back for a few more shots at Saddle Rock. By that time there was just enough tailwind to make hovering flight a tad difficult pointing in the direction we needed to point but I think they got the shots they needed. We did a quick run to the north end of Wenatchee and then back to the south, circling Pybus Public Market once. Then it was back to the airport.

Total flight time was 1.3 hours.

I want to thank Charley Voorhis at Voortex Productions and the Wenatchee Chamber of Commerce for allowing me to show these photos on social media and in my blog. It was a great flight and I look forward to our next one!

Some Thoughts on Drone Photography

If you can’t beat them, join them.

Phantom 4
The Phantom 4 is a flying camera.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the rise of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), more commonly referred to as “drones,” these days, mostly because I’ve been able to get some good hands-on experience with the prosumer DJI Phantom 4. The Phantom 4 is marketed as a flying camera and I honestly think it’s a good categorization. Clearly it was designed for photography and it has given me a new appreciation for drones, which I don’t generally like.

Drone Threats

As a helicopter pilot, I’ve felt a rather unique threat from the rise of drones (no pun intended). I want to take a moment to explain, mostly because although my general opinion of drones has changed, my views about their threats have not.

Safety

First and foremost are my safety concerns. There are too many drone “pilots” who fly irresponsibly in places they should not be, including near airports and at altitudes that should be reserved for manned aerial flights. The FAA has attempted to reduce the risk of drone/aircraft collisions by setting a maximum altitude of 400 feet for drones. This is far from a perfect solution for two reasons:

  • Irresponsible drone pilots ignore the restrictions and fly higher than 400 feet above the ground. I have witnessed this more than once, although I’m glad to report that I wasn’t flying at the time.
  • Helicopters generally don’t have a minimum operating altitude so we can fly below 400 feet. Even my Part 135 certificate, which sets some limitations for on-demand charter flights, specifies a minimum altitude of 300 feet — this means I can legally be sharing 100 feet of airspace with UAS with charter passengers on board.

Drones are small. They can fly at speeds in excess of 50 miles per hour. I fly in speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. That’s a closing rate, for a head-on collision, of 150 miles per hour. Does anyone really think I can “see and avoid” something the size of a 12-pack of beer coming at me at 150 miles per hour?

And if pilots are irresponsible enough to disobey FAA regulations, are they responsible enough to stay clear of aircraft?

Other drone-specific regulations regularly ignored:

  • Staying clear of temporary flight restriction (TFR) areas. There have been many reported instances of drones flying around wildfires being worked by firefighting aircraft. In some cases, these violations of airspace have caused the grounding of aircraft.
  • Staying clear of other restricted airspace. The one that worries me most is flights close to airports.
  • Keeping the drone within sight. That’s not easy to do when the drone has a range of more than 3 miles and it’s so small.
  • Not flying over people. I have witnessed this first hand many times at outdoor gatherings.
  • Obtaining FAR Part 107 certification for commercial use of drones. This certification helps ensure that drone pilots are real pilots who know and understand FAA regulations and important aviation and aeronautical concepts.

I can go on and on, but why bother? The fact is that although many drone pilots are responsible enough to learn and obey the rules for operating their drones, enough of them aren’t responsible at all. They make pilots — especially low-level pilots like those flying helicopters — worried about their safety.

Economics

The second threat I’m feeling is economic.

I’ll be blunt: over the past 15 or so years, I’ve earned a reasonable portion of my flying revenue from photography and survey flights. Drones are increasingly being used for both roles, thus cutting into my potential market.

I currently charge $545/hour for photo flights. Although I can cover a lot of territory in an hour and give two photographers a platform for aerial photos at the same time, not everyone sees the benefit. For about the same price, a photographer can buy a decent entry level photo drone and get the shots he needs. And then use the same drone another day without a further investment.

Or make a larger drone investment and get a better drone and better camera.

I’ll admit it: in many instances, a drone can get a better shot. A perfect example is a dawn photo shoot I did with a good client about two years ago. They’d staged the Wenatchee Symphony Orchestra at a local park, Ohme Gardens, and wanted sweeping aerial images of them playing. On our first pass, our downwash blew away their sheet music. (Oops.) We eventually got the shots they wanted, but I recall saying to my client, “You should have used a drone for this one.”

Aerial Orchestra
Here’s a still image from one of the aerial sequences we did that morning. Watch the whole video here; all the aerial shots were done from my helicopter.

But another client needed aerial video and still images all along the Columbia River from Wenatchee to Chelan, then up the Wenatchee River to Leavenworth and up Lake Chelan to Stehekin. This was well over a hundred miles to cover and some of it was inaccessible by car. We got all of the shots in less than three hours of flight time. It would have taken weeks to get that footage with a drone — and even then, some of it would have been impossible to get.

And a four-hour shoot from Seattle to Mount Rainier along often remote areas of the Green River? I can’t even imagine doing that with a drone.

But not everyone sees that. So I see drones threatening part of my livelihood.

Flying Cameras

My generally poor opinion of drones was significantly changed this past week. What changed it? Getting my hands on a Phantom 4 and seeing the quality of the photos and videos

My friend Jim — a gadget guy if there ever was one — has one of these drones. He started off by showing me some of the video he’d shot on an RV vacation in the southwest with his wife last summer. I was immediately struck by how rock-solid and clear the images were. I’ve created footage with a GoPro mounted in various places on my helicopter and have seen footage created with high-quality professional video cameras from my helicopter both with and without gyro-stabilized mounts — Jim’s footage was as good as or better than any of that.

From a flying camera that costs less than $1,000. To put things in perspective, that’s less than my Nikon DSLR, which doesn’t fly.

Then Jim and I took the drone out for a few flights. It was remarkably easy to fly, even if you choose to do so manually. The controller has two sticks that were immediately familiar to me as a helicopter pilot. The left stick handles ascent/descent (like a helicopter’s collective) and yaw (like a helicopter’s anti torque pedals) while the right stick handles direction of flight (like a helicopter’s cyclic). The drone is amazingly responsive, but what really blows me away is that releasing the controls brings the drone to a controlled hover at its current altitude. And if that isn’t enough, several program modes and tools make it possible to program a flight. The damn thing can literally fly itself.

Phantom 4
Jim’s Phantom 4, awaiting takeoff near Vulture Peak in Wickenburg, AZ. I got a chance to experiment with both manual and automatic flying modes.

I could go on and on about the Phantom 4’s feature set — which I understand is shared by many competing products these days — but I won’t. I’ll let you explore them for yourself. There’s plenty of information online.

I will say this, however: As someone who has been involved in tech for a long time — hell, I wrote books about computers for 22 years starting way back in 1990 — I’m not easily impressed. The Phantom 4 completely blew me away.

Me? A Drone Pilot?

Jim, in the meantime, is looking to upgrade and offered me a sweet deal on his Phantom 4 with lots of accessories. That got me excited about owning one of these flying cameras. So excited that I watched all of the Phantom 4 tutorials on DJI’s website, worked through the FAA’s UAS pilot online training, and took (and passed) the FAA’s Part 107 pilot test. All I need is a meeting with the FAA and a sign off to become a certificated UAS pilot.

What does that mean? I’ll be legal to conduct commercial UAS flights. That means I can create (and sell) some of the photos and images I collect with a flying camera like the Phantom.

But I have other ideas for how I can make drone photography part of my professional life. Stay tuned; I’ll be sharing more on this topic in the months to come.

After all, if you can’t beat them, join them.

AOPA’s Consolidated Blog

Better exposure for my articles.

AOPA LogoI’ve been writing for AOPA’s helicopter blog, Hover Power, for about a year and a half. Back in February 2016, they published the first of three articles about the contract work I do: “Doing Wildlife Surveys“. The other two articles were in the queue, but never appeared.

After a while, I wondered what was going on and emailed my contact at AOPA. He responded that things were busy for him and that changes were underway.

Then a month or two later, one of my Facebook friends, who is also a pilot, shared a link to the second article in the series, which was about cherry drying. Heavily edited with its title changed to “Using a big fan” (seriously?), it appeared on AOPA’s main blog. The third piece, “Flying frost control,” appeared about a week and a half later.

The consolidation of AOPA’s blogs into one main blog is a good thing for me as a writer. It gives me more exposure for my work. (Obviously, I get paid, too; you can’t pay the bills with “exposure,” folks.) This has already paid off — Robinson helicopter’s newsletter editor called to ask if she could feature my cherry drying work in an upcoming issue of the newsletter. While that won’t earn me anything, it’s a nice little feather in my cap.

I haven’t written anything new for AOPA for a while — I was put off when my articles were shelved for so long — but I hope to come up with some ideas soon. I’ll likely be writing shorter pieces than I have been; this blog is updated about every two days and I don’t think I should overload readers with my typically wordy posts. And, let’s face it: the average AOPA pilot flies a plank — I mean plane — and isn’t terribly interested in rotary wing stuff.

You can find AOPA’s blog here. If you’re a pilot or interested in flying, I urge you to check it out.

And if you’re interested in reading some of my other published work, be sure to check out my Articles page.