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?


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

Part 107 Explained
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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.

The FAA’s Irrational Application of a Rule

A little about my Vertical column and the responses to it.

If you’re a helicopter pilot, you’re likely familiar with Vertical Magazine. Simply put, it’s the premiere helicopter pilot/operator publication, with great articles and amazing photography. It not only informs those of us in the helicopter industry, but it keeps us enthusiastic about being part of what’s admittedly a rather elite club.

Vertical MagazineIf you read the June/July issue (download here as a pdf), you may have seen page 10’s Talking Point column. And if you know this blog, you probably realized that the Maria Langer who wrote that month’s column is the same Maria Langer who has been blogging here since 2003. Yeah: me.

I haven’t blogged about this yet because, frankly, I still can’t believe it happened.

While I wasn’t paying attention, the FAA issued FAR Part 135.160, which requires Part 135 on demand charter operators like me to install a radio altimeter. The rule has a loophole, which my Primary Operations Inspector (POI) at the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) told me about: a waiver was available for helicopters less than 2,950 pounds max gross weight. My R44 has a max gross weight of 2,500 pounds and is VFR-only. Surely I’d get the waiver.

I didn’t.

What’s the Big Deal?

If you’re not familiar with what a radio altimeter is, you likely don’t understand how incredibly idiotic it is to require one in an R44. Here’s the deal. A radio altimeter — which is also sometimes called a radar altimeter — uses radio waves to measure the exact height of an aircraft over the ground. It then sends this data to a readout on the aircraft’s instrument panel so the pilot has this information handy.

Of course, a Robinson R44, which is what I fly, is a VFR-only aircraft. That means it’s only legal to fly in VFR (visual flight rules) conditions. That means you can see out the aircraft window. And that’s what Robinson pilots — all VFR pilots, for that matter — do when they want to know how high off the ground they are. They look. After all, they’re supposed to be looking outside anyway.

So for the FAA to require this kind of instrument on an aircraft that’s never going to need one makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.

Being the gadget person I am, I might not mind having a new toy in the cockpit. The trouble is, my cockpit’s panel must be modified to accommodate it, thus reducing my forward visibility, and the damn thing is going to cost me $14,500 to buy and have installed. And the helicopter will be offline for about a week while the mechanic tears it apart and drills holes in the fuselage to put it in.

There’s more to the story, but it’s mostly covered in the Vertical column. Go read it now; it’s on page 10. It’s short — they wouldn’t let me have more than 1,000 words. (I know; I gave them 1,200 and they cut 200 out.) See if you can read my frustration between the lines.


I got a number of responses to the column.

This is kind of cool: they listed me as a contributing editor in that issue’s masthead.

The very first was from my friend Mike in Florida. He sent me an email message that included the Contributing Editor list you see here and a link to the article with his congratulations. Mike has also written for Vertical; he has a ton of experience and great writing skills.

A handful of other folks I knew texted or emailed me that they’d seen it. That was gratifying. I really do like writing for publication and should make a conscious effort to do it more often.

Then, the other day, about two weeks after it was first published, I got a call from someone at Helicopter Association International (HAI). HAI is a professional organization for helicopter pilots and operators. I used to be a member. It cost $600 a year and the only thing I got from them was a wooden membership plaque and a lot of paper. Safety posters, manuals, letters, newsletters, magazines. All kinds of crap to add to the clutter that had already taken over my life. When I dropped my membership after two or three years, they called to find out why. I told them they did nothing for small operators like me. They promised to change and conned me into joining for another year. Nothing changed. I was throwing my money away. I dropped my membership for good.

The HAI guy who called started by asking why I hadn’t come to HAI with the radio altimeter issue. After all, part of their member benefits was to be the voice of helicopter operators in Washington DC. Wrong question. I told him I wasn’t a member and then explained, in many, many words, why I’d quit. Then we talked a bit about the radio altimeter issue. He said he’d been working on it for a few days and he certainly did know a lot about it. He said that he wasn’t sure, but thought that HAI, which had been involved in the rulemaking comment process, had assumed it would only apply to medical helicopters. He said I shouldn’t get my hopes up but he and HAI were going to work on it. He wanted to stay in touch. Whatever. I gave him my email address.

When I hung up, I wondered why they were trying to close the barn door after the horse had already gotten out. After all, the FAA was not going to change the rule, especially after so many operators had already gone to such great expense to meet the requirement. HAI had dropped the ball for its small operators yet again. At least I hadn’t paid them to do it on my behalf.

The most recent response came just today and it prompted me to write this blog post. It was an email from a Facebook friend. I actually got two versions of it; I think this is the one he sent first which he apparently thought he lost:

Hey Maria
My name is Scott ##### and I took a $40 ride with you at the 2006 Goodyear Airshow out to PIR and back.
In 2007 I started flight training. We’re “friends” on Facebook and I always enjoy your posts and writings on your blog.
I just finished reading your article in Vertical magazine and couldn’t resist contacting you with my comments.
What a horrible situation for you. I’m severely confused as to why a Federal, as in a single national government agency, interprets the rules differently at each FSDO. It should be the same across the United States! How frustrating I’m sure this is for you.
This industry is tough enough as it is and for a single pilot, single aircraft operator, you’ve been extremely successful. Now this?
At least you got the temporary A160 but you shouldn’t have to have the radar altimeter installed at all! To me it’s very cut and dry: 135.160 does not apply to VFR aircraft weighing less than 2,950 pounds! Where’s the Misinterpretation?
I guess you can’t just cancel your installation appointment at Quantum in December, but hopefully you can get around paying for equipment you’ll never use.
Good luck to you Maria.

First, I have to say how gratifying it is to have been instrumental in a person deciding to learn how to fly helicopters. Wow. Just wow.

Second, it’s cut and dry to me, too! And most of the folks I spoke to that don’t happen to work at the FAA. And there’s nothing I’d like more than to cancel my December appointment with Quantum to get the radio altimeter installed.

But I wrote him a more informative response and I thought I’d share it here. It says a few things I couldn’t say in Vertical. (Or maybe they were in the 200 words that had to be left on the cutting room floor.)

Hi, Scott. Thanks for writing.

Unfortunately, every word of my Vertical piece is true. The FAA will NOT give me the waiver. They don’t care that my helicopter is small or VFR-only or or that the panel is full or that the rule was written in such a way to exclude R44s like mine. They do not operate logically. I worked with AOPA and an aviation attorney. I got my Congressman and one of my Senators involved. I had an email correspondence going with THREE men with the FAA in Washington who are responsible for making the rule. My lawyer spoke to people in Washington, too. They won’t budge. In fact, they told my lawyer that they’re going to rewrite the guidance so R44 helicopters can’t be excluded.

Problem is, medical helicopters crashed and people made noise at the FAA. The FAA needed a fix to turn down the heat. Radio altimeter makers promised a solution that would work and lobbied hard for it. They’re all over the comments for the regulation proposal. And since they have more time and money to throw at it, they won. The FAA bought into their Band Aid — or at least made us buy into it — whether it can help us or not. They didn’t seem to care that the real fix was better pilot training, less pressure on pilots to fly in IMC conditions, and a company culture that values safety over profits.

Understand this: the FAA doesn’t care about small operators or even pilots. They exist to regulate and ensure safety — or at least the illusion of safety. Your best chance of having a successful aviation career is to stay off their radar.

I pissed off a lot of people with my radio altimeter fight and I suspect they gave me the temporary waiver just to shut me up. I got a call from HAI the other day and they say they’re going to follow up. Too little, too late. But at least someone else will be making noise since I, like my fellow Part 135 Robinson owners, have given up.

I’m nearing the end of my career. I figure I have about 10 years left as a pilot. So I don’t mind throwing myself under the bus in an effort to seek fairness and logic. I don’t recommend you doing the same.

Unless HAI or someone else is successful in talking reason into the FAA on this matter, I’ll be plunking down $14,500 in December to have this useless instrument installed. And then I’ll pull the circuit breaker and let the panel stay dark so it doesn’t distract me from what’s outside the cockpit — which is where every VFR pilot should be looking.

And life will go on.

I’m fortunate in that even though it will take YEARS for me to earn that money back with Part 135 work, my cherry drying and frost work puts enough money in the bank to make the expenditure possible. Without that, I’d likely have to cease charter operations and possibly close up shop. I suspect others have found themselves in that situation. So much for government helping small businesses.

Thanks for your concern. Best wishes with your endeavors.


And that’s about all I have to say on the matter.

Another Waste of Taxpayer Money

I knew the FAA was slow, but this is ridiculous.

I’m terrible about opening my mail. I routinely fetch it from my mailbox (which is two miles from my home) and leave it on the dashboard of whatever vehicle I’m driving. Or toss it behind the seat. Or bring it inside, but leave it in my “inbox” pile. No matter where it enters my life, it sits there for a long time. Truth be told, there’s a six-month period in early 2014 when I just stuffed it all in a box and lost it in my garage. (I honestly think there’s a black hole in there.)

This time of year, when I’m actually expecting checks, I pay a little closer attention to what comes in the mail. That’s why I noticed the letter from the FAA and opened it within two weeks of receipt. (Heck, I knew the FAA wasn’t sending a check, so why rush?)

Inside was the letter dated 5/19/2017 that you can see below.

FAA Letter
So the FAA basically waited 17 years to give me an opportunity to opt out of releasing my address to the public.

It basically says that back on April 5, 2000 (not a typo), Congress and the President — Bush 43, I guess — enacted a law that required the FAA to make pilot addresses available to the public. Fortunately, I can opt-out of this invasion of my privacy by signing the letter and sending it back to the FAA.

But I have to hurry! Even though it took them 17 years to send me this letter, I only have 90 days to respond.

Can you believe this crap?

My first thought was what a waste of taxpayer money this is. Wikipedia reports that there were 590,039 certificated pilots in the United States as of 2015 year-end. That means the FAA had to print and mail 590,039 letters just like the one I got.

Maybe that’s why it took so long? Maybe they just got up to the Ls?

So the FAA has blown through 1181 reams of paper and a similar number of boxes of envelopes. Even if they got bulk rate on mailing all those envelopes, they’ve still spent well over $100,000 on postage. Somebody had to handle the mailing — even if a machine stuffed the envelopes, someone still had to tend to that machine and get them to the post office. How many trips to the Post Office is that? Do they have trucks standing by for mass mailings like this?

So how much money have they pissed away on this so far? A quarter million? More?

And then there’s the processing. I’m not going to the website. I’m going to sign the letter and mail it back. There’s got to be some poor slob in Oklahoma City who’s sitting at a desk just waiting for envelopes with signed letters to come in. He or she has to look up each one in the system and toggle a check box to say we want our addresses kept private. And then what? Do they actually file all that paper? Stick it in filing cabinets? How many filing cabinets do they have? How many rooms does that fill? Do they have buildings filled with filing cabinets of paper?


And for what? What gives Congress and the President the right to decide that the public is entitled to the addresses of certificated pilots? What is the benefit of such a rule? Why would they even do this?

And who the hell wouldn’t opt out?

This is stupid from start to end. it’s wallpapered with stupid.

But that’s our tax dollars at work. Imagine how many educational programs the cost of this mailing would have funded. How many Meals on Wheels dinners. How many airport improvements, for Pete’s sake.

Why are the people in Washington so damn stupid with our money?