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Safety in the Skies: Flight Plan for a Successful Aerial Photography Career





When done correctly, aerial photography can be fun, exciting, and rewarding. Done incorrectly, it can be deadly. I've lost two photographer friends in accidents who'd still be here if all the safety precautions had been followed.

I've flown with pilots who astonished me with their precision flying in stiff winds and continued to place me in the perfect spot, time and time again. I've also had my fair share of scary flights. Hopefully, my 25 years of experience will keep you safe-and successful-on your aerial shoots.

1. Two principles to commit to memory: 'Safety Comes First' and 'Less Weight Equals More Power.' Safety Comes First is the overriding concern that governs all of your decisions. Less Weight Equals More Power is critical because the more weight you add to the aircraft, the less power you have as a safety margin.

2. Fly with a pilot who has significant aerial expertise-at least 1,000 hours of flying-is a CFII Instructor (an instructor of instructors), and is more concerned about safety than you are. Ask a lot of questions about your routes, your approach, your emergency procedures, and how you will communicate with each other. If you have any hint this person is not right for you or the assignment, walk away.

3. The type of assignment you have and your budget will narrow your choices as far as which type of aircraft to use. Airplanes and Piston helicopters are a good choice for overview aerials, landscapes, and higher altitude construction progress shoots. Turbine helicopters are the only way to go when you are low and slow, over traffic, boats, buildings, or people and need their reserve of power and reliability.

4. When flying over congested areas, you and your pilot are responsible for your own safety, as well as the safety of people on the ground. The FAA minimum altitude for airplanes over congested areas is 1,000 feet above ground level (AGL) and 500 feet above less congested areas. You'll need a helicopter if you're going to fly lower.

5. Ask a lot of questions and research who you're flying with before you get to the airfield. I use various sources to find the best pilot for the assignment, including other APA/Advertising Photographers of America (www.apanational.com) members who shoot aerials and pilots I respect.

6. As with any photo shoot, plan for every scenario. Here's a quick list of things to do before your shoot:

  • Mark your locations on a street map, reduced to 8.5"x11" on a photocopier, and give your pilot a copy.
  • Plan your flight around perfect light and weather conditions. Cooler weather is better because there's less turbulence.
  • Make sure your pilot is current on flight restrictions in your area.

7. It's a good idea to stuff some food into your camera bag along with water or the "nectar of the gods," Coca-Cola. One pilot I fly with keeps an emergency pack onboard with flares, space blankets, cell phone batteries, rope, water, and energy bars.

8. Don't forget that the pilot is Pilot-In-Command; if he says no to your request or feel it's not safe, trust his or her judgment.

9. I got my pilot's license 15 years ago to better understand aviation and enhance my photography skills. If you don't have the time or resources to obtain a pilot's license, but want to understand how helicopters and airplanes work, buy an hour of your pilot's time and have him explain the differences and advantages of each. You'll learn a lot, including how to work in tandem with your pilot.

10. Some aircraft basics: Fixed-wing aircraft like the Cessna 172, Piper Cub, and Aeronica Champ, are fantastic for shooting overview aerials, scenics, and large-scale construction projects. The Hughes 500 and A-Star or Bell Jet Ranger, turbine engine choppers with stellar safety records, are the platform of choice for film production.

11. When assignments or budgets don't warrant a $600-$1,400 per hour ship, Piston helicopters such as the Robinson R-22 and R-44 and Schweitzer 300/Hughes 269, are economical to fly and less expensive to charter. You can easily overload the limits of a Piston helicopter, so go easy on your gear. I carry my Canon EOS 1Ds with a back-up, Ken-Lab Gyroscope, a couple of prime L lenses, B+W circular polarizing filters, and Kenesis wallet for CF cards. For panoramics or large prints, I shoot Fuji Velvia.

12. It's always best to prepare for the unexpected. In aerial photography, it's critical. Here are a few rules I always follow:

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