Getting High

You haven't seen a tree until you've seen its shadow from the sky.”  Amelia Earhart

Mike Johnston, photographer, writer, and blogmeister of The Online Photographer (TOP) has written that every photographer should have an aerial photograph in his or her portfolio. Until recently I'd not given this much thought. The type of photography I like to do generally requires having one's feet on the ground. Or requires laying on the ground. Or standing in water or on ice or snow. Or in trees. OK, not always on the ground, then, but in close terrestrial proximity.

Alaska's Meade Glacier, from a flight in 1998.

Alaska's Meade Glacier from the air on a blustery, cloudy day in August, 1998. My other photographic efforts from that flight are no better.

In 1998, while traveling in Alaska, my wife and I took a loud, teeth-rattling, and somewhat scary flight over Meade glacier. Condtions were gloomy and gray, with a low ceiling. I shot a few frames through the horribly scratched windows of the de Havilland Twin Otter, so I can't say I've never attempted photography from the air. I can say the effort produced nothing worth keeping except the memory. Since then I've had little opportunity for aerial photography, and simply hadn't considered doing it.

That changed when my friend Michael Stockhill called one mid-July Saturday afternoon and asked if I'd like to go up in his airplane the next morning. Michael is a former commercial airline pilot and a retired Senior Investigator for the NTSB. He owns a couple of airplanes, which he keeps at the airport here in Polson, MT. Michael's also an excellent photographer with a unique style and a great eye (and yes, he does have aerial photos in his portfolio). I asked if a camera would be a good thing to bring along on the flight. “It could be.”, was his response. Perhaps he should have considered a career in politics.

A Powered Glider?

We'd be going up in a glider with a motor, a very interesting and rare two-seat 1984 Hoffman H-36 Dimona. Beyond the basic physics of flight, I know little about airplanes. I've been a passenger in several small aircraft, and I've made short training flights with a hang glider. I've spent far too much time on commercial airplanes; this is as routine as travel by car, but far less comfortable and convenient to make up for that. It's hardly a flying experience. The idea of a powered glider, beyond the obvious oxymoron, seemed a little odd, but at the same time, very practical.

Michael says the accepted term for such craft is “motor glider”. It can launch (take off) under its own power, so no tow plane is needed. It can fly either powered or not, as conditions and the pilot determine. As usual, the technical specs are a little dry: Wingspan is 16 meters, length is just slightly less. Air-cooled, 80 horsepower, two liter, four cylinder engine. Maximum weight is 770 kg, empty weight is 520 kg. All composite construction, this being glass/resin, since it predates the carbon fiber materials commonly used today. Michael provided lots more technical detail, things like glide ratio, sink rate, speed, etc.; what you don't see in the numbers is that the Dimona is a beautiful airplane. There are flight photos at the Aviation link on Michael's Web site.

Conditions: Clear to Mostly Amazing

The cockpit is small, the two side-by-side seats narrow. This is not a place for wide people. Once settled in, it's quite comfortable. Michael started the engine; I was surprised by how quiet it was. He taxied, made a radio announcement, and a few seconds later we were in the air. Smooth and quiet. With a turn to the east we made the obligatory overflight of my house, pretty much hidden in the trees. Then we were over Flathead Lake and heading toward the Mission Mountains.

The morning was clear locally, with some haze in the distance. The canopy on Michael's airplane is scratch-free and crystal clear. The sun was bright and warm, the view stunning. All of this combined to present a photographic challenge. In the bright sun, everything inside the cockpit, including us, reflected onto the inside of the canopy. Such glare and reflections aren't a photographer's friends. The best I could do was get the lens hood close to the canopy and at angles that minimized the reflections. In the tight confines of the cockpit, strapped in with the four-point harness, this wasn't easy. Most of the photos I made that morning are throw-aways. That's not a complaint. Photography was secondary; this was a flight just for the fun of flying and seeing the sights. It's very cool to get up above the place in which one lives. It's also a great way to spend time with a friend. The ride was great fun, and over some amazing country; Michael's running commentary was fun, interesting and educational. He answered every question I posed.

The View From Up Here

Our route took us across the lake and then south along the spine of the Missions. In mid-July there was still plenty of snow on the peaks and in the nooks and crannies in between. Many of the higher-elevation lakes were frozen. To the west the Mission Valley spread out long and wide. In addition to the large reservoirs of the Pablo and Ninepipes wildlife refuges, there are countless smaller lakes and kettle ponds in the valley. It was all incredibly green, due largely to our protracted cool and wet spring and the late onset of summer.

We were in the air for a little over an hour, and made a nice tour over the Mission Range, going almost to St. Ignatius before turning north and heading back to Polson. On the east side of the Missions we got some nice lift, so Michael cut the engine, and the ride became even quieter. While we remained east of the range we continued to climb. Crossing over to the west side we began to drop, and after turning north we glided (or, as Michael said, “fell”) all the way back to Polson. A few miles south of the airport Michael started the engine. We made a small detour over the Flathead River, and then turned toward the airport for our landing.

Here's a series of photos made during our flight. As noted above, glare and reflections on the canopy were a problem, and are visible in many of these pictures. I've got some ideas for a device to minimize that issue; perhaps I'll get it built before my next opportunity for aerial photography.

Part of the Mission Mountain range from 9200 feet

Looking down from an altitude of about 9,200 feet (2800m) onto a part of the Mission Mountain range. Click the image to see more photos from the flight.

Click (or tap) the picture above to open the first photo in the series of 12 images. To continue through the series, click the right side of a picture to advance, or the left side to go back. You can also use the right and left arrow keys if you're viewing this on a device with a keyboard. If this doesn't work for you, there's a problem with your computer's installation of Javascript®. It may be disabled in your browser preferences. Since many Web sites make use of Javascript, it would be worthwhile sorting that out.

If you get an opportunity to do something like this, don't pass it up. It was a great way to spend a beautiful Sunday morning. Who knows? You might end up with some nice aerial photographs for your portfolio. You'll almost certainly have a good time trying. Thanks, Michael.

July, 2011