I learned to fly as many have, with money from an insurance settlement. That same windfall also paid for a used camera and three lenses. The two arts seemed made for each other and I was eager to combine them, but it didn’t take long to find that being unskilled at both disciplines and barely familiar with either kind of equipment guaranteed poor results all around. My first flight with the camera was embarrassingly short and not especially safe, the few pictures I took amounting to blurry fuzz. Both flight and film cost more than I could frugally afford, illustrating the need to develop these skills separately, at least a little, before trying to combine them.
Results did improve as years passed until neither passion interfered terribly with the other, but of course there’s always more to learn. Then that first camera died weirdly, as so many things do, and I could only afford to replace it with what was then called an instamatic. Surprisingly, this technical step ‘down’ brought unexpected breakthroughs! The simpler device enabled more consistent, if lower resolution images, and strapping it to my wrist while holding it outside the canopy window eliminated those pesky reflections that spoil so many otherwise wonderful aerial photos. More importantly, ease of handling saved brain space, always a limited commodity, and led to more artful flying, thus more and better pics.
The most challenging subject for aerial photography might be other aircraft, and not for technical reasons alone. Catching moving targets from a moving platform has its difficulties, but often the worst problem is psychological. It’s impossible to get a good picture of a plane that’s always running away, which is what amateur air-to-air becomes in many cases. All pilots should understand that formation flight must be by prior arrangement, but briefing beforehand won’t help much if the pilot you’re trying to shoot won’t let you come within a half mile. It’s even more frustrating when, for whatever reason, the glider you’re in sinks below and the other pilot climbs unthinkingly away. Sad truth is, some of my best air-to-air trophies have come by way of subterfuge, sneaking up on the ‘victim’ before they knew it.
Then I got lost and ended up in California where bigger, more spectacular landscapes provided richer visuals, and outcomes improved proportionally. Costs, however, also continued to rise. During one season of collecting panoramic mosaics, I joked that I was single-handedly supporting the Kodak Corporation. (Didn’t help; they were about to go belly up anyway.)
Eventually my trusty little SureShot got so full of desert dust it was beyond repair — just as digital cameras came available at a comparable price. This though, exposed the awkward fact that I did not have or even want a computer, without which digital photos hide forever in the camera. But it was the nineties, and things were changing fast. Not even a luddite can evade the neutering allure of technological advancement, Lord knows I’ve tried.
So I gritted my teeth and bought a low-end PC that I scarcely knew how to operate. (Two things to say about that travail: curse whoever invented the invisible WRONG button, and thank Heaven for CONTROL ALT DELETE! The rest remains an ongoing ordeal.) Good news? Profligate shooting sprees cost nothing, plus it’s now possible to quickly crop, enlarge, enhance or otherwise alter images, and never regret the wasted ones.
Nowadays everybody has a camera in their pocket whether they know how to use it or not. Stills, video, and practically infinite rolls of ‘film’, so it’s a very different game. But from my vantage in the rear seat, I still see people doing all sorts of things to sabotage their own work. So here’s the simplest of advice for anyone shooting digital in the air. Unless you really know your stuff, don’t bother trying to compose a perfect frame, don’t even use the viewing screen. Just square your camera with the horizon and take twice as many shots as necessary. You can shamelessly dump the skeezy ones later.
Also, if someone else is trying to capture you for posterity, stay within radar range!
Congratulations! Daniel Durbin and Evan Dansereau passed their glider check rides last Monday.
Twenty two years ago today was my first November living at Crystal – and we woke to a solid foot of overnight snow! While that probably won’t happen this week, we will get a taste of ‘seasonable’ weather, including afternoon temps in the sixties, more clouds than usual and, wait for it, the unofficial start of WAVE season will depend on just how southerly and how strong the wind is…
My first time soaring the Sierras, being a twenty-year instructor from down east meant nothing. I had a ton to learn. This was a few years before GoogleEarth, and for weeks I’d been memorizing a 3-D relief map of the run between Tehachapi and Lone Pine with a specific mission in mind: fly straight as possible to Cottonwood Lakes, a high wide bowl in the Golden Trout Wilderness beyond which lies a sea of fourteen thousand foot peaks. The plan was to snap a careful 360-degree panorama before rushing back, a modest first assault.
If completed, the round trip would total 300-K, but I of course had no barograph or data logger. The glider was a thirty-something all metal single-seat Lark with no oxygen system, clamping definite limits on higher ambition.
It was forecast to be an especially fine day, and several pilots were chasing each other north from three neighboring sailports, Tehachapi, Cal City and Crystal. I was first to launch from Tehachapi, so that put me in the lead, but the others were in hotter ships, and having oxygen would avail them access to greater altitudes and ground speed. Plus they’d been there before! I wondered if I could reach my turn point before all of them did.
Blame it on beginner’s luck, but the outbound leg went smoother than expected, with intimidating visuals the only difficulty. Maybe there’d be time to gawk on the way home, but for now it was petal to the medal (sic).
A line of cumulus marking even better lift sat miles west of the crest over deep wilderness but led well above fifteen thousand, so I stayed off to the east within easy reach of lower ground if necessary, pushing hard to stay down around twelve or thirteen. As Horseshoe Meadows slid below, a voice came on the air-to-air frequency speaking obviously to me. He was leading the charge along that line of superior lift, and warned that the path I was on would crunch up against solid rock dead ahead.
“That’s where I’ll turn back,” I answered, “and bless you for offering such good advice.”
By the time we finished our exchange I had reached that turn point and the first of those towering summits did fill the screen. Everything felt right though and lift was boiling up in gobs, so, habitually I dug in and started scaling the first giant hill just like those beloved tiny ones back home. Only different.
Life is painting a picture, not doing a sum.
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Until then I’d managed to avoid spending much time above fourteen, and at least thought I’d handled mild hypoxia fairly well. Also it must be said, proximity to naked granite has a way of heightening one’s alertness, whatever physiological state you’re in.
From behind every barren promontory came another, and soon I recognized the legendary stone shelter atop Mt. Whitney. I had gained another thousand feet quite unawares, and after loitering too long was by definition further impaired, whether it seemed so or not. Time to head home.
And still that panorama to shoot!
Anxious to be lower, I dove near the yellow arc back to Cottonwood Lakes, arriving at just the right level for intimate pics. One slow round led to another for good measure — before I realized I’d been circling in sink. No longer over a huge wide bowl, suddenly I was down in it.
With more than half the horizon now above eye level, three options remained. I could try to crawl back onto higher ground again, but that wouldn’t help with the hypoxia thing, and if it failed I might end up ‘landing’ in one of these lakes whose ripples sparkle so brightly at 11,000 feet. Brr! The smart choice would be to sneak through a narrow little notch and down into the valley, but leaving the mountains could take hours longer to get home, and with this dull headache, no thanks. Third choice, head south with the slimmest margin above descending high ground, straight toward home. If that didn’t work, worst case should be a desert lakebed I had seen once before, from two miles up an hour earlier. And yes, no crew.
By now I’d begun to doubt my judgement. Gaps in cognition felt like thorn bushes in the dark, but I had to do something right away. And that’s when I started to hyperventilate. Mm hmm, really.
This was another first for me, might it be the last? Thankfully I knew what to do and retained nominal control. By then those first two options looked unworkable anyway, so with some degree of dread I turned for home.
The trip back was a hypoxic blur I honestly don’t remember. Landing mid-afternoon, I had that sick feeling you get late on a second day with no sleep. Trying to appear normal, I numbly secured my glider in the wrong spot, then nearly wept at having to untie it, move it again, and tie it down again. I was toast.
Celebrate the victorious first try? No I just wanted to lie down. Three miles home on a bicycle felt like another hundred, after which I promptly fell asleep.
The coming week will bring bright sun each day and light winds from one direction or another… That plus surface temps in the low eighties means we can count on some of the year’s most pleasant weather, perfect for training and practice flights. If you hope to get very high, however, this is one week you may want to bring a ladder.
SEE YOU SOON