My grandfather was a professional photographer in the 1940s. He had a studio where he did portraits and a lab in the back so he could process the images. He also made picture frames and earned a meager income from his craft. I never met him because he died several years before I was born. But I look at some of his work that has been handed down to us and I imagine this man I am related to.
What intrigues me is why I have also been so drawn to photography, never having met him. There is something about a photograph that captures a moment in time that is more profound than a memory. I guess it preserves accuracy and yet leaves much to imagine. Much of my own personal history is told simply through the images I have created.
When Canon introduced the new DSLR video capability in the popular 5D Mark II model, I had to get one. I had been thinking for while about learning to make aviation videos. I wanted to share some of the experiences of unique places I was going. The Mark II was promoted as a new dual-purpose camera. It had revolutionary video quality and the highest resolution photo images available at that time. I didn’t need any more convincing to write the check.
I had no idea what video production entailed, but over the next few months I found myself spending a lot of money on computers, hard drives and programs. Having not grown up in the computer generation, this meant I spent endless hours taking advantage of Apple’s one-on-one training. This eventually gave me enough of a knowledge base to make a few home-grown type videos. The first achievement I felt good enough about that I would show it to the public was a little video biography called “ A Dream Come True”. It even contained an audio dialogue I managed to muddle through. It is certainly amateur video, but it was fun to do and well received by my friends.
Not too long after this project, I met Bryan on an aerial shoot we were each helping out on. We got talking and he invited me to his studio to show me some editing techniques with the program I was using. I was anxious to learn all I could and thought he might be a good resource. As it turned out, as soon as I took him up on his offer, we spent all our time dreaming about how we might work together on various projects. We discussed pooling our knowledge and resources to create something aviators might want to see.
After months of dreaming up crazy ideas, we decided our first attempt to create an aviation video would be a travel type show. The idea was to film an observational documentary of a trip that aviators might want to go on. We figured it would be best to pick somewhere close and easy for this first attempt . We agreed we would go to San Diego. It was not too far away, and it was warm and somewhere we could find aviation attractions. It all sounded easy, but I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I invited my friends John and Jim to participate with us. They’re both are aviation addicts and I enjoy spending time with them, but I also knew there might be some friendly disagreements and a little squabbling. I was a little bit worried about something else, though. I wasn’t sure how agreeable either of them would remain while doing the type of things Bryan and his team had lined up.
John is an accountant type of guy who happens to be a bank president. He is very organized, keeps his world very orderly and makes sure he gets checks in every box on his “to do” lists. He is, self admittedly, a little ADD. He works hard at improving his pilot skills and has become particularly proficient running his stack of Garmin radios. He loves his Cessna 421 Golden Eagle and does not deviate from his way of doing things.
Jim, a career airline guy, is John’s cousin. He had just returned from a 16 day trip to Asia the night before. I was a little concerned he may need some recovery time before jumping into our busy 3 days of planned activities. He has been a captain for many years and has a very extensive aviation background. Imagine a guy who has spent the last 35 years sitting in the cockpit. A lot of stories, a little sarcasm and enough stored knowledge and skills he can hand fly an approach to minimums like an autopilot, while eating a peanut butter sandwich. John benefits from Jim’s experience and knowledge when he is open to it. Sometimes, however, strong personalities create differing opinions when they fly together and a little bickering comes into play. All in good fun.
Since Bryan would do the editing and had plenty of filming experience, he knew what elements needed to come together to make a story out of our efforts. He didn’t have much aviation background and was relying on me to make sure we got accurate and relevant video. We were hoping to do a lot of air-to-air video and really show off John’s airplane. In addition, we planned to include a few activities that would make fun of us old pilot guys, like surfing and go-carts. Being a little self conscious, I wasn’t excited about these things. Especially about getting out in the water. But I decided I would be a good sport and go with the flow. In the end, I found that by doing so, I had a lot of fun. And I got some experiences I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Things never go as planned, and our hopes to do a lot of formation flying were mostly dashed by disappointingly windy, turbulent conditions. If you have ever tried to do video work in an airplane, you know the quality is completely affected by how smooth the air is. We did manage to have some pockets of good air while flying over Zions National Park, and got some footage we were happy with. We had an incredible flight in any case. The formation flying for the video was a spectacular experience, with the low light stretching over amazing rock formations below. It was a challenging, breathtaking opportunity to fly in close proximity to another aircraft. And this location made it one of my favorite formation experiences ever. Jim did the flying in the 421, because he has had experience in this type of work. Meanwhile, John sat next to him, stressing about the constant power changes necessary to keep the aircraft in position. John is always slow and methodical during power changes, to keep his engines in good shape. He was uncomfortable seeing the aircraft operate outside his normal routine. The two of them occasionally got a little snippy with each other during the flight, arguing about operational considerations.
In the end, this was the only opportunity we had to get air to air video, because the adverse conditions continued throughout the rest of the trip. We would have really liked to get 3 or 4 good aerial locations, but we took what we could and kept moving on.
The amount of equipment we took along on the trip was staggering. I didn’t realize how much we had brought until we unloaded it the first time. Not only did we each have a small bag of personal items, but both planes were loaded with cameras, lenses, sound equipment and computers. By the time we arrived at our first stop in St. George and were prepping for the evening flight over Zion, John was becoming uptight from all the piled up equipment. He had flown 3 video guys, Jim, and a plane-load of gear. For him, everything needs a place where order can exist and that was not going to happen in this environment. Jim and I both talked him down a bit and encouraged him to relax and go with it. Luckily, he seemed to be OK after that. Jim seemed to have an open mind, and was willing to do whatever he was asked to do.
The entire trip was exhausting. We had very long days, not much food, and were constantly moving from one place to another. And we had cameras being pointed in our faces everywhere we went. None of us enjoyed that aspect of the trip, but we each came away feeling a sense of fulfillment and that we had been a part of a unique experience. We gained an appreciation of how much effort goes into video production and how many variables these guys have to deal with. All of Bryan’s crew acted very professionally. And they all worked hard to take care of the things that needed to be done, while maintaining a good attitude.
I think the part of the trip I enjoyed the most was the chance we had to fly in the old biplanes. These vintage aircraft, nearly 90 years old, provided an experience for us that is hard to describe. Not only was this the oldest aircraft I have ever flown in, it was also the most nostalgic. I considered there was a time when this was the way someone traveled by air. In an open cockpit biplane, with a vibrating, rattling engine that was dripping oil. The area we flew over, rich in aviation history and beautiful scenery, made me feel like I was going back in time. The two Travelaire 4000 aircraft flew side by side, up and down the beach and harbor area. My job was to film the other aircraft which had Jim and John. What a neat opportunity! And even though I didn’t get to do any of flying myself, this goes down as one of the more memorable aviation experiences I have had.
We didn’t end up with a masterpiece, blockbuster show everyone is lining up to see. But we each look back and smile, knowing we did what we set out to do. We finished a project we dreamed about doing. How many of us talk about things we want to do, and yet never get off the chair and start the process, let alone finish? There is great satisfaction in this. And yes, I am uncomfortable seeing myself in the show. I wish I was more articulate, better looking and more macho. But I am what I am: a guy who loves airplanes. And this opportunity gave me a chance to share that passion in a new way.