Sometimes you’ve just got to get high.
This happened recently as we covered the Monastery Complex wildland fire. Access to the area was uncertain; the state highway going to the fire was closed off and on throughout the first day of the fire and the only other route to the fire would take hours longer.
Not knowing if we would get any ground-level access we decided to charter an airplane for aerial photography of the fire.
(I want to give credit to my bosses for ponying up the $250 for the flight. Despite tight-as-a-drum budgets they came up with money)
The Monastery Complex Fire, photographed from 8,500 feet Sept. 8, 2011. Nine homes and 10 outbuildings have been destroyed in a forest and brush fire that continues to grow in the Satus Pass area. About 300 people in 150 homes have been evacuated in the fire that some estimates place as large as 2,100 acres. (GORDON KING/Yakima Herald-Republic)
Aerial photography poses a unique set of challenges. A few basics I’ve learned over the years of aerial photography:
1. Helicopters are best but planes are cheaper. WAY cheaper.
2. Make sure your airplane is a high-wing aircraft.
3. Make sure the passenger window opens up enough to provide an unobstructed shot from the aircraft.
4. Remove all the lens shades from your lenses. Lens shades will catch the airstream if you poke the lens/camera out into the airstream.
5. Small planes vibrate a lot. Use as high a shutter speed as possible to minimize any vibration effects on your photos.
6. Do not rest your arms on the window edge as you shoot because you will transmit vibration from the plane to your camera and photos.
7. Dramamine motion-sickness pills can be a big help if flying makes you queasy. Take two an hour before you fly.
8. Fly on an empty stomach if flying makes you queasy. Less to throw up, if it comes to that.
9. Communicate your needs to the pilot before you take off to ensure he can accomplish what those needs.
10. Check for any flight area restrictions. No sense wasting money on a flight if flight restrictions are going to keep you too far from the news event. The pilot should also do this so he knows where he can fly. If he doesn’t I’d recommend another pilot.
11. If you are photographing a forest/wildland fire think about possible smoke and haze issues. There may be too much smoke in the area of the fire to get good photos. Often it’s a crap shoot – it was quite hazy and smoky as we flew from Yakima down to the Monastery Complex fire but the haze and smoke had parted by the time we got to the fire.
11. An experienced pilot is key (besides just keeping the plane in the air). A good pilot understands your needs and can get you to the right spot for photographs in a minimum amount of time. Remember, time in an airplane is indeed, money.
Pilot Joshua Grubb brings the aircraft into the Yakima airport. (GORDON KING/Yakima Herald-Republic)
As it turned out that day, staff photographer Andy Sawyer got some great photos and video from the ground. The following day Sara Gettys did an equally-fine job capturing the scene in Goldendale, the town closest to the fire.