Flying in a Helicopter
I am coordinating today’s post with my other blogs and will talk about helicopters there also. (see the sidebar Blogroll for locations.)
I have a close friend, named Charlie. He is a former NYPD officer, police helicopter pilot, airline pilot for American Airlines, and current Bell 47 helicopter pilot/owner. He calls it his ‘ship.’ Indeed, he spends a ton to keep it in top shape. This is the same model MASH helicopter of Korean War and ‘Hawkeye Pierce’ TV fame. I am planning to post some images of Marathon Sunday and NYC’s skyline in my other blogs. The shots on this post were made on slide film. Iconic images, the World Trade Center, and Statue of Liberty are known everywhere. The Verrazano Bridge is the world’s eighth longest bridge and longest in the US. I have been indeed fortunate to fulfill a dream to fly over New York City. The large bubble gives you a panoramic view. And, Charlie sometimes flies with the doors off so that the tinted glass doesn’t throw off the color balance. Any trip in the helicopter, bubble glass or not, is special. In the bridge shot you can see there are raindrops. It’s breezy, noisy, chilly, and relatively slow with a headwind. I have flown in and out of all of the NY airports on passenger jets with my nose pressed to the window to glimpse the city. There is nothing finer than being in a Bell 47 helicopter.
Technical: Shooting in a helicopter is definitely something to plan. So I asked Richard a corporate annual report photographer about what to do. To his credit, he is an excellent photographer. And, he is not prone to giving advice on subjects with which he is not familiar. The only advice he gave me was to consider renting or purchasing a gyrostabilizer. Nice idea. I did not get a stabilizer for many reasons. My cousin Amy, who may have to do a professional shoot over some warehouses in Brooklyn, has also investigated the use of a stabilizer. I have been up in the air with Charlie on many occasions now. We don’t fly in the rain. It messes up the engine. They did fly during the worst conditions during the Korean War. But in civilian life Charlie treats his ship like a lady.
As for camera settings, I can say the following. The one setting you want to be sure about is the shutter speed. A fast speed such as 1/500 or faster will minimize vibration. I have shot at 1/4000 but mostly 1/1000 will more than do the trick. Focusing is simple. At 500 hundred feet altitude, you are pretty much at infinity. So focus distance should not be a problem. The choice of lenses is fairly simple. A zoom of 18-200mm is my primary lens. I have used the 80-400mm zoom as well. I have obtained satisfactory images with both. There is more vibration effect at 400mm, which is offset by fast shutter speeds of 1/500 or more. Backlighting and sun glare are some other issues to be aware of. Shooting through the glass will give a certain tint. And beware of reflections from the glass. As a friend and passenger, I get to make more requests and coordinate my shooting with the pilot, Charlie.
Altitude is controlled over much of the New York City air space. This means talking to other pilots, small planes (fixed wings) as well as helicopters. Below 1000 feet it is a public radio frequency. Above 1000 feet you need to contact one of the three area airport air controllers. This can be intimidating but also very businesslike and professional. Despite all the rules and precautions there have been recent helicopter crashes mostly due to pilot error. In fact Charlie’s ship has crashed. He showed me the welds where the boom was repaired. He was not the owner when the crash occurred. Once many years ago I saw a helicopter crash resulting in the death of the pilot and air traffic correspondent. They fell out of the sky over the Intrepid Air Space Museum on the Hudson River blocks from where I live. At that time I thought the helicopter had made a landing on the deck of the aircraft carrier. With loss of power a helicopter still has energy stored in the rotors and can auto rotate safely. The exception here was that there was a catastrophic failure of the rotor, so there was no auto rotation. And, who can forget the dramatic landing of US Airways flight 1549 into the Hudson River in January 2009. I live nearby, I was even in the neighborhood, but missed the drama.