How To #1: The Hoover Dam Example


Scene Setter View

Scene Setter View

It might be useful to share some lessons I’ve learned trying to get great video of landmarks, so we’ll start this series with the Hoover Dam.

It really pays to do some research while you are on the ground first. I knew there must be helicopter tours of the dam, and to make sure my fixed-wing flight would not conflict with them I Googled to find out who seemed to be the major operator, and gave them a call. I explained I needed to do a fixed wing photo pass and wanted to be sure I didn’t get in their way, so what altitudes and practices would they recommend? They were great, told me the altitude they worked, which direction they circled, and the frequency the helicopter operators use, and recommended I stay 500 feet above them and do position announcements. Many times they will give you hints about the best times and angles: after all they fly that area for a living and are experts!

For most of the sites we will discuss good altitude control is really important, so one suggestion would be if you have an autopilot, consider engaging altitude hold and using the heading bug to steer the plane. Remember your job as pilot is to safely conduct the flight, and as a videographer it is to put the aircraft where the cameras will do the most good. Sometimes that does require hand flying (so be sure to keep altitude a big part of your instrument scan, and keep your eyes outside looking for traffic the rest of the time), and other times you can let the autopilot help you out.

First, it is always a good video storytelling idea, if possible, to get a “scene setter” shot, and that usually is best from thousands of feet up. For our adventure at Hoover Dam we ran the pod with 4 GoPro cameras (front, back, left and right positions in the Eagle360), and started them on the ground at Henderson, NV. We went out to the dam up high, and we got the picture at the top of this blog from the right side camera (click on any of the pictures to see a higher quality version).

Then we descended over Lake Mead, and switched to the frequency the tour folks used, and announced our pass. I decided to stay a little left of the dam, and here is the view from the front facing camera (see the 4 input towers that send water to the turbines, and the overflow tunnels on the left and right side of the Dam):

Front Facing camera

Front Facing camera

And here is the view from the Eagle360’s rear facing GoPro camera (see the power generation plant at the base of the dam):

Rear Facing camera

Rear Facing camera

These stills are frame grabs from the video, to see the full pass go here:  click on the top left video, and notice how vastly different the lighting is between the front and rear facing cameras! This was near dusk, so the sun hitting the hills was very “warm” in photographic terms.

Some take away lessons I learned from the flight:

1) Do some easy homework before you take off. A few phone calls can make your flight easier, safer, and way more productive! Professionals really appreciate it when you take the time to find out what their airspace use is like, and how they keep from running into each other, and of course they would much rather hear from you in advance than just find you bombing thru their altitude with no notice! Safety is in everyone’s best interest.

2) If there is a VFR chart for the area, get it and get all the information you can by looking at it. The landmarks you see on it will help you set up your pass beautifully and will let you keep a high level of situational awareness of where you are and where you are going. Again, knowing the territory and how people operate in it is a terrific stress reduction device!

3) I try to learn from each outing by thinking about what I could do better next time. One of my takeaways was, if possible, to go straight down the middle for a pass like this: the side facing cameras in the low pass didn’t contribute much, but front and rear camera positions were awesome. This underscores the point about running more than one camera in your Eagle360: it is really hard to anticipate which will be the best angle, and given how relatively inexpensive the GoPro cameras are, it pays to run as many as you can, and capture EVERYTHING in just one pass!

Next example flight: New York City!

What Would Make a Great Pod?

Next step is to gather the requirements, so we make a pod that is truly exceptional, plus the more potential problems we consider and solve up front, the happier we will all be!

Safe: If we thought we were making a product that would add risk to pilots, passengers, or people on the ground, we would abandon the project. Everything has to be overdesigned, must fail safe, and provide no opportunity to harm anyone.

Rugged   and Reliable: If small companies have to do a lot of customer support because of bad design, they will go broke: it is as simple as that. Making a rugged system that just plain works (in this case “boring is good”) is a worthy design goal. Also, imagine the disappointment a user would experience if they landed after a gorgeous flight, and found something had malfunctioned and there was no video! Which leads us to….

Simple: We wanted the pod to appeal to people who were primarily pilots, not photographers, and yet it has to deliver broadcast quality video. It also has to produce great video, under wide ranges of temperature, weather, all the time. So a big design criteria was to keep it simple: anything   not needed was dispensed with. Important details have to be done right: fasteners had to engage positively and easily, and it had to be apparent to the user that they are engaged. Everything you need to do should be clear and obvious.

Easy to   use: What does “use” mean for a camera pod? Well, you have to load the cameras into it, turn them on, mount the pod, confirm all is well (fasteners engaged, cameras rolling), then easy to detach after the flight. So the bays that hold the cameras have to be sized correctly, the vibration absorbing mechanism has to be easy to position correctly but not bind when the pod is mounted to the aircraft, the fasteners have to be easy to attach and detach, and during a preflight it has to be really easy for the pilot to see that the fasteners are positively engaged and the cameras are functioning. That suggests a visual aide for the fasteners, and the need for a “window” thru the pod so the user can see the blinking LED in front of the camera that indicates it is functioning,

Make   great images: This is more subtle than it sounds. Where do you mount such a pod, and where do you point the cameras? Let’s say you mount it on the belly of the aircraft, to get an   unobstructed view of what is below the aircraft. Do you mount the camera parallel to the ground, and use a bunch of the image frame up on the sheet metal or composite on the aircraft belly (which never changes in the course of a flight)? Or do you point it straight down? Or pick some angle in between to show a hint of the aircraft, and yet maximize the amount of the camera frame used to show the outside? If you rule out a steerable camera because you want greater coverage for less cost, and you want no moving pieces, then you have to consider the best possible camera position, and that is almost as important as the selection of the right camera.

Flexible capability: Sometimes the thing you are really interested in is on the left of the aircraft, sometimes on the right, sometimes ahead of you. Sometimes the lighting of things behind you is better than the light on something in front of you. Sometimes you plan the flight to put the subject on   one side, but traffic forces you to put the aircraft someplace else. And lots of time something amazing you never expected to see that day happens to be under your flight path. So we decided to design in the capability to hold up to 4 cameras, all rolling at the same time, to ensure a 360 degree field of view (hence the Eagle360 name!). If you have one camera, great, pick which position you want it in. If you have more cameras, great, load them in. That is flexibility. And since these are digital cameras, all you are burning are electrons!

Room to expand functionality: We knew once we have the physical structure figured out and an STC granted, we would want to add functionality, and it was a good bet that would involve   electronics, because so much of the cool stuff these days involves computers. So we needed to build in space for an “avionics bay”, to allow us to keep adding great features and capabilities.

Low   cost: As idealistic as this sounds, our mission was to make awesome HD video accessible to virtually all general aviation pilots. Other video systems have been available for specific individual types and models, typically for well above $10,000: you had to have a real commercial reason to invest in such a system. We wanted to hit the lowest practical price point so this great, new way to enjoy flying was available to the largest number of pilots. That made for a challenging but satisfying design goal.

Immune to potential foreseeable problems: We spent a bunch of time anticipating potential   “gotchas” that could limit our pod from being the success we want it to be. The outside of an aircraft is an environment with great ranges of temperature, moisture, vibration and lots of different petrochemicals: how do we make a system that won’t be hurt by the chemicals, won’t fog up in a climb, or stop on a hot or cold day, and won’t flood the cameras if we fly through precip? The more such problems we anticipate and design around, the more terrific our pod will be.

It Takes a Team

So we had an idea and some broad requirements, we did   a proof of concept showing that the resulting video would be pretty impressive,   and now we had to start making the idea a real-world device. That required   someone with design and engineering skills that could also factor in   manufacturing know-how to make the device affordable. Let me introduce Richard   Hardy and his work.

Here’s an excerpt from Richard’s bio:

Richard Hardy retired from Boeing   in March of 1996 after a 37 year career. He joined Boeing in Seattle after   graduating from MIT with bachelor degrees in mechanical and aeronautical   engineering and a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering.

After   three years as a flight mechanics engineer Mr. Hardy was promoted to management   on the Saturn 5 moon launch vehicle program in Huntsville, Alabama. He   eventually became chief of the technical staff on launch vehicles and the lunar   rover program.

Returning to Seattle in 1970, he   worked on the Short Range Attack Missile and was the Vehicle Design Manager on   the SCAD program, which became the Air Launched Cruise Missile. He spent a year   in Dayton under an industry/government exchange program where he worked in the   B-1 bomber System Program Office.

Returning to Seattle, Mr. Hardy   became program manager of the AFTI F-111 Mission Adaptive Wing program. After   successful completion of flight-testing on that program, he became Chief of New   Combat Aircraft programs.


In 1980 he established fighters   as a product line objective and became program manager of the Boeing Advanced   Tactical Fighter program, which eventually became the F-22.

Mr.   Hardy helped put together the Lockheed/Boeing/General Dynamics F-22 team. After   the team was successful in flying the YF-22 and winning the competition, he was   promoted to Vice President General Manager Military Airplanes.

As you can see, in his career Richard pretty much   covered all the most challenging and advanced space and military aviation   projects over almost 4 decades. After Boeing, Richard founded Hardy Engineering   and Manufacturing in the Seattle area.

At this point I should fess up that Richard is a   cousin, was pretty much my role model through my school years, and I set the   goal to attend MIT because he had.

We had stopped to visit his family in Seattle on our   flight north to Alaska, and we got together in Boston after the flight and I   showed some freehand sketches of what a pod device could look like. Richard   liked the project and immediately engaged, doing an initial design and   prototype, a gorgeous milled aluminum aerodynamic structure.

The design has gone through a lot of iterations since   then, as we went about a program of continuous improvement before getting to the   Eagle360.


What not to do, or OMG!!!!

We live   in a time period where people do things, record them, then post them for the   entire worldwide online community to view. Do a quick search on YouTube and you   see that people have already been attaching cameras to the outside of aircraft.   Unfortunately they have been taking large risks with their lives, the lives of   people on the ground, and violating numerous FARs in the process.

Part of   what got us going on this project was to provide people with a safe, legal way   to create high quality videos, where no one’s life is at risk, and no one has to   worry about losing their right to fly. We want video to be as commonplace and   useful as a GPS.

What   are the potential risks?

1)Camera system could impact aerodynamics of the   aircraft, potentially making it unstable

We all   have a lot of faith in our aircraft: for many of us they have taken us through   turbulence, ice and our own awkward maneuvers for years. We know them to be   strong and stable, and what can the harm be to mounting a small thing out there   where it will make a great picture? One thing I have learned from this project   is that every inch of a certified aircraft has been thought over, examined, and   refined, and making a change without formal studies raises your risk level sky   high (pun intended). Don’t believe it? Try reading any of the write-ups of the   NASA Stall/Spin tests conducted in the 70’s and 80’s on light general aviation   aircraft: they found that very minor modifications could turn a docile aircraft   into one prone to unrecoverable flat spins (check out “Stall/Spin Awareness” by   Rich Stowell). A seemingly random disruption of airflow can have fatal   consequences, and great jeopardy comes from disrupting the airflow over a   control surface, or even worse, mounting a camera on a balanced control surface,   either of which can invite flutter. Remember the A300 whose rudder came apart   from flutter shortly in 2001? Do you want to risk that?

2)Camera system could depart aircraft and damage   aircraft

What if   you mount a camera using something like a suction cup, and it comes loose in   flight and jams an elevator or rudder?

3)Camera system could fall off aircraft and hurt   someone on the ground

What if   you fly over a populated area with a tenuously mounted camera and it comes loose   and hits someone? Small and light as they might be, at terminal velocity you are   putting someone’s life in danger.

4)Violation of the FARs could result in enforcement   actions

Is any   of this worth losing your pilot’s certificate over? I didn’t want to lose mine,   but I did want to shoot video, hence this project!

Think I   am making any of this up? Do a web search, or look on YouTube. Here’s the kind   of thing you will find, including people showing off their tail numbers while   flying over metropolitan areas with cameras mounted outside on a suction cup,   and one person taking off into 0/0 conditions with a camera mounted on a   balanced rudder: if they got airborne and then encountered flutter, what would   their options be?

Internet post on videographer’s site:

“…there   are times and mounting conditions that require custom designed mounts or just   plain ‘ol duct tape. A lot of the time I will carve a piece of foam to match the   surface contour, notch out a spot for the camera, then tape the whole thing   neatly. I have done this on the outside of jets and aerobatic planes hundreds of   times.”

Quote   from

“I used   this GoPro base to film and take pictures with my GoPro camera while flying my   airplane, it is great, and the base attached very strong to the under wing of my   aircraft. Great product!”

Suction   cups used on

Project Goals

Ok, we have determined the goal is to allow aircraft owners to hang a HD video camera off the outside of an airplane in some kind of optimized enclosure. We saw no need to reinvent the camera portion, let’s pick the best currently available HD camera and employ it.  The product has to be useful, safe, affordable, and it must have the ability to add advanced features over time. Let’s look at these individually.


As you saw from the Alaska video clip in Blog 1, having the camera pointed out to the left of the aircraft delivered some pretty good images, and we had planned the flight to put Mt. McKinley on the left side of the aircraft. But I couldn’t help but wonder what the forward facing view would have been, coming up the Ruth Glacier like it was a big highway? And sometimes the best subject will be on the right side: what if you were northbound in the NYC VFR corridor, with Manhattan on the right and your camera is mounted pointed to the left? So one criteria for “useful” would be that you could orient the camera in any direction (front, left, right, tail), or you could have more than one camera, and cover 2,3, or all 4 angles. Kind of reminiscent of what Carroll Shelby is credited with saying about horsepower in cars: if a lot is good, too much must be better!

Simple to use, and especially simple to attach and detach from an aircraft. Fast ¼ turn fasteners, so “click,click,click,click” and it is on, same for removal.

Useful also implies the cameras have to be simple to insert in the enclosure, and there has to be provisions to defeat the problems photographic systems mounted on aircraft run into: vibration, moisture, fogging, and being around petroleum products.

Also in the “useful” camp is the question of where do you point the camera? A motorized steerable mount would violate other design goals: it would add expense, violate safety criteria by requiring attention from the pilot, and add complexity. But if you take a wide angle camera (most HD cameras are) and just point it horizontally, much of the picture frame will be filled with the belly of your aircraft, and since that mostly never changes, why waste a chunk of your image on that?


As mentioned above, the system needs to not distract the pilot: all the pilot has to do is fly the aircraft, the system does the rest. It also needs to be easy to verify security during a walk around: there have to be visual indicators for the pilot to see if the mounting system is not safe and secure.

Safe also includes “fail safe”: if the cameras are turned on and put into their mounts and the enclosure mounted, it should work, period. If one of the fasteners should come loose, the system should stay on the aircraft.

Finally, interaction with aircraft systems should be minimal, preferably only structural (it does need to be mounted somehow!).

And what is the ultimate determination if something is safe to put on a certificated aircraft? An STC. The FAA’s STC process requires rigorous study and testing of every aspect of a system: structural, aerodynamics, materials, you name it, and at various airspeeds, angles of attack, and altitudes. A major project goal was to achieve a Supplemental Type Certificate covering a wide range of aircraft


Once the Useful goals have been met, the challenge moves to how to make it affordable. The whole culture of these small, incredible quality HD cameras is to make them accessible by keeping prices low. This runs counter to the aviation industry, where EVERYTHING costs $$$$. We want a business that will continue to serve our customers going forward, and we have the costs of the STC process (you don’t want to know!) to cover, but within those constraints we will do our utmost to make this fun and useful product accessible to everyone flying aircraft from homebuilts to 172’s  to bizjets.

Advanced features

These cameras have amazing feature sets, and over time we would like to exploit everything they offer. That means there has to be room reserved for add-on subsystems to add amazing new features and make these systems an even more compelling must-have for a pilot. So there is a need for an “avionics bay” to grow the feature set over time.

Now that we have defined the goals, let’s make this project happen! But first, let’s discuss what people should NOT be doing!

Quality Fanatics

You may be wondering who are you people, and why are you so picky about really high quality video and still images?

I have a BS and MS from MIT, but rather than a traditional job out of college I got seduced into news photography. I spent about  15 years as a photographer, mostly with Associated Press, which meant I traveled to major stories, and had to make shoot pictures and transmit them electronically so they could appear on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

It was an extremely competitive job. On major stories (shuttle launches, Presidential trips, Olympics, Super Bowls, Pope trips, wars, etc) you were frequently elbow-to-elbow with competitors from UPI, Reuters, the New York Times, Time, Newsweek and others, and your job was to get the best picture: if you lost, your competition’s picture was on the front page all over the world the next day, and everyone knew you had been beaten. Win, and everyone thought you were a hero.  You pretty quickly decided which felt better!

Early on I started watching the people who would win day in and day out, and what I saw was they didn’t do any one thing massively better than their competition: instead they did EVERYTHING 5% better than the person next to them. They changed lenses a little faster, they picked a slightly better angle, their timing was just a hair better, and taken in combination, their photos were visibly better, time and time again. Add up those 5% differences, and pretty soon you had a 40% better picture.

As you might imagine ,a no-brainer advantage  was to have a sharper picture: hold two choices side by side (yes, pictures were printed back then!) and the sharper one would be the obvious choice. Image quality was a huge differentiator: you did everything you could to use the crispest lens, the right shutter speed, the right technique. If you had a choice of shooting through a window, or opening the window and shooting directly at the subject, you ALWAYS opened the window.

These two lessons (do all the little things 5% better than anyone else, and always go for maximum quality) served me well through my shooting career (I placed second for the Pulitzer Prize in 1980), and then again starting in the late 80’s when I started a software company (we do very large, fast databases of digital images and documents, with customers like the White House, Pfizer, the New York Times, Worldvision, and law firms)). And those lessons have carried on to this project, as future blogs will hopefully illustrate.

But a project like this is not a one-man band. So I would like to introduce Richard Hardy. Richard was my role model growing up, I followed him to MIT, and he has led an amazing career, initially as a “rocket scientist” (no kidding) with Boeing. He worked on the Saturn 5, and then projects like the B-1 bomber, the Air Launched Cruise Missile, and he was Boeing’s program manager on the F-22 Raptor.  He left Boeing to found Hardy Engineering, and the design work on this project has been a collaboration between Richard, his son Jonathan, and myself. For more about Richard see his bio on the “About Us” page, and be aware he has written a book called “The Program Manager: The Bull leading the Charge” which is a primer on the art of running a successful (and ethical) technology project, set in the context of a Cold War aerospace company.

In the course of this blog you will be introduced to other players and organizations, but this gives you an idea of who we are, and what our culture is.

How It All Started

Ruth Glacier4  Denail-Mt McKinley peak 338h

Ruth Glacier in Alaska, left, leading up to the peak of Mt. McKinley, right

My wife and I love to fly (we are both pilots, I hold an ATP with ~2500 hours total time over 30 years flying), and we have some trips we very much want to do. A few years ago we took our Massachusetts-based Baron to Greenland and Iceland (she loved Greenland, I loved Iceland). A trip on my list has always been to go to, and around, parts of Alaska. We are now incredibly lucky to have a Twin Commander, so the airplane is capable of it, and a couple years back I started planning the trip.

Both Jann and I used to be photojournalists, so between us we spent about 30 years working at taking high quality photographs. We love looking at the amazing sights we see routinely as pilots. And so it was no great leap that one of the things that I wanted as part of the Alaska trip was some really high quality aerial video, especially since part of the plan was to fly up one of the glaciers near Mt. McKinley (20,325, the tallest mountain in North America) and then fly around the summit.

So I started researching video cameras, and a friend clued me in that now there were really inexpensive, really small HD cameras on the market. I checked them out, read all the reviews, and selected one by GoPro, which is sold in a little waterproof case.

When you are a professional photographer, you want to be sure nothing gets between your lens and the subject, especially something like an aircraft window: a lot of quality is lost shooting thru glass or plexiglass. So I did some basic experiments very securely mounting the tiny GoPro on the tailskid of the Twin Commander, learned a lot of lessons (about flare, fog, vibration among others), and ended up with a setup that worked pretty well.

Off we went to Alaska, and I soon found I was really excited after a leg of the trip to pull the camera off the tailskid and look at the video! Seeing the video in the hotel at night was almost as cool as the flights themselves. I was also amazed at how much you cannot take in while making sure your main focus is on flying the airplane, not to mention how much you miss because you only have the nearest window to look out, versus a wide view.

We got home, and I got to thinking (always a dangerous situation). I loved having an HD camera travel with me on the flights. Perhaps other people might enjoy that capability as well? I had lots of idea of how to do it even better, and I knew there would be lots of interesting lessons along the way. I also came to understand that mounting a camera on the outside of a certified aircraft (no matter how securely) required the FAA’s blessing, and I found that some people were mounting cameras in very dangerous ways, putting themselves and others at risk. I wanted a solution that allowed easy, spectacular photography but would be approved for certified aircraft.

The goal: to design and sell a whole new kind of aircraft accessory: an enclosure to allow low cost HD photography of the amazing sights we pilots routinely see (but cannot bring home to share with others). And that was the beginning of this long, continuing, and somewhat amazing journey, with lots of lessons in aerodynamics, engineering, materials, flight test, the STC process, and safety. This blog will take you through the experience of bringing a new aviation product to market, from the concept, to the prototype, to the approval process, to launch. I hope you enjoy the trip!