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):
And here is the view from the Eagle360’s rear facing GoPro camera (see the power generation plant at the base of the dam):
These stills are frame grabs from the video, to see the full pass go here: http://airbornesensor.com/Videos.html 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!