It was supposed to be an easy day. My complete list of responsibilities involved delivering a Cessna 152 to the site of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association‘s southeastern regional fly-in at Tampa’s Peter O. Knight Airport. I started early and was on the ground by 9 a.m. Done for the day.
With the bulk of the day left and nothing to do but Uber my way to the hotel and find a good spot for lunch, I settled into a seat in the shade beside the ramp to catch up on email and watch the eye candy roll up on right in front of me.
Things have a way of changing course for me, even when I’ve got nothing left on my schedule.
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed Tom Haines sauntering over to my solo spot on the deck. Tom is AOPA’s Senior Vice President of Media and Outreach and a host of the AOPA Live This Week program.
“Hey,” Tom said quietly. “Do you have time to help us out on a photo flight this afternoon?”
“Hmmmm,” I thought. One of the perks of being an AOPA Ambassador who wears a You Can Fly hat is that people will often ask you to help them out. In truth, that’s a big part of the job, being available to people who need a hand, or some advice, or a connection, or insight on how to accomplish specific goals while in keeping within the guidelines of the FAA and, in some specialized cases, the IRS.
That’s what I was thinking. What I actually said was, “Sure.” It’s an almost reflexive response for me. I can’t help it. Even if I could, I’m not sure I’d want to change my ways.
A short conversation ensued with a handful of the participants. Editors at Large Tom Horne would be flying the camera ship while his counterpart Dave Hirschman was tapped with the responsibility/joyful task of flying the subject airplane, a sleek, thoroughly badass Mooney. The photographer would be the immensely talented Chris Rose, and I would be the communication conduit connecting them all together.
During our initial briefing I may have mentioned six or 10 times that I had never done this before. Not once. Not even in a dream sequence. Tight formation flight with a photographic bent was totally new to me. Oh, and did I mention I’d never flown with Tom Horne before?
My previously leisurely schedule was suddenly dashed, replaced with a requirement that I get to the hotel to check in, grab a bite to eat, get back to the airport, brief, launch, and come back with the goods. That’s a full day’s work, let me tell you.
The first few steps in that process are fairly straightforward. From the “brief” stage through the “come home with the goods” stage, there’s some effort involved.
The briefing was fascinating. Two pilots, the photographer, and the communications newbie gathered at that same outdoor location where the initial offer was made to discuss exactly — and I mean exactly — what this flight will entail.
We planned a takeoff as a flight of two. We’d turn south, trace the coastline along the Bay, then the Gulf, and fly in tandem with the photo ship to the east while the subject ship is to our west. Only about 20 feet to our west, but still.
The camera ship was a Bonanza with the back door removed for better photographic results. Chris Rose was securely strapped into the back of the airplane, which made it far more likely he’d still be with us when we returned to our starting point.
This is serious business. While the mood is light, the work is not for the faint of heart. I’m told some first timers who fill the role I’ve been selected for find the experience to be unnerving. To be that close to another airplane in flight, with a gaping hole in the fuselage just behind you is a bit odd. Perhaps my experience with the Piper Cub and AirCam have given me a sense of normalcy in that situation. Whatever the case, I enjoyed it immensely.
The mechanics of the mission are clear, but they require commitment on all parts. The pilot of the photo ship flies the airplane. That’s it. His role is to provide a rock solid platform for the photographer to shoot from and for the subject airplane to key off of.
The pilot of the subject plane takes up position just behind the wing of the photo airplane, locks his eyes on the photo ship, and takes direction from the photographer as to where he should position his aircraft in relation to the photo ship. Sometimes he’s high, sometimes he’s low, sometimes he passes underneath our belly for a video shoot, then slides back to his original position to do it again.
The photographer speaks as he shoots, telling the subject airplane where to be. But the photographer has no push-to-talk switch and even if he did, he’s already got his hands full with the camera, not to mention the whole not falling out of the airplane thing. So he’s on the intercom calling out his wishes. My job is to relay those wishes to the pilot of the subject airplane, be an extra set of eyes for collision avoidance, and help navigate through the airspace.
It’s a piece of cake. Well, sort of a piece of cake. Also sort of exciting, really visually appealing, and absolutely one of the great experiences of my flying career. By the time we got home the sun was setting and I was ready for a nap.
It was supposed to be an easy day. Instead, by total happenstance, it was a great day.
When something like this is even a possibility, how can you not love being involved in general aviation?