Shooting flight from the ground has its advantages. It typically means a stable shooting platform, a full view of the aircraft's route, and some control of your positioning. However, shooting flight from the air is an entirely different experience. Beyond the necessary photoship, beauty aircraft, and experienced pilots willing to spend their time and energy to pose for you, it requires intense coordination with lots of moving parts to research, plan and brief the flight, not to mention executing the details of the flight including timing, altitude, routes and formations. This doesn't even include scheduling, weather, traveling to the shoot site and mechanical issues, and even if all of these things come together in the air for some photos, there is no guarantee the flight will be at all smooth, literally or figuratively.
Full Disc Aviation recently had the opportunity to work with 3G Aviation Media on a photo flight in Culpeper, Virginia. Our friends Chef Pitts (Clemens Kuhlig) and Scott Francis were able to join us for a short time in harsh light and bumpy air as we worked with Doug Glover of 3G Aviation Media in a CASA C-212 aircraft. We've been looking forward to working with Scott and Chef for a while now; both pilots frequent east coast shows and we've had the pleasure of shooting their routines over the years. Getting to know them has been as much of a pleasure as enjoying their routines; both are down to earth and kind, not to mention savvy aviators. On our flight, Full Disc Aviation was represented by James Woodard, Christian Gross, Zulu (Richard Souza), Ryguy (Ryan Kelly), RyTy (Ryan Tykosh), and yours truly.
Tony Granata from 3GAM was there to fit us in custom made parachute harnesses that would be secured to the aircraft, as we'd be flying around with the ramp down and the side door off. We shuffled around the airfield from briefing to briefing as the sun rose, but once Doug finished our last briefing with everyone including the pilots, we suited up, used gaffer tape to secure our gopros and lens filters, filed into the airplane and buckled in for takeoff.
We fired up, took off and climbed for the crescent moon. I tied my hair back tight and pulled my hoodie over my head to combat the chilly wind inside. At about 5,000 feet up, Doug tapped us each to unbuckle and get in position at the rear of the plane near the ramp. We aligned in rows of three, the first three seated at the edge of the ramp and the next three kneeling or standing behind them. Each position had its advantages and drawbacks, as the CASA with the ramp down and six guys stuffed together looking out that ramp offers limited range and visibility unique to each position.
With that said, the view as the ramp came down was breathtaking. Tony had said it'd be 'sensory overload' for a minute or two as one adjusts to the environment and he was right; floating around at 5,000 feet offered views all the way to the gorgeous Blue Ridge mountains, layered like a painting. The Shenandoah Valley is where I called home for decades, and flying around in nearly unlimited visibility a mile up was truly a special experience for me.
Chef got to us first; a tiny spec in the distance that quickly turned into his home-built, custom Pitts S1S. He snuggled up behind our CASA photoship and sank down a little to clear himself of the heat haze from the CASA's turboprops. The two aircraft bounced around in the air together for about a minute before Chef hit the smoke and rolled inverted for us.
As soon as he rolled upright, he peeled off. We didn't know it at the time, but his engine had quit. Luckily he was able to make it back to Culpeper using the emergency hand pump, altitude and skillful flying. At the end of the day, safety is paramount, and we're all happy he was able to set it down in one piece. During all of this, our wires had crossed with Scott and we sailed past each other, ending up far apart in different areas.
We bored holes in the sky for a while until Scott linked back up with us on our way back to the airport, but we finally did get a good few minutes with him once he found us. He approached rapidly over the network of neighborhoods and highways running along the valley between the mountains, and we finally had our face off with his brilliant royal MX-S. He skated the airplane back and forth underneath the heat haze for us, trying to give everyone on both sides a clean shot at the aircraft's topside.
Those of us in the back row battled for a clean shot out of the open ramp, having to deal with the sides of the fuselage, the front row guys' heads and their parachute harness straps attached to the ceiling. With enough distance, a B-17 could have been seen wingtip to wingtip through this ramp opening, but only if positioned just right from distance, and with the closer range shots we were getting with Scott, parts of the aircraft were out of view for much of the shoot from my position, which was back right.
Doug repositioned Scott off the CASA's wing a few times, necessitating we shoot out of the open door on the side of the aircraft. For the front row ramp guys, this opening was nearly impossible to shoot from, as it required them to either lean awkwardly backwards to shoot through the netting or get up and change positions with the back row guys which would've taken much more time than we had. Even for the back row guys, the opening was much smaller than the ramp, so shooting out the door afforded an even more challenging angle, jockeying for position with the other back row guys to get above the door netting, all the while dealing with a bouncing airplane.
Scott slid back and forth between the ramp and door, hitting the smoke and throwing it in a side-slip for the guys in the doorway, his gorgeous blue MX-S shimmering brilliantly against the mountains. He came back behind the ramp and rolled inverted, smoke still on. After leveling off, he peeled away as well and we started our descent towards Culpeper. Due to my both my size in the cramped space and attempts to find good angles, my quads were burning and my knees were throbbing violently from kneeling on the diamond plated floors.
Once back on the ground, I ran into Chef draining his engine in the hangar, searching for the issue. He was bummed the full flight didn't work out but once again, safety is top priority, and we're all just glad he got back down in one piece. Chef and Scott are both stand-up guys, and we're all incredibly appreciative of them willing to work with us and donate their time and energy to pulling this off. Every interaction with each of these fine gentlemen leaves me thinking even more highly of their character, professionalism and generosity. That's not even mentioning their incredible routines and poetic flying that drew us in originally.
3GAM (3Gaviationmedia.com) holds aviation workshops and events regularly, and if that's your cup of tea, do yourself a favor and check out their website. Also, be sure to check out Scott Francis (scottfrancisairshows.com) and Chef Pitts (chefpittsairshows.com) and absolutely go see them perform if they make it to a show near you, I promise you won't be disappointed.