Those photo missions – smile!

Editor’s note: This is the latest in Richard Collins’ series called “Logbooks,” where he looks back through his decades of flying experiences to recall some of the memorable airplanes he’s flown. You can read more here.

I flew a lot of photo missions, both air-to-air and otherwise, and will always remember a letter to FLYING about this. The reader had a serious question about why the pilot of the airplane being photographed was always looking at the camera. The suggestion was that those posing airplanes for photos must be a bunch of prima donnas.

If that had been true, we would have smiled more. Actually, when I learned formation flying from several World War Two pilots, I was taught that this is one of the few areas in flying where you need to fixate on something. By fixating on one bit of the other airplane you can pick up any relative motion much more quickly and formation flying is all about the relationship of airplanes to each other. Another reason to look at the camera was that it was held by the photographer who used hand signals to position you for a pose and you had to be looking to see those signals.

The main reason, though, was a desire to be around to fly another photo mission.

When I worked for the original AIR FACTS we didn’t fly photo missions. We used hand-out pictures from manufacturers or photos that we took with the airplanes on the ground. I did know my father’s old friend Hans Groenhoff who was the premier aviation photographer of the 1930s and 40s. His specialty was dramatic black and white pictures, many of which were air-to-air. If you would like to learn about his work, there’s a book available on Amazon.

When I went to FLYING in November, 1968, I came upon a whole new world of aviation photography. There we spent a lot of time and money on original photographs. No hand-outs were used because we wanted FLYING to be illustrated with uniquely beautiful photographs taken mainly by professionals.

It didn’t take long for me to learn that this is demanding work and that it has to be carefully managed.

Photographers will not shoot through airplane windows. They demand a clear view of the other airplane with those optically perfect lenses.

Bonanza with doors off
A Bonanza with the back doors removed makes a great photo platform.

The airplanes we used most for this were ones with doors, preferably back doors, that could be removed. The Bonanza 36, Baron 58, Cessna 206 and Piper PA-32 and Seneca airplanes were the ones we most often used. On the Beech airplanes and the 206, the back half of the door could be removed, leaving the front half in place to minimize the wind flow in the cabin but, even in brutally cold weather, most photographers wanted the whole space wide open.

Most single-engine Cessnas had windows in the door or doors that could be opened and with the removal of one screw they would open fully and rest against the bottom of the wing. This was a last resort because the angles were limited due to things like wing struts ad wheel pants. It was also awkward for the photographer because on the left side the pilot was clearly in the way. The right front seat could be removed to give the photographer freedom to move around but the pilot would get pretty unhappy if the photographer happened to lean back against the control wheel.

I once had a control tower operator nit-pick a little about either a Baron 58 or Bonanza 36. He asked me if it was legal to fly the airplane with a substantial portion of the registration number on the doors that we had left behind in the hangar. I don’t think I answered nor do I think it was ever mentioned again. After all, the complete number was on the other side of the fuselage.

Another question came up about the removed door. Beech had a new person overseeing such activities. I guess he was ex-military, and the thought of people cavorting around unrestrained in front of an open door led him to say that anyone in the back with the door off had to wear a parachute.

To counter this, I explained that a photographer is busy and moving about a lot and if somehow he accidentally pulled the rip cord the odds were you would lose both airplanes with all aboard. The compromise was that the photographer would have a rope around him that was anchored to the airplane. I guess if he fell out we would have been expected to give the photographer the option of having someone cut the rope, or, landing on a foamed runway. I think we used the rope once and then forgot about it.

There were usually two people back there, too. The heyday was in the time of film and most photographers liked to have a person to reload the camera for them. Otherwise, the pilots would just have to stand by while the photographer loaded his own film.

In all the years and missions, we never even came close to having anyone fall out of an airplane. I had lens shades, sun glasses and ball caps whiz by and if they failed to get all the paperwork out of the rear end of the airplane, as was covered in the briefing, the occasional registration or airworthiness certificate would go by. I think we saw all the weight and balance papers go by once, too. When something would come out of the other airplane it would seem to just appear and then accelerate rapidly by.

Flying with doors off was neat in warm weather but we also had to fly for photos in cold weather. Here, depending on the airplane, either the pilot or the photographer literally froze his ass off.

In the Pipers, the front seats were frigid even with full heat on. For some reason you couldn’t feel any warmth coming from anywhere. Photographers got a lot more heat in the back even though they were sitting in front of an open door.

The front seats of Beech airplanes were much warmer and if a flight were shortened because of cold, it was usually the photographer who made the call in a Beech.

We took off at Beech Field in Wichita on a morning when the surface temperature was plus five F. The only comfort in that is in knowing that with such cold at the surface, it usually about 15 or 20 degrees warmer at, say, 2,000 feet. That is still pretty cold and that photo mission, with a Bonanza 36 and a Duke, did not last long. In fact, I was maneuvering for landing when the photographer whimpered that he was getting too cold.

They made what they called “air dams” for some of the airplanes. These were fitted at the front of the opening to deflect the air but they were seldom used because the flow behind the dam was turbulent.

We got FAA field approval to fly a Skyhawk with the right door removed and that was not only uncomfortable it also practically slaughtered the climb performance. I remember one such approval requiring a restraining cable across the center of the opening.

Cessna always had a 210 or two with removable rear cabin windows. Those worked reasonably well.

The Baron 58 was the best airplane to use with jets because it was the fastest but it was just barely fast enough for most jets. If flying a jet in formation with any piston airplane I always asked the keeper in the right seat to keep an eye on the angle-of-attack indicator and tell me if it was moving toward the bad side of good. When flying formation you had no idea what was going on with the instrument panel if you were doing a proper job.

One day we were flying a Baron on top of an overcast where a Falcon jet joined up and we got our pictures. Photography done we went our separate ways, with my conclusion being an IFR approach back into Trenton, New Jersey.

The cleared altitude put the Baron close to the tops of the stratus layer and quite a bit of ice started forming. I thought nothing about cycling the boots to get rid of it. Can you guess what happened next? There were angry and hurt cries from the two guys in the back followed by, “please don’t do that again.” Those chunks of ice apparently smarted. I never thought about that.

Another airplane we used occasionally was an AA-5, usually the Tiger version of that airplane. The canopy could be slid back in flight. It was in a formation with three other AA-5s, one shooting and three posing, that I learned a lesson. The lesson was to always have extra eyes along to look for traffic. The pilot flying the photo platform has to concentrate on smooth flying, the pilots flying the other airplanes have to concentrate on formation. So who is looking for other traffic? Nobody, unless you have people along tasked with that duty.

The lesson was learned on a hazy day in the Cleveland area. I was on the outside of the formation, stepped down, as we orbited to the left. I became aware of something not being right. What I sensed suddenly became an Aero Commander that was unknowingly (I hope) busting through our formation. I always flew locked and loaded with a plan to break formation and in this case I rolled rapidly right and let the nose drop.

I was too enthusiastic because my next chore was to get the Tiger back right side up. I had rolled way past vertical.

We tried to always know the other pilots and to have confidence in their abilities. If things started going sour with a new pilot, we’d announce that we had what we wanted and it’s time to go home. That only happened a couple of times.

If the mission was to photograph on top of a cloud deck, the usual drill was to rendezvous on top. With similar airplanes and with pilots who knew each other well, we did occasionally climb through a deck in formation. When doing that, you are usually surprised at how well you can see the other airplane as long as you are reasonably close. That changes the closer you get to the cloud tops. The clouds are thicker there so for the last 500 feet or so of climb to on top you needed to be tucked in tight.

Most of the pilots we flew with were employees of aircraft manufacturers and they were good. Other pilots were always open to question so we’d take a close look and call the mission if they seemed out of their element.

DC-3
The DC-3 is a marvelous airplane – unless you’re trying to fly in formation with a photo ship.

The most difficult formation I ever flew was in a DC-3 with a Bonanza photo airplane. The skilled pilot in charge of the DC-3 just flat out told me he was not a formation pilot and suggested that I fly. The reason it was so difficult is that a DC-3 is not very nimble, and the keeper of this airplane was justifiably demanding that the engines be babied. Rather quick power adjustments are a staple of formation flying but on this flight I was dedicated to making the changes so gently that I would not endanger those wonderful round engines. That made it take a little longer but, hey, anything to prolong the time flying a DC-3.

This was all easier in airplanes that were at least somewhat alike. For example, if the wing loading were close, then the reaction to turbulence would be about the same. Also, flying turboprops in formation was a lot more difficult than jets or pistons. At the average speed of a platform airplane the turboprop’s power was usually at a sensitive spot where a slight movement of the power levers would result in a relatively large change.

Was there a lot of risk involved in photo missions? It is like so many other things in flying because risk does increase whenever you do anything other than cruise serenely around on a clear and calm day. Sure there was some increase in risk but managing increases in risk is what proficient flying is all about.

The best start to keeping the risk down was to have two competent pilots, a plan, and a thorough briefing. The pilot flying the platform had to understand that he was pilot-in-command of the mission, responsible for just about everything including navigation, terrain and obstacle clearance, and avoiding regulated airspace.. The pilot flying the subject airplane needed to convey any special requirements. For example, if the platform airplane was to turn away I didn’t need advance warning of that. If the platform was going to turn smartly toward me, I wanted to know that he was about to do that.

Most photographers did want turns, too, because orbiting gave continuously changing light and professional photographers are quite light-conscious. I don’t think I ever worked with one who did not know exactly where the sun would rise or set on the day we were flying.

Turns have an effect on speed, too. If on the inside of a turn you will have to fly slower where on the outside you will have to fly faster. The only time that was a problem was when flying a jet on a piston platform. Then, having the jet on the inside of the turn was a no-no unless the piston could fly really fast, which most could not do.

Something that was settled in advance was the maximum angle-of-bank that would be acceptable. Formation flying becomes more challenging as the bank angle steepens, especially if the photographer wants the airplane posed farther forward as opposed to in-trail. When wingtip to wingtip, the closing or widening of distance was pretty difficult to perceive.

Thought had to also be given to mechanical or power problems. If a pilot flying a photo platform ran a fuel tank dry, for example, that could cause a real problem if the formation was tight at the time. An asymmetric power event on a twin could also cause a problem if the offending powerplant was on an unfortunate side of the airplane.

In all the years I did this, I know of only one power problem that occurred on a photo mission. I wasn’t there but it was a FLYING mission that I had approved and so I had the responsibility for it. The airplane being photographed was experimental and for a reason that was never found, the engine just flat-out quit. Because it was the subject airplane this didn’t result in a threat but our man in the platform airplane was quite startled when, as he described it, the other airplane just disappeared.

The sound of the other airplane was something that I had a hard time getting used to. If flying the platform you could actually hear the propeller sounds of the other airplane, especially if it was a twin, or was substantially more powerful. A twin with the props not synchronized really made weird sounds in the platform airplane. It did sort of make you think about a propeller flailing away not far from your wing or fuselage.

We routinely did formation takeoffs so we’d be joined up from the start. Joining with the other airplane once in flight was not a problem but it could take a little time. The best way to do it was to have the other airplane orbit, in a standard rate turn, so you could fly quickly to the rendezvous point and then join.

I think all of us who did this enjoyed doing it. There was only one thing that I definitely did not like to do and that was to check another pilot out on formation flying. As a flight instructor, I can tell you that it is a lot easier to tell when a student is ready for first solo than it is to tell when a pilot is ready to do formation flying. You can explain the basics and demonstrate but that is about all. From there, the pilot just has to learn by doing.

I had a contact with a professional aviation photographer while still at AIR FACTS. An engaging young guy came to our office in Princeton in 1964 to say hello and ask if he could look at back issues. Russell Munson was doing some photo work at the Princeton department that dealt with the history of art. He was making slides for the professors to use in classes. He had been flying and reading our magazine for years.

Later that year Russell opened a New York studio to do both advertising and magazine editorial photography. His father had been an airline captain, Russell learned to fly in a U. S. Army flying club, and naturally he wanted to find at least some work photographing airplanes.

Russell Munson
Russell Munson was a frequent collaborator with Collins, shooting everything from Cessnas to jets.

Russell first got work at FLYING after I went there. He did the photography for a December, 1969, barnstorming story written by Richard Bach.

Russell and Richard became friends and when Richard would come to New York to try to interest publishers in his work, he would sleep in a sleeping bag on Russell’s studio floor because he couldn’t afford hotel rates.

Later in 1969 Richard had a meeting with Eleanor Friede about his book “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” (Eleanor was the major published of aviation titles at the time. I did eleven books with her.) Eleanor liked “Seagull” but said it needed pictures. When he heard this from Richard, Russell asked if photographs would work and produced a box of seagull pictures he had taken for no particular reason. Eleanor liked the photos, Russell took even more, and “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” became a wildly popular book. No, it wasn’t about private aviation but it was a creation of two of ours and we were all proud for them.

After that, Russell and I worked on many air-to-air photo projects as well as a number of photo-supported essays. I once told Russell that if he got good photos, I’d write something around them.

Because of our long association and friendship of 50 years, when I started working on this I asked Russell for his favorites among the things that we did together. He came up with two and I’ll tell you about those now, without further ado.

In 1975 the Cessna 210s, especially the Turbo 210s, were really popular airplanes. We wanted to do a story on the T210 with photography that would show the airplane in its element. Where else to do this but in the Rocky Mountains? Cessna ponied up a pair of T210s and a pilot, Chuck Hinson of their air transportation department. Russell and I made the trek to Wichita with both of us eagerly looking forward to the project.

Before going on, I want to share a funny that made the FLYING editorial staff blush to the point of being almost bright red. The creative folks cast about for a title for this story and came up with “Rarified Air.” It was in big type and was repeated several times. All those Ivy League diplomas and nobody knew how to spell “rarefied.” The mistake was not caught until about a half a million magazines had been printed. Somebody told me that then-editor Bob Parke sent someone to the New York Public Library to try to find an excuse for spelling the word as we did. As I look what I type on the screen now, “rarified” is not flagged as incorrect so maybe, somewhere, that is an acceptable spelling. Bob would feel better.

Back to the mission: It was springtime and the weather out there is not noted for its calm at that time of the year. Our westbound flying started with a wet and bumpy IFR leg from Wichita to Gunnison, Colorado.

The minimum en route altitude from Pueblo to Gunnison was 16,000 feet so as we were bumping along over the plains I knew we would have to soon climb, per the plan, to Flight Level 200. For a time I felt like I was flying a submarine in a hurricane so decided to go higher earlier than necessary to see if conditions would improve.

The instruments hooked to the static system were acting like there was some water ingestion so right after I started to climb, I selected the alternate static source. When I did this, the airspeed started increasing. I listened to the sound of things, looked at the pitch attitude, checked the power, and decided that the airspeed increase was in error. Then I followed the good practice of undoing the last thing I had done (the alternate static source) and that restored some order. The airplane was new and the alternate static source had been plumbed incorrectly so the system was effectively blocked when that was selected and the airspeed would increase as the airplane climbed.

There was to be more new-airplane related excitement this day.

The other T210 was ahead of us by some miles and was at FL220. We were in clouds with some bumps and some snow plus a bit of light ice. I was about to call Chuck, in the leading T210, and ask if he was getting ice at 220 when Chuck told the controller that he had lost his engine and was descending.

Whoa. I was not many miles behind and the thought of a powerless airplane descending through my altitude was disquieting.

I didn’t ask, I told the controller I was starting an immediate 360 turn to the left and would orbit where I was until the other airplane was out of 200. I honestly don’t remember whether or not we were in radar contact but I think not because at the time it appeared that separation would be ours to provide.

Russell was with Chuck and it was his plan to snap pictures to the conclusion of the event, even if that included climbing down off a mountain. Chuck’s wife was with me and I uttered something encouraging though I well knew this would not be comfortable territory for a forced landing.

As Chuck descended he realized the engine was still putting out some power and that it would be possible to get to Montrose, Colorado. I followed him there where we took the top cowl off his airplane and found that the turbo hose clamp had been incorrectly installed and had come loose, making the engine normally-aspirated. Years later I had the same thing happen on my P210 a couple of times.

We hopped from Montrose to Gunnison where we’d launch the next morning’s photo mission.

At that time, Gunnison was a small town. Old, too. The cemetery was bigger than the town. The one hotel was quite basic and we had a ground transportation problem. No rental car was available and there wasn’t any early-morning taxi service.

Being the true artist that he is, Russell likes the low and soft light that lasts for an hour or two after sunrise and begins an hour or two before sunset. In the summer, this can make for a long day. That morning in Gunnison my challenge was to get us a ride to the airport early enough to be airborne in the two airplanes at sunrise. The alternative to a ride would be a substantial hike to the airport, carrying Russell’s considerable amount of gear.

I pondered the problem and I all could think of was to call the police station. I explained it to the officer who answered and he sounded almost insulted by my insinuating that taxi service for wayward aviators might be part of the line-of-duty. In other words: not no but hell no.

Neither Russell’s nor my memory is clear on how this worked out so I get to offer my recollection, fuzzy as it might be 39 years later.

We divided up the cargo and set out on foot. I think I remember seeing a police car shadowing us for a bit and finally pulling alongside. The patrolman asked if we were the clowns who had called about a ride. I assured him we were and he told us to get in, he’d take us to the airport. All is well that ends well. That photo gear was sure heavy.

We had a wonderful time darting around over beautiful mountains, often draped with clouds. It was a fine place to be and one airborne moment stands out and, in fact, gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.

We were flying maybe 1,000 feet above some relatively flat terrain when we flew out over a canyon. The ground beneath, as seen in my peripheral vision, just fell abruptly away. I had not had a feeling like that before. It was like we had suddenly gone into orbit. I was close to the platform airplane and had to double-down on my concentration to keep the spacing right.

Next, a small-world story: We wanted to take a break and Russell wanted some ground shots so Chuck pointed out what was then a relatively small airport with a paved strip, North Fork Valley. The runway was on a plateau and there was a parking area off to one side.

After we landed we found that the only attendant was a beautiful and friendly Husky dog. He liked our company and would pull a chock and bring it to us with the clear message that it was to be thrown for him to retrieve. In turn, we truly enjoyed the dog’s company.

Several years later I was invited to make a talk at Embry-Riddle in Florida. There, I was chatting with the person who invited me, Craig Sabatke, and in the usual small “where are you from” talk he mentioned that he had lived near that airport. And, you guessed it, that was his Husky.

I also remembered that I had some much earlier contact with Craig’s father, Oliver, who had been a Navy pilot in the Pacific and an airline pilot as a civilian. He was captain of a United Viscount turboprop airliner that was lost when an in-flight fire either rendered the airplane uncontrollable, or smoke and flames disabled the crew.

Years later, when researching this, I wondered what had become of Craig. So, I Googled him. Sad news: He was lost in a Mooney about three years after our visit, flying in those same Colorado mountains that Russell and I so enjoyed, and where we had met Craig’s Husky.

The results of that trip yielded a pretty photo essay in FLYING and I have to agree that it was a favorite.

Rarified Air article Flying

Russell’s other favorite was a mission to get photos to illustrate a feature that I called “Continued VFR.” The NTSB had issued a study on accidents that resulted when pilots flew VFR into bad weather and crashed. The numbers were awful. This was a lethal thing to do and it happened quite often.

The plan was to show what this looked like as it unfolded. How to do that other than to do it?

When we had the idea formulated I called my friend Hank Newman who was the director of the FAA’s Southwest Region, which covered my Little Rock home base. I explained to Hank what we proposed to do and, as he always did, he asked what I needed from him.

It was pretty simple. If I was to continue VFR into IFR conditions while Russell took pictures I needed the minimum en route altitude of the airway above us blocked. Then I would have a de facto if not actual clearance to fly IFR at that altitude. When VFR turned to IFR I could pull up and climb to that IFR altitude where I’d announce my presence and get a clearance to somewhere to fly an instrument approach and start all over again.

With everything set with the FAA, the next deal was with Mother Nature. It was late winter and at that time of the year cold fronts sometimes become stationary in that part of the country to make for several day’s worth of clouds and rain.

Russell was in New York so I had to look ahead at potential and suitable weather systems and then get him headed for Little Rock. Actually he got there a day or two ahead of schedule and I got to take him on an adventure and introduce him to new critters. I was doing a map reading thing with our son’s scout troop and the National Guard had furnished charts and a wooded and hilly area at Camp Robinson for us to go chart reading. Everyone had a good time and Russell learned that those little bitty red things were chiggers. Such were the hazards of photo missions with Richard.

The weather cooperated perfectly and, as photographers do, Russell wanted to keep snapping shots as long as the weather was there. In total we had flown on five different days and flew 14 IFR approaches after using that Hank Newman furnished “get out of jail free” card.

One of the sequences was flown on Interstate 40 west of Conway, Arkansas. The weather was rainy but VFR when we started out, following the Interstate, then the rain got harder, scud started to form, and Russell got the money shot of the transition to IFR conditions.

That’s not flat country but it was home country for me and I knew the terrain well and all my pull-ups were in the direction of low or lower terrain.

We also ventured out into the mountains west of Little Rock, where a huge fleet of general aviation, airline and military airplanes have probed the sides of mountains, and got some pretty neat pictures of some of the visual traps that can snare a VFR pilot trying to sneak through there.

Russell photographed all that in color and black and white. The feature ran in black and white because it was more dramatic that way. Cheaper, too, because four-color printing was still expensive at the time.

Collins VFR-into-IMC

I did some other similar features with pictures that I took and while the quality of the photography was far short of what Russell did, mine still told the story as I chased weather all over Arkansas in the active springtime season.

I was up around Fort Smith one day photographing some nasty looking thunderstorms while communicating with Fort Smith tower because of my proximity to their airport. They had been silent for quite a while when a controller called and asked me if I was still there. Seems they had looked out the window and decided to evacuate the tower for a bit. I think it was the same day, but closer to Little Rock, when I photographed a rapidly developing strong storm that later blew away a small town north of Little Rock.

The FAA loved our “Continued VFR” coverage and approached us about doing a video or movie like that. We talked to them about it and when I explained how it had been done, the folks in Washington were horrified and said they could never condone anything like that. I think some legal weasel probably spent days researching what FARs we might have fractured. I told Hank Newman that I hoped he didn’t get in trouble for enabling that project and he just laughed.

Before I go on I want to tell you another story about an irate bureaucrat and a FLYING cover. I think the cover story was about conflicts between general aviation and airline aircraft. To make the cover we used an over the shoulder shot of a pilot in a Bonanza with a windshield full of DC-8.

Manipulating photographs was possible then but nowhere nearly as possible as later or now and the FAA guy who called me apparently didn’t know it was possible at all. He demanded to know where and when that picture was taken and if an incident report had been filed on the event. I just hung up.

The last photo mission that I participated in as Editor-in-Chief of FLYING had some interesting twists.

The subject airplane was a Beechjet. It had a new avionics package from Bendix/King that was a combination of EFIS and mechanical elements and Beech was interested in exposing the airplane to the public.

The first airplane with the new avionics had been sold and delivered to a customer. As was sometimes done, Beech arranged for me to fly that customer’s airplane and use it for photography. It was based in Morgantown, West Virginia.

The logistics were a bit of a challenge. I would be flying east from St. Louis where I had been doing some research in a DC-9 or MD-80 simulator. For a photo platform, I chartered a Baron 58 from Ronson Aviation at my home base of Trenton, N. J. I was using a staff photographer, Gordon Bowen, for this and he and another staff member were to get with the Baron at Trenton and fly to Morgantown.

It was early December and if you have ever spent any time hanging around the mountains of West Virginia at that time of the year you know then the weather is not exactly clear and sub-tropical and that the days are short.

The weather on the day of our project wasn’t outright hostile with a cloud deck over the area with relatively low tops. The deck was not thick enough for any ice to be a problem. As usual, it was turbulent below and in the clouds but smooth on top.

I flew the Beechjet to try out the new avionics system and it was really pretty crude compared to what would come next. Those first EFIS systems basically just substituted electronic for mechanical attitude and heading information while everything else remained mechanical. I wasn’t the only pilot who felt like the mixture of the two forms of display was less than ideal.

By the time the Baron arrived, I was getting antsy about time. Sunset waits for no man, the sun is low in the sky early at that time of the year, and I was looking frequently at my watch as they removed the doors from the Baron and prepared the airplane for the mission.

The drill was for the Baron to take off first with us following in the Beechjet. The professional pilot of that airplane was acting as a demo pilot for this mission. We didn’t consider taking off together and climbing to on top in formation because of the big difference on the two airplanes.

Air traffic control for that area was handled by Clarksburg approach control and my demo pilot had a little influence there. His wife was an air traffic controller at Clarksburg and was working that day. She would get us together with the Baron once we were both on top.

As soon as we were on top it was obvious that time was short. The beautiful low light was getting lower and would not be around for too long.

Once I called the Baron in sight I guess everyone relaxed. Everything was set. It wasn’t though. As I moved closer to join up with the Baron I was struck by the realization that the Baron looked a lot like a King Air 90. After a hasty conference with the controller we figured out that I had gone after the wrong airplane. The King Air was cruising through the area VFR on top and never knew that he almost had company.

We finally got to the Baron when there was maybe 15 minutes of good light left, joined up, and started making a shallow turn to the left to give photographer Gordon Bowen changing light to choose from. We might have made two 360s before the light was gone.

As short as the time was, we were rewarded with a strikingly beautiful cover for the April, 1988 issue of FLYING. I thought it was one of the best, if not the best cover of the time when I had the editorial responsibility for the magazine. The timing had been scarily close but all that counts is the final result.

Beechjet cover

After we landed and got the doors back on the Baron what I thought was an interesting thing happened. I was headed to Trenton, as was the Baron. It was night and a lot of the trip would be over mountains. I suggested that Gordon and the other staffer might want to fly home in the Baron but they chose the single-engine Cessna for the night trip over rough terrain.

Not all the photo missions that I was involved in were to take still pictures for magazines. After I left FLYING I worked at AOPA PILOT for 19 months and when the 50th Anniversary issue of that magazine was done I had completed what I had promised John Baker, then president of AOPA. I could have stayed but, to be honest, I was a magazine person not an association person and it was awkward for me to show such little interest in an important part of their business.

That’s a long way of telling you that when I retired from full-time magazine work I signed on part-time at Sporty’s to work on the many video projects that were being developed there.

One video mission that we did was related both to Sporty’s and the Department of Justice. I had been approached about being an expert witness for the DOJ and thought I would give it a try.

My first case involved a Cessna 210, on a charter flight with four rodeo cowboys on board, in the Pacific Northwest. That was before single-engine IFR was approved in air taxi operations so the 210 pilot was flying VFR in mountainous terrain in lousy conditions.

The pilot was talking to the controller who asked him if he had the mountain in sight. He was referring to Mount Rainier which would be hard to miss if you could see. Anyway, the pilot said he did have the mountain in sight. That was followed by a brief exchange on a heading to fly which was followed immediately by the airplane crashing into the side of Mount Rainier. The FAA was being sued because it was alleged that the accident was the fault of the controller.

My idea was to plot the path of the 210, put it in my KLN-89B GPS as a flight plan, and fly it while Mike Rosing of Sporty’s captured the view out front on video.

Mount Rainier
Mount Rainier may be easy to spot in good weather, but it was unforgiving when obscured.

Mount Rainier is a National Park. I was well aware of the sensitivity about such areas and got the approval of the ranger in charge to fly close to his mountain. I also took the U. S. Attorney from Seattle along as an observer.

Someone asked if I got FAA approval for the flight. I didn’t because I wouldn’t be flying closer than 500 feet to any vessel, vehicle or structure, I had the approval of the government agency in charge of the place, and I had the U. S. Attorney’s blessing for whatever that is worth.

The video was pretty spectacular and at the very location where he said he had the mountain in sight, the windshield was literally full of it. Lots of rocks and as soon as we reached that point I turned away from the mountain.

Settlements are not made public but I later heard that a seven figure suit was settled for an amount in the low five figures.

That was an interesting flight and project but I didn’t really like the thought of being an expert witness because in many or most cases what they want you to do is say what they need for you to say. On the Mount Rainier project I got to do what I thought would work and I doubted that would always be the case dealing with other DOJ lawyers.

We did a lot of air-to-air video at Sporty’s and I also did a lot of weather video, both by myself and with Mike Rosing who was in charge of Sporty’s video department at the time.

I wrote a book, Flying the Weather Map, in 1979 that met with reasonable success. (Commercial break: it is still available.) It showed the weather map for a trip plus a narrative that described the actual conditions encountered. This was done for the four seasons with multiple trips in each season.

They make books into movies in Hollywood so we decided we would do the same. The video series is now marketed by Sporty’s as “Advanced Weather Flying” and it is based on the same idea as the book only with video you can share both the weather synopsis and what it actually looked like from the airplane.

We flew a lot of dedicated trips for this project. When I would see what looked like a promising bit of weather I’d call Mike Rosing and he would either come to Maryland, where I was, or I would go to Ohio where he was and we would set out to capture the actual weather on video.

P210 boots with ice
Collins flew many flights for weather training videos, including this one to show deice boots in action.

One thing I especially wanted to show was ice and that was pretty easy to do. The Great Lakes are reliable airframe ice makers and I had dealt with the weather in the area enough over the years to know exactly how to use the lake effect clouds to best advantage.

The tops are usually around 18,000 feet on the lee side of the lakes when there is a strong northwesterly flow so we would, in my P210, head up that way at 17,000 feet. The most ice in clouds like that is usually close to the tops and conditions didn’t disappoint on the day we selected to take video of ice.

Air traffic controllers were quite cooperative, as they have always been on photo projects, and when we’d collect some photogenic ice we could pop into sunshine and take its picture. I think we also got footage of how dramatically the tops drop off as you move from the lee to the windward side of the lakes.

There is one discipline to shooting video of weather and it is that the first time is the one and only charm. There are no reshoots unless you rewind and fly the whole flight again and even then it would probably be different. That meant the camera was always rolling when in an interesting situation as well as in advance of what was expected to develop into an interesting situation.

We even got some good weather footage on that trip to the Seattle area to do the video of Mount Rainier for the DOJ.

It was always my desire in the magazine and video business to illustrate things with the best possible photography. That could get expensive at times but I always thought it was worth it and spent pretty freely on a lot of photo projects. Just ask the old bean-counters. I could at times make them squirm.

It was fun, too. Having a photo mission go as planned and result in a formation flight with another airplane (or two or three) as the sun rose or set put the participants in a place of serene beauty and it was rewarding to share that with our readers and viewers. I have wonderful memories of all that stored safely away. It was a thought that I often had, but on some of those flights I knew I had the best job in the world.

18 Comments

  • Hello, Mr. Collins. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. Your comment about knowing you had the best job in the world on some of the flights shines through in the vividness of your telling. Thanks!

    • If you would enjoy some photo mission fun, look at the YouTube video on the formation flight of five Airbus A350s, It is really neat.

  • Hey, Dick, lay off the Ivy League, wouldja? (Rarified/Rarefied.) I (Harvard) was long gone to freelancing, George Larson (Harvard) was out on the West Coast and had nothing to do with writing cover lines, Peter Garrison (Harvard) never wrote cover blurbs, and Jack Olcott (Princeton) never had anything to do with matters editorial anyway. Or maybe he did, so can we blame it on him?

    Anyway, that misspelling would never have gotten past me for a Cambridge minute.

    Susan and I are thriving and both of us think often, and with truly great fondness, of our time working with you. Consider this a group hug!

  • As a reader of both Flying and AOPA,I really missed you at Flying(but enjoyed you in AOPA)during those 19 months even cancelled my subscription,and later after renewing the very first issue you were back!Was lucky enough to get to meet you in person at AOPA headquarters during a flight in our B100 King Air.

  • Richard..you continue to amaze. Dittos to the laudatory comments above.

    In our 15 minutes of fame, 1968 EAA Convention, Rockford, Ill, (moved in 1970 to Oshkosh), my buddy and fellow homebuilder Tom, a fellow CFI, had in-flight formation photos taken by famed aerial photog Howard Levy after we garnered the top awards that year…Tom’s Grand Champion D’Apuzzo Senior Aerosport and mine, as First Runnerup.

    After landing, Howard gave us a big lift by stating that we were the best subjects he’d ever photographed…that we responded precisely to his hand signals. That made our day.

    Later that year I was on the centerfold of “Air Progress”, and both of us, in formation, cover of Bill Sweet’s “The Flyer”, and me on cover of “Sport Aviation”, Nov.’68. Great memories. jim, EAA 6886- Lifetime….. now 83 years ‘young’.

  • Continued VFR. Remember reading that like it was yesterday. Thank you Dick for your awesome (even if sometimes painfully truthful) writing.

  • That Rarified Air article and photo jumped out at me. One of my favourites and from early in my (pre-IFR) flying days it conjured up all the same thoughts I had back then. After many years and shifting locations I had long since lost the magazine when I began thinking about it a couple of years ago. Thanks to Google and eBay I was able to obtain a very crisp second hand copy, which is now safely tucked away. Thanks Richard and Russell for all the fine work.

  • I read it top to bottom and enjoyed it very much. In my first year as a pilot I took my wife, sister, and brother in law to the Grand Canyon. We flew out over the canyon at about 1200 feet above the rim with a tailwind. It was unforgetable.

  • My Book “Pilot Logbook Lies And More” covers every flight from solo to retirement.Many of the flights are detailed weather research flight.

  • That’s exactly the way it was, Richard. I cherish those fights we had together. The way you arranged the “Continued VFR” flights was something only you could have done to allow us to get the pictures safely. Our hope was to show what it looked like out the windshield just before it was too late. To the best of my knowledge that had never been done before, and I hope we convinced some pilots to back off before they got to that point. Many of the flights we did together provided more beautiful photographs, but none were more important in my mind than “Continued VFR.” I was proud to be a contributor to your achievement.

    My thanks for that, and all the other flights we had that come flooding back after reading your piece. (Remember the night we picked up an ungodly amount of ice in your Cardinal RG trying to get to OKC? You described it in one of your books. You were cool as a cucumber. “Well, we’ll just use full power and a little extra airspeed on final.” I was never worried with you in the left seat.)

    Russ

  • I flew many a photo mission during my years at Piper. The PA-32 Cherokee Six and PA-34 Seneca with the back door removed were very good platforms…I recall that you and I flew together in the Cheyenne III, Dick….and it made the FLYING cover….

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