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person sitting in film studio

That’s me in the FAA Alaska video lab in 1985…we used ¾ inch video tape back then! Great collateral duty for an Air Traffic Control Specialist!

I have been into photography and video almost as long as I have been “into” aviation.  My first flight was when my mother carried me on a trip to Nome, Alaska.  The first cool toy I can remember as a toddler was a wind-up Cessna floatplane that I played with in the bathtub.  No wonder I find our Cessna today so happily calming whenever I pause to look it over.  As a youngster, I had a Brownie camera that used 127 film.  One of my first purchases earned from my job as a 10 year old newspaper boy was a Super8 movie camera.

Yes, that all really dates me, but after flying and making videos off and on for decades, I have (somewhat belatedly) reached a major personal game changing life event in videography and flying: the acquiring of a 360 camera.

Some 360 Camera Particulars  

Whoa, what’s the big deal with a 360 camera?  Well, they capture imagery all around them.  Up, down, front, back!  First off, for the aerial videographer, they provide enhanced safety followed closely by exciting new perspectives and views.  360s have been around for quite a while now.  Knowing about them from reading or hearing about them or even seeing weird fisheye cavorting imagery or experiencing virtual reality goggles is one thing.  Scrolling around Google Street View pictures provides a taste of 360 capability.  Finding out how 360 cameras can enable a single pilot/camera operator to accomplish something that formerly may have required a separate camera plane, is what happened after I got a 360 camera.  At the very least 360s can replace a separate camera person, multiple cameras, as well as motorized gimbles, control cabling, custom made mounts, open windows, camera ports and “mucho dineros” pursuing a “holy grail” shot.

A Safety Enhancement

pilot flying

Screen shot stills from video of cockpit interiors, shot with one stationary 360 camera’s rear lens looking backwards.

And who ever mentions safety in the same breath as 360 cameras?  Understand, they are fundamentally a safety enhancing tech advance.  Has anyone ever flown a somewhat unusual attitude to get a dramatic aerial shot, or fixated on a target instead of flying the airplane?  Cockpit distractions can be reduced.  Now, with a 360, pilots wouldn’t have to jockey around like that or be distracted.  All angles and points of view are captured in flight and edited from the digital files once safely on the ground.

The 360 Key:  Dual Lenses

How does 360 do what it does?  A GoPro Max 360 camera, for example, has Nittoh Z600 194° dual fisheye lenses, one facing forward and one facing rearward, with some overlying coverage, so each records more than 180 degrees and thus, through the miracle of “stitching” can record a full 360 degrees field of view.  Look up, down, back, forward, sideways, take your pick.   Envision a globe, a perfect sphere, made with two half shells with edges that overlap and, when placed together (stitched) form a complete globe, with all the continents where they should be, (that is what stitching the video from the two lenses does) seamlessly providing a “’round the world” floating view from the camera and, if properly positioned even eliminating sight of the mount or “pole” the camera is attached to.

A Few Seconds for Safety:  Remember, there have been accidents, including fatals due to irresponsible use of action cameras or cell phone cameras in the cabin.  For example, the Marines in 2022 provided this narrative:  “A personal GoPro device was found at the [fatal] crash site, and the recovered footage shows it was in use as the aircraft conducted low-altitude maneuvers in the Grâtâdalen Valley. Such devices are prohibited on grounds that they can incentivize risk taking and serve as a distraction;  that may have been the case with Ghost 31.”  Another earlier and selfie related narrative from the NTSB report on the fatal accident of Cessna N7275G:  “The GoPro recordings revealed that the pilot and various passengers were taking self-photographs with their cell phones and, during the [previous (ed.)] night flight, using the camera’s flash function during the takeoff roll, initial climb, and flight in the traffic pattern…Based on the evidence of cell phone use during low-altitude maneuvering, including the flight immediately before the accident flight, it is likely that cell phone use during the accident flight distracted the pilot and contributed to the development of spatial disorientation and subsequent loss of control.”   An RAF Voyager, the UK military variant of the Airbus A330 suffered a loss of 4400 feet of altitude in 27 seconds (with a maximum rate of descent of 15,800 feet per minute) while carrying nearly 200 persons.  The cause of the pitch-down event was “an inadvertent physical input to the Captain’s side-stick, by means of a physical obstruction (a camera) that jammed between the left armrest and the side-stick unit when the Captain’s seat was motored forward.”  While the camera was an SLR and not a smaller action camera, there are similarities applicable to the need to be aware of and mitigate non-operational loose cockpit clutter and their associated unexpected hazards.

Air to Air shot the old-fashioned way: My Piper Colt over glacier in 1989.

Single Ship Air to Air?

To attain full ship views that look like they were taken by a camera plane in formation with your aircraft, a pole mount would be needed.  The pole, if extended outward ahead of the main structure of the plane, with the 360 camera at the tip, can provide the perspectives previously available aloft only from a camera ship.  Beware, that these (and all) mounts must be carefully evaluated for safety and regulatory compliance, and frankly, may be more bother than the sometimes spectacular results they facilitate.  The majority of footage to be recorded may need not require the pole, or for that matter a 360, but for the whole airplane “air to air” look, there is no single ship alternative to the pole mount.  The 360 shines because it can function in multiple modes, from stills to video with omni or uni-directional aiming, as desired, as well as wide to telephoto capabilities.

Responsibility and liability must always be kept in mind, with safety the foremost consideration:  “First, do no harm!”,  are words that will help to keep you out of trouble.  Common sense should prevail…and regardless after verifying negligible effects on flight handling, make sure you doubtless know that your camera will not become a detached and deadly object raining down mercilessly on an unsuspecting public below unlike the famous sky diver’s GoPro that detached aloft from a helmet and landed in a muddy pigsty, all the while recording the event (luckily with no harm to humans or animals).  Your license will thank you.  (14 CFR 91.13 – Careless or reckless operation).

Why I “Fell” for 360s!

For me, the most important attribute of these 360 cameras and their capabilities (most of which I haven’t even touched on here) are the game changing effects on my pleasure flying that I mentioned early in this report.  I have literally re-opened my backyard (local) flying areas to a new excitement and now see familiar settings with a revived sense of interest and even joy in exploring the same areas I have flown around regularly.  Granted, I live in Alaska and it is as spectacular in its wildness and natural beauty as any place on earth, so I am blessed, to be sure.

Nonetheless, no matter where you fly, there are new perspectives to live your dreams and to capture and share them with 360 video!

Happy Flight Dreams!

Marshall Severson
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