From my previous articles, I think it’s apparent to both fans and occasional readers that I’m relatively obsessive when it comes to matters of aviation photography.
Helicopter spotting is not new; far from it. Friends of mine are pioneers of helicopter-borne aviation photography, but I had never really considered it to be viable in the Pacific Northwest.
Turns out that I was wrong – very, very, wrong.
Robinson has been the helicopter manufacturer of choice for training, leisure, and personal helicopter ownership for many. Their R-22 series (“Beta” for standard and “Mariner” for the ability to legally affix floats) has set the standard for what it means to be a “light helicopter” in the 21st century. Better still, the doors are removable.
All this can be yours for an MSRP of around $276k.
Until recently, I had never flown aboard (or even next to) anything missing its doors. Honestly, the last time I had been on a helicopter was during the mid-90’s and that was an Eurocopter AS350. The R-22 seemed more like 800lbs of noise, vibration, and fear than an actual aircraft. Rationally, I knew that the tube-based construction was perfectly stable, and that the Lexan bubble canopy was rigid and scratch-proof, but it’s rare to get airborne in something that weighs less than a Smart car. It’s disconcerting when you see a helicopter pushed forward by a single person with no more effort required than a common wheelbarrow.
The first time I flew in an R-22, it had spent the day baking in the sun. I asked my pilot whether or not being doorless and ascending would cool things off – he assured me that would not be the case. He was right! Even with the massive downdraft from the two rotor blades, and the fact that we were at 1200′, it actually got warmer.
Legroom seemed infinite and would be comfortable for even the tallest passenger. There are no seat backs to worry about. I also doubt that anyone would be able to have their feet reach the canopy. The seats themselves are well-padded too. It is a comfortable, albeit narrow helicopter.
Takeoff was surprising, as it is not a lateral acceleration that pushes you back into your seat, but rather a vertical acceleration that pushes you down into the cushion. Anyone who has been in a Cessna or similar light aircraft is familiar with the engine and its sound. It is a very automotive noise, probably from the existence of a gearbox. Deafeningly loud? Sadly, no. I mentioned that I am an AvGeek that loves loud aircraft right?
The other thing you don’t realize about flying doorless until you do it is the strength of the rotorwash. Even though you should never hang outside the helicopter, or even put your lens out the doorframe, when wearing short sleeves it feels as if someone is bashing you across your arm with thousands of tiny hammers (I’m guessing that I am in the minority for thinking just how awesome that was). But trust me, it was amazing! Having had this happen twice now, I still would not suggest a jacket during the summer – even though it might offer a small layer of protection, you may get too warm.
The amazing part would come about fifteen minutes later: Arriving at Paine Field (PAE) from above is much more fun than driving up to the Future of Flight Museum’s parking lot.
It was a truly magical experience. There were no more obstacles for shots due to hills, walls, or buildings. That being said, what can actually be photographed comes down to factors of pilot assertiveness, accommodating air traffic control, and an empty pattern.
While my first Classic Helicopters pilot was polite, skilled, and helpful, he had nothing on local aviation legend, and skilled sushi chef, Daiichi “Taki” Takeuchi. With his experience at the controls, we were able to put the little R-22 Mariner through its paces over PAE. Hovers, orbits, and darting over the flight line in between circuit-bashing Cessnas. He made sure that I was able to get every shot I wanted, and even some I had forgotten about until I saw the aircraft from above.
Shooting from a helicopter is just like shooting from the ground. Well, there are a few perks. Cloudy skies are no longer a bane, they merely turn the ramp into a giant lightbox to better highlight the aircraft. The main benefit, however, is that it just feels so exceptionally professional to be shooting from above.
The flight home is always a good experience, what with the stress of making sure I got the shot gone. I get to sit back and enjoy the experience of flying doorless for a few more blissful minutes.
It’s a nice change from driving home in Seattle’s infamous traffic.