Not your typical photo shoot

April 17, 2008 by Steven W. Ells, Associate Editor

AOPA Pilot senior photographer Mike Fizer and I tumbled into a rented Dodge Minivan–it takes a lot of equipment to richen up a website–at 5 a.m. this morning. We needed to get in a full photo shoot including inflight shots of a Piper PA-12 before the weather forecast came true. We had tried to get our shots on Wednesday evening but the winds were howling. The site? The Hartford,  Wisconsin, (HXF) airport northwest of Milwaukee. The forecast wasn’t very promising but we had no choice but to try again the next morning.

When we arrived just before dawn there was no wind, few clouds and 50 mile visibility. There was even a very high overcast that diffused the sunlight–perfect conditions for a photo shoot. Fizer loaded his equipment, lenses, and memory cards into the pilot’s seat position of a local pilot’s Cessna 172. Most inflight photos are taken from the copilot’s side of the photo airplane so these shots would present a change from the norm.  As I flew the 1947 Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser owned by Romy Baus we climbed to 1,000 feet agl, maneuvered into position, and Fizer started shooting.

The Diana Cream and Tennesee Red paint scheme on the Super Cruiser provided a vivid contrast to the muted colors of the Wisconsin landscape as we flew in formation following the familiar routine of a shoot–multiple 360 degree turns to the left followed by multiple 360s to the right followed by hand signal directions to move up, move down, move aft, move forward. Any photo pilot with a few shoots in his logbook will be wearing a good pair of sunglasses because there’s always a series of shots when the photo ship is positioned directly up sun from the subject airplane, thus forcing the subject airplane pilot to maintain separation while looking directly into the sun. The key to flying formation for me is to remember to breathe.

By 9:30 a.m. we had finished the inflight photos and most of the ground shots–a PA-12 looks at home sitting on a grass runway–and were down at the Mineshaft restaurant enjoying our breakfast with three of the local pilots. Then it was back to the airport for a few interior shots before thanking the great gang at the Hartford airport for their help. Hartford is a real friendly grass-roots airport. Of the 115 airplanes based there, about 85 are low and slow tailwheel airplanes. The  2,500 feet long by 200 feet wide grass runway provides a perfect training and play ground for tailwheel flyers.  


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