“Gerry?” I heard him shout, “over here” as I turned to look over my right shoulder, a hundred feet away I spot a tall athletic-looking fellow in shorts, polo shirt and cap, waving me over. “Lance?” I questioned out loud. He was standing next to a small whisp of a plane; he towered over it. As I walked across the soggy grass, soaked from the tropical storm that poured all last night, my only thought was ‘hmmm, Jurassic dragonflies were bigger – where in that little red model airplane was I going to sit – much less photograph?’ Actually, maybe the photography would be easy from my seat outside on the wing?
I think Lance get’s that look often – he offered a gentle smile and welcoming outstretched hand. And then he smiled a bit wryly and said, “This is your seat.” I laughed out loud, simultaneously saying, “here” while looking for another seat. There was none.
Lance’s plane is a Citabria 7ECA – Bellanca – for those of us that don’t speak areoplano that translates directly to “really small” – my tandem bicycle is almost bigger. The little Citabria Lance tells me is an older design, although his is a newer plane. They were designed as a trainer with great acrobatic characteristics – which Lance explains for me means it can fly pretty slow, and still stay aloft. Cool, there’s one advantage I suppose.
As we focus on my needs and go through options on opening the left window and how I am going to photograph around the double strut dropping down from the wing at 45 degrees to join the cloth-skinned fuselage just below my feet, I mentally make decisions – no camera bags and no extras. The only luxury was a bottle of water.
I have never been fortunate enough, e.g. rich enough, to only use one kind of aircraft for aerials. One in which I could work out all the perfect photographic details and lock them in. Since the bulk of my career has been spent far off the FFA chart of standard aircraft, in countries where people still fly by the seat of their pants, I am constantly making game-time decisions. For today’s game – two 7D bodies, each with a 16gig card, one with 18-200mm, the other 70-200mm – at a starting point of ISO250. And a pair of extra 8gig cards in the pocket. That combination would yield shutter speeds in and around 1/1000sec @ f/5.6-8. A major factor in that decision was the change 48 hours ago by the Feds, who have strangled the airspace over Gulf coast oil spill areas – real or imagined, they dropped restrictions from 3,000 to 1,000 feet in less sensitive areas, 2,000 elsewhere. Now we could fly lower, closer, but realistically not enough.
As we both squeeze in, me directly behind Lance, and start to taxi the 50 feet to take-off, Lance mentions over the roar of the prop, “you’ll need to watch the stick”, I was, it was dancing around between my legs like a samba dance at Carnival – he assured me once airborne that would not be a issue.
Rumbling down the soggy grass strip which looks like it was cut from the cicada buzzing forest just for the diminutive Citabria, I can only guess about lift-off, I can’t see a thing but the back of Lance’s head. Maybe that’s a good thing. The little bird takes flight and we are instantly climbing above the sprawling city of New Orleans – or as Dire Straits sang it, “… the planet of a new orleans.”
Just east of the city and the muddy cafe au lait colored Mississippi River wetlands – swamp – consumes the landscape and Lance points out the refuge unceremoniously forgotten now, exactly five years ago after Hurricane Katrina spun the delta and city into a deluge. Satellite imaging of the event are impressive as she invited herself up the river from the Gulf and sat over the city. Below us shipping containers and single-wide mobile homes lay tossed like kid’s blocks in the wetlands. Like most things in Louisiana no one wants, the wetlands become the dumping grounds. Outta sight, outta mind. (See my other Gulf blog for another take on that phrase.)
This debris while not on my official shoot list for the National Audubon Society does give the first opportunity to pop open the window and see what I’m up against photographically. To my surprise the rush of air sweeping under the wing holds the window clear and after a few exchanges with Lance he has a decent non-strut blocked view for me to work – and we’re slow.
One of the things I have learned on light planes which applies to choppers as well is there is a ‘sweet spot’ were your angle to shoot and space just prior to the ripping force of the wind sweeping past can be maximized. The beauty in that sweet spot is slower shutter speed and less wind blasting the side of your face. The face thing may not sound like a big deal, but after a flight like our which will extend well over three hours, your face, especially your eyes, can be pretty fatigued.
After a couple of detours to document entangle oil spill boom storm pushed into the marshes and a line of linked shipping barges fringed with boom in a desperate attempt by BP and some agency, to be named later, to block potential oil entering large dredged canals.
Ahead the Chandeleur and Breton Islands. This was ground zero for shore bound oil. Reportedly this place was a mess, the kind no media was allowed to see. As we pass over the reports of the islands demise appear exaggerated, but BP contract clean up crews are crawling over sand and sea. Boom lines every cove, outwash and passage, Breton is completely encircled, twice. The 18-200mm is the preferred lens as I flip between tight shots of the clean up impact and and the arching sweep of the islands and the new disaster under construction – a giant sea berm. The state of Louisiana was just approved another $60 million to continue the construction. It’s the priority on this flight. At the wider angles – 18-30mm – I can still get between the struts and pull in the sweep of the growing berm and the east end of the Chandeleurs. I’m partial to wide angles if at all possible. From helicopters they are mandatory since you can get lower and tighter to the subject. If they can work from planes they render the advantage of allowing you to shoot at much lower shutter speed – as low as 1/30sec.
Over the next hour we finished the islands and headed west and then straight up the MRGO leading directly into New Orleans. MRGO is a dredging disaster, like the sea berm, human folly. Nature doesn’t permit straight lines. After a series of wide-angle shots illustrating the rocky barriers corralling the channel Lance says were over three hours and need to wrap it up. East of the channel the wetland has escaped bureaucratic meddling the waterways serpentine in graceful elegant loops and oxbows. I took advantage of the Citabria’s crystal right rear window – photographing purely for me.
One final item – make certain you have a hand cloth to wipe lenses. Depending on the conditions lenses fog with humidity, are magnets for the one errant droplet, or believe it or not, bird ploppings (how random is that?).
I would like to thank Lance Rydberg and the folks at SouthWings especially Caroline, for making the flight possible. Lance donates his time to the nonprofit organization called SouthWings, their motto – ‘conservation through aviation’. Pilots like Lance donate their planes and time and SouthWings matches them to conservation efforts.