Photo always makes the world look different. No matter haw we try to tell a story it always looks better with the photo to tag along. I fly a lot of aerial pics and I try not to think about ending up like this. But when I am in the air the beauty of what is below overtakes my other thoughts...
The Heights We Shall Miss For Fear of Falling Down. Thursday May 15th, 2003 was a crystal clear spring day. The sun was shining in a near cloudless sky as the morning air was warming into the 60's. This was the perfect day for a two-plus hour photo flight. I had 8 locations scheduled near the New York / Connecticut border that I had plotted the previous evening. My Pentax 67 and lenses were in my bag along with 20 rolls of Kodak 400VC 220.
I arrived at the airport to greet the pilot, whom I was meeting for the first time. We quickly went over the flight plan and made our way to the tarmac to board the Schweizer 269C helicopter. I had flown in this type of three-bladed helicopter before and I really liked it as a shooting platform. For a small two-seat helicopter, it had power and felt very stable. Mike, the pilot, went over his pre-flight check list which included checking my seat belt - he reached across me to straighten one of the straps of my three-part harness.
After lifting from the pad and communicating our intentions to the tower, we flew to the south through the valley, climbing through one thousand feet and into beautiful views in every direction. The long island sound, numerous lakes, houses, ranch communities and distant mountain ranges were all around us. This was one of those rare severe-clear days when visibility at altitude is over 100 miles in every direction. The sky was so crisp in fact, that I could see the Empire State Building and Manhattan nearly 50 miles away quite clearly.
We found our first three locations (we call them targets) with out a problem, but the next one was difficult (this was just before we started using GPS to make locating targets easier as the norm) and we zig-zagged and orbited over a wooded area for nearly 10 minutes before we found our bearings. Feeling quite satisfied upon completion of this target, I began to make conversation with my new friend as I changed out another roll of film, and we once again climbed and turned south east to find our four remaining targets.
I thanked Mike for his excellent flying - he was so smooth and consistent in his orbit of the property that we flew through our own wake as we made circles in the sky. I said "Wow what a beautiful day!" and Mike replied in a very calm pilot's voice, "We have a problem."
I heard the weakening whir of the engine and rotors in my headset as we lost RPMs. We quickly began to fall from 1,200 feet in a steep left hand turn. I began to stow my gear and lenses in my bag - doing my job while I let the pilot do his. When I looked up again only seconds later, the scene that had once been a limitless horizon, was now roof tops, swimming pools, power lines and trees. I gripped my bag and stared straight ahead as we flew 20 feet off the ground into the back yard of a home where landscapers were mowing, hedging and watching us fly by.
Mike tried to slow us down so we could land in the grass by pulling back on the controls to flare the helicopter - but we were too high and too fast - so he let the nose settle as we flew straight for the trees that bordered the property. I remember the rest in slow motion as vividly as if it happened today.
My bag in my lap, my right hand gripping the outer frame of the door-less helicopter, my view in the windscreen was rapidly filled with a wall of trees. We were about 10 feet off the deck when Mike tickled the nose a little bit to the right to avoid hitting a tree head on as we entered the woods. The engine was silent, and the wind over the blades was the only sound until the rotors made contact with the web of branches with a massive -CRACK- breaking the silence.
We immediately fell to the earth with another massive -CRACK- as I witness the glass windscreen break and separate from the panel as we impacted violently with a rock-scraping thud, rolled over to the left in a cloud of leaves, branches and dirt. I heard Mike say SH*T in my headset within the sound of twisting metal, flying rocks, gravel, glass and branches as we rolled.
Then there was silence. I don't know if I blacked out for a second, but the next thing I remember seeing was pavement, paper maps and glass and leaves all over my camera bag and lenses, which were scattered on the ground just below me. I then saw sneakers and the cuff of jeans. It was Mike, his training had kicked in, and he was already out of the helicopter assessing the situation while I was hanging nearly upside down in my harness. He yelled, "Get out - Get Out We're Leaking Fuel!" In a single deft move, I un-clipped, rolled and landed on my feet - climbing out of the front glass, scooping my camera gear and bag as I cleared the wreck, having visions of Reality TV car fires in my head.
Thankfully a fire never started as Mike grabbed a bucket from on site within seconds to capture the fuel. The landscapers and other witnesses now began encircling the scene as I grabbed my camera, loaded a roll of film and bent the mangled metal film door back into place. I heard sirens in the distance as I quickly walked around the aircraft and made several exposures. The first police officer on the scene, thinking I was the media, asked "how did you get here so fast?" I said " I came here in that!" pointing to the helicopter. He grabbed me by the arm and asked me to sit with Mike to wait for medical attention. Mike was in obvious discomfort and was complaining of pain in his lower back.
Within minutes every emergency service within 10 miles was on scene and we were ushered by ambulance to the nearest hospital for further evaluation. The rest of the day is kind of a blur - with interviews for the doctors, police, FAA and NTSB taking up most of our time at the hospital. Mike and I both walked way with lower back injuries - but are otherwise fine and still flying together 8 years later.
Mike told me that day that he promised himself he would retire if he ever had an incident - after 30 years this had been his first. Even though I did not know him very well, I knew pilots, and I sensed that he would continue to fly, and he did. The following week Mike and I were up again in a different helicopter flying on the New York /Connecticut border. We still had four targets to photograph and we needed to fly.
Mike and I have flown hundreds of hours together since our forced-landing. We have flown over 40 monthly shoots at the construction of the New Yankee Stadium. We have flown at dusk in Manhattan around the Empire State Building and Time Square, and in early mornings over the beaches of Long Island. We have flown in the hot summer and cold, cold winters at minus 8 degrees with the doors off. We have flown double dates with my Fiancee and Mike's girl. I simply can't imagine never flying again.
Flying is living - it is a part of life for me. Earlier that day I saw a quote attributed to Leonardo da Vinci pinned above the calendar on Mike's office wall. "When once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return." I'd like to add "The Heights We Shall Miss For Fear of Falling Down". My perspective and priorities were forever changed on that day, having faced what easily could have turned out badly a hundred different ways. One thing that was crystallized for me in this experience is the fact that life may be here one second and gone the next. It is important to live as large as we can dream and to share and experience this amazing gift with as many people, as fully as we can, while we are all here together.
Get Out There and FLY!