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Flying for Pegasus

One of my favorite things about my job is when I get to visit the helicopter bases and cover for pilots on vacation. It gets me out of the office, and without having to conduct training or checkrides, I actually get to fly! And its for just long enough that it stays exciting and doesn't feel like actual work. And of course, I always carry my camera and leave at least a half a at the end of the trip for a small photo adventure.

This time, I get to go work for the University of Virginia Hospital's Pegasus life flight helicopter. I am covering for a pilot who has taken a vacation to Spain, and I'm on night shifts. At the start of shift I preflight the helicopter to make sure everything looks mechanically sound and brief with the medical crew on the weather conditions and other pertinent information for the night. After the start of shift duties and paperwork is complete, we have down time while we wait for a call. I have been reading lately about 'painting with light' photography techniques, and decide to give it a go. I take my tri pod and my mag light out to where the helicopter is parked on the ramp of the CHO airport. I have my Nikon D7200 with me, so I can link it up to my phone as a remote shutter release.

First, I played around a bit with landing airliners and got a few fun shots. When I used to instruct in a simulator we would print out the flight path after an instrument approach to see how well a pilot could keep the helicopter on the localizer course. The results of painting the light trails of airplanes on final approach had similar results, some had very squiggly lines while others came straight on in. I picked my two favorite. The first one had the best straight approach and consistent glide path. The second photo is much more chaotic as another plane was taxiing in while the next one is landing, this makes the whole scene much brighter and multiple light paths.

Nikon D7200 28mm f18 157sec ISO 100

Nikon D7200 38mm, f18 607sec, ISO 100

Next, I set the tripod in front of the helicopter and released the shutter while I ran around the helicopter shinning the mag light to highlight different spots. The mag light is not the ideal light source as sometimes the beam was too narrow and it literally made lines of light rather than illuminating the surface evenly. A handheld flash is definitely on my amazon wish list. However, the effect of the mag light is still kind of cool. A lot of the pictures have little light bugs from the reflective strips on my flight suit or from me accidentally pointing the light at the camera, still kind of a fun effect in some of the shots. The first couple times that I tried to illuminate the cockpit and cabin it came out looking like an angel of something was giving birth side or two demented fairies were having a fight. For the perfect photo, I could add them all as layers in photoshop and mask out the bad bits, however, since I was just having fun I'll post my tries individually. On one of them I even rotated the blades and illuminated them to make it look like the helicopter had more than four blades. My favorite photo is one where an airplane taxied by behind the helicopter while I was painting. Scroll though the photos below to see my progression as I learned to paint with light.

Shortly after my experiment with the tripod and flashlight, we received our first call of the night. With the weather starting to deteriorate, I filed an IFR flight plan to the small hospital to the Southeast and the crew and I headed out. The great thing about IFR helicopter is the ability to fly an instrument approach to a point in space. On the way down, we broke out around 1000ft AGL and proceeded from the missed approach point visually for half a mile to the hospital helipad. On the return leg to UVA it was just after midnight and the Potomac approach frequency was eerily quiet. Usually when we fly IFR we end up climbing high enough to break out on top of the clouds so we can at least see the moon and stars, but this time I was low enough so that the entire trip was in the clouds which feels like you've been swallowed up by a dark cotton ball. The medical crew are at work in the back, so it feels like I am alone, and time almost stands still. The approach into UVA is parallel to but about 2000 ft beneath the approach into the CHO airport. As I am passing the initial approach fix, I hear the last airline flight into CHO call up Potomac Approaching seeking their clearance. The controller cannot clear them for their final approach until I have broken out and cancelled mine, so he starts asking me if I have the hospital in sight, which I do not. I imagine a big airliner somewhere above me wondering what the heck a little helicopter is doing down there below them in the clouds following some mysterious approach guidance to a postage stamp rooftop helipad. About half a mile prior to the Missed approach point and at about 800ft AGL, I start to spot ground lights and shortly after that see the lights of downtown CHO and the Hospital helipad. I call up to let them know I am VFR and the controller quickly notifies the airliner that he is good to go. I bid them both a good night, and start my descent to the roof.

While the medical crew is down inside the hospital I pull out my tripod and take a few shots. The hospital is adding a major new wing to its facilities and there is a large crane that extends a hundred feet above the pad. The crane does not actually infringe in the space above the pad, but I find it interesting how the perspective makes it look like it does. At night when the crane is not in operation, it is left free to windmill (locking the boom down could cause the whole thing to collapse in strong winds). Therefore it acts like a giant windsock, compared to the tiny illuminated aviation windsock on the roof by the pad. The crane is rarely pointing straight toward the helipad so I enjoyed this opportunity to get a photo with the visual illusion of the crane being right overhead.

Pegasus helicopter on the UVA rooftop helipad and crane in the background

Nikon D7200 11mm f4 10sec ISO100

Pegasus helicopter with light painting heart

The rooftop helipad provides a stunning view of the University of Virginia campus. In the back ground of this photo you can see the famous rotunda.

University of Virginia at Night

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