Saturday, January 19, 2019

Is my pilot safe? - Part 1

I often get frustrated with "big-name" aviation photographers who talk about securing that "first air-to-air" and give advice without actually passing along anything concrete in their blog posts.  Recently one of these individuals decided to pontificate on how to secure that first air to air photo mission safely.
Let me paraphrase what he said:

“Take some ground photos - make a print – give it to a pilot – because of that you will meet and get to know them – then you can determine if they are safe to fly with.”

Sadly, that leaves a lot up to interpretation.  If we are assuming that you are new to aviation, and specifically air-to-air photography, how will you evaluate this prospective air-to-air photo pilot as you “get to know them”?

One of the first things that I learned years ago as an Aviation Safety officer is that the “gut feelings” of an inexperienced individual were often misleading and dangerous for them to rely on.  In most cases one of two polar opposites happened.  Either they experienced fear when there was no increase in danger, or they had a false sense of security when the situation became risky.  I won’t delve into the psychology of those two situations, but the point that an aviation photographer should take away is that their “gut feeling” about a pilot is no way to assess the risk to life and limb when going flying!

So, what can we rely on?

The need to evaluate a relatively unknown pilot fairly quickly is nothing new in aviation.  Pilots in a variety of situations (commercial, military, flight instructors, etc) all have to be able to quickly take stock of the individual they are flying with in order to build a set of limits that they are going to put around that person’s piloting skills.  There are a lot of pilots who may be qualified or experienced to conduct a photo mission with you, but that doesn't mean they are safely prepared to fly the mission!

Pilot briefing before a photoflight at Oshkosh
The first and best way to evaluate your pilot as a photographer is via the brief they give.  While it is called a “brief”, it should be thorough and cover every action from strapping into the aircraft, through the different parts of the flight, and all the way to engine shutdown.  If a pilot just says to you, “I’ve got this, let’s just go fly”, the odds are that there may be a part of the flight they haven’t thought through in detail, which can be a significant safety hazard to everyone!  As you “get to know” a pilot, you should have several opportunities to see how they brief, well before you ever get into an air-to-air formation flight with them.  Once you are ready to do that first air-to-air flight, make sure you leave enough time in your schedule for the pilot to give you and the other flight members a thorough formation brief, and certainly don't pressure them to get airborne quickly for you to start your photoshoot!

However, it isn't just the pilot's brief that can clue you in on their suitability for an air-to-air photo mission.  In our next blog post, we will talk about a second way to learn more about your prospective pilot, and how to set yourself up for the best chance of a safe and successful photo mission.

Part 2 continues - HERE

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