Aviation Smiles

Pilot Gerry Flaugher of Poplar Grove, Ill., flies a Ford Tri-Motor over Valparaiso, Ind., during a demonstration flight originating from the Porter County Regional Airport in Valparaiso, Ind., Monday, October 3, 2011. The aircraft, built in 1929, is one of seven left in the world that is still able to fly.

Whenever I have a photo assignment that involves flying, there’s a common theme that runs through every FBO I walk into. Everyone is always smiling and in a good mood! For those not obsessed with aviation lingo, an FBO at an airport is a “fixed base operator” — basically a company that provides services for airplanes and pilots. They’re places where a pilot can purchase fuel, rent a car, grab a snack, check the weather, or just sit down and relax. Whether pilots at FBO’s are just starting their journeys or taking breaks from one, it seems to be a rare occurrence to encounter one with a salty disposition.

Last week, when I had the opportunity to fly in and document the EAA’s 1929 Ford Tri-Motor at the Porter County Regional Airport, I was reminded where these good moods originate from. Sitting shotgun next to pilot Gerry Flaugher, I held on to my cameras as we began our takeoff roll down runway 36. Almost instantly, the tail of the big old metal bird lifted off the runway, with the entire plane following just a few seconds later. It’s without a doubt the quickest takeoff — using the least amount of runway — I’ve experienced in any aircraft, and the uneasy sensation of going seemingly way-too-slow to be flying put a big smile on my face! Being able to hang my arm out of the open cockpit window gave me the sensation of relaxing in a car traveling down the highway, only this highway was a thousand feet above the ground.

After photographing pilot Gerry at the controls, along with our passengers behind us, I took a few minutes to chat with him through the headset about his career in aviation. Gerry spent the majority of his career flying private jets around the world. In addition to corporate executives, he flew four U.S. presidents, along with the late Mother Teresa on six different occasions (that being his admitted highlight of his time in the skies). With a passenger roster like that, I’d have a smile on my face too!

When our flight was through, and the propellers came to rest, I walked back to the FBO across the ramp bathed in warm, Indiana autumn sunlight. That bright sunlight did nothing to hide my aviation smile which I was now proudly sporting on my face. I’ve flown countless times, this should be old-hat, right? Hardly. In fact, the great mood that I was in reminded me of a silly idea that I flirt with from time-to time, that of abandoning my entire visual career to become a commercial pilot. Nothing I do now quite matches the feeling I get when I’m flying, and I’m not even at the controls! That pilot’s license might be a ways off, so for now, I’ll gladly take the aviation photo assignments whenever they come.

The view from up front in the right seat, coming in for a landing on runway 36 at Porter County Regional Airport in the Ford Tri-Motor, with pilot Gerry Flaugher at the controls.

Pilot Justin Walters of Danville, Va., takes a photo of a Ford Tri-Motor as it taxies from the ramp during a demonstration flight at Porter County Regional Airport. Walters had just landed at the airport on a break from a flight to Minnesota.

I wouldn’t be 100% honest if I said that seeing the Ford Tri-Motor’s exposed flight surface control cables, all of which run on the exterior of the aircraft, didn’t make me do a double-take.

Up front, you can see more of those exposed flight control cables, along with one of the aircraft’s massive 450 horsepower radial engines.

The Tri-Motor approaching runway 36 at the Porter County Regional Airport in Valparaiso, Indiana.

I held my camera body and 15mm fish eye lens out the window to get a birds-eye view of the ground and one of the plane’s engines during my flight. As with photographing any aircraft with a moving propeller, I kept my shutter speed below 1/200th of a second to render the propeller as a blur. Freezing propellers in photographs is okay, but only if you’re trying to depict the airplane as being in distress with a failed engine! To the human eye, a properly-spinning propeller is almost invisible, and depicting them this way in photographs is more realistic.

Aviation fan Brad Smith (right) of Highland, Ind., takes a photo alongside fellow enthusiast Jim Haklin of Hanna, Ind., during our flight.

Detail of a logo one of the Ford Tri-Motor’s two control wheels, which Ford took directly from their Model T automobile.

Pilot Gerry Flaugher taxis the Ford Tri-Motor back onto the ramp at Porter County Regional Airport.

As I photographed this rural scene on the north end of the airfield, a man standing next to me thought it looked like the 1920′s all over again, with the Tri-Motor in the distance next to the corn stalks. I thought they were right! After all, how often do you see corn next to a modern airport runway?

Posted in Aviation, Photography, Photojournalism, Thoughts On Life by Guy Rhodes on October 10th, 2011.

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