There's no question that Pioneer Press photographer Ben Garvin's aerial photographs of the Crashed Ice event are some of the most spectacular photographs ever taken of the Capital City. True to the nature of geeky pilots, I wondered how it was possible the pilot could legally -- not to mention, skillfully -- get them.
It was difficult airspace for the pilot of the Cessna aircraft to navigate, given the smokestacks along the river (note: they're not so much aviation hazards as they are markers of the point at which the big airport's airspace begins at ground level), the height of the Cathedral, and the heavily-controlled airspace overhead that's meant to protect the jets at the big airport. Any safe pilot is always mindful of the possibility of an engine failure, but Garvin's pilot left himself with few options if something had gone wrong.
Having witnessed the plane circling the Cathedral at a low altitude on Saturday, I tweeted on Sunday that the pilot may have been breaking the regulations to help Garvin get his shot. He was that low.
In MinnPost writer David Brauer's excellent interview with Garvin, the suspicion was confirmed with this passage:
"We had to fly low because of the smokestack of the District Energy power plant. The pilot mentioned a couple of times, 'We're too low, we might get in trouble.' I was kind of saying 'Do what you have to do, but keep doing it,'" the photographer says with a chuckle. "He said he hardly ever got to do cool things like this. He was banking sharp, and flying in high-traffic airspace, so it was technically challenging."
It was also likely illegal at some point. Here's the relevant FAA regulation:
Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:
(a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.
(b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.
If the engine had failed, there was nowhere for Garvin and his pilot to go but into a neighborhood, building, or the crowd below (one might have been able to limp over to the Sears parking lot to minimize the toll). And on ( b), the pilot also likely failed. The highest obstacle in the area, of course, was the Cathedral at 306 feet, requiring a minimum altitude of 1,306 above it. That would have put him in the so-called Class B airspace above the city, which protects the jets landing at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport (It's not restricted airspace, a pilot simply needs permission to enter it). It appears that he was circling just outside the reach of the controllers at the downtown St. Paul airport.
This photo, which raced around the Twitterverse -- and deservedly so -- reveals the pilot was no more than 200-500 feet above the top of the spire (estimate adjusted for the use of an 80-200 mm lens).
Who couldn't look at that beauty all day?
Fortunately, airplanes don't usually develop mechanical problems, and Garvin wasn't responsible for following aviation rules -- his job was to get the shot. But the regulations exist because of the high risk involved in low- altitude flights with steep turns, which increase the danger of a stall/spin crash that, in this case, could have far eclipsed the toll in the recent Reno airshow crash.
A study by the Aviation Safety Foundation found that 80 percent of all crashes involving a stall/spin, began within 1,000 feet of the ground.
The challenge of photographing an event like Crashed Ice is also why TV news organizations use helicopters for their photo platforms. The FAA regulations exempt helicopter pilots from the minimum safe altitude requirements above, as long as the helicopters are flown "without hazard to persons or property on the surface."
It's hard to know whether the "trouble" the pilot of the plane was concerned about was the potential problem of an engine failure, or the possibility the FAA would find out .
The FAA has not yet responded to inquiries on the matter, and it's fairly unlikely it will.
I once helped an Army videographer get an arial shot (in England) from the skid of a Bell OH-58 Kiowa helicopter. I held on to his belt as he shot, as I hung halfway out a window. A third fella inside held on to my feet. None of us had safety harnesses or parachutes.
The things people will do to get the shot...
PS: There is no way I would do that now. I'm older, wiser, fatter and weaker.
Photojournalists are supremely gifted and fearless.
Garvin, in particularly, does some of the finest work I've ever seen. The shots of the Cathedral were breathtaking. His video was great.
So at that altitude was the pilot still above any news helicopters covering the event? Do pilots of media operated/chartered aircraft coordinate their flights and locations in real time, i.e. talk to each other? I'm imagining some colorful radio traffic.
Years ago a generous news guy gave me a ride in his company's news helicopter. I'll always remember the oh so important feeling of ducking my head while approaching the helicopter in front of a crowd of people, only to be met by a shocked pilot vehemently shaking his head and shouting "No way he's too heavy." The pilot and news guy worked it out, and I suspect it wasn't the first time.
I didn't see any news choppers but I presume there were some in the vicinity. I'm not sure at what altitude they hover; I'd guess it's around 1,500 or so. But if they were in the area, traffic, airspace, and terrain presents a TREMENDOUS workload for a single pilot executing steep turns. It's not hard at all to lose track of something as critical as airspeed.
But as far as I know they occasionally talk to each other and in a case like this, I'm sure they were talking to the downtown airport controller.
For aircraft in that airspace, they normally wouldn't talk to each other that close to Holman Field, they'd ask a controller to help with separation.
The only time you'd see a helicopter in that area as low as the plane was around the Cathedral is when one of the medivac choppers lands at United.
BTW, if this were a football game (if you believe the 90,000 figure, that would be more than any football stadium around here, I believe), there'd be a flight restriction within 3 miles of it.
As I watched the guy circle on Saturday, I kept thinking about all of the pilots -- many who are commercial pilots -- who absolutely, positively REFUSE to fly over open water in a single-engine aircraft, but who seem to also fly over congested cities, well out of the gliding distance of any place to land if something goes wrong.
Nice post, Bob. Sorta feel bad, but then I think about how great those photos were...
For the record, there were no other airplanes or choppers in the area, I was listening to the radio and also asked the pilot directly. I was surprised, but I think by the fourth night the event was old news. I do remember seeing news choppers the first and second nights.
Another small correction, since you seemed to be making some pretty good estimates from the length of the lens I was using. The Nikon model I was using (D300) has a sensor that crops at a ratio at 1.5, and I was zoomed in at 200. So the net effect is a focal length of 300mm.
All that said, I, too, suspect we may have been flying too low. En route to the cathedral the pilot tried a higher altitude and we hit clouds.
No point here really, just wanted to add some details. Thanks,
Well, the bottom line: That guy can fly. He had a lot of things to pay attention to all at once and, obviously, he did it well.
And, as I've indicated on Twitter since I saw that one picture -- you can take one hell of a picture.
Just some additional datapoints from a former journalist and current pilot (I hold a multi-engine Airline Transport Pilot certificate along with single-engine commercial, flight instructor and instrument flight instructor certificates and fly for a small freight company.)
Setting aside the issue of altitude for a moment and focusing on airspace, it's likely a non-issue.
I've flown dozens of photo missions around the Twin Cities, some of which were even closer to MSP. It's not as big a deal as you might think.
Typically, the photog files a request form with Minneapolis' approach control describing where they'll be operating, when and at what altitudes.
The pilot gets a discreet "squawk" code (a unique 4-digit number used to identify their airplane), departs and coordinates their entry to movement within the Class B airspace with air traffic control.
Or, if you prefer to roll that way, you can depart, get a code and work it out in the air. The end result is the same.
The controllers around here are fantastic and they can ensure traffic separation there is virtually nowhere you can't fly if you ask for it and are willing to wait a bit for a break in the flow.
It's a piece of cake and I've flown circles with a photographer shooting out the window that literally took us over the approach ends of MSP runways. All perfectly legal and all perfectly safe, while talking with ATC.
So, unless the pilot just took off and started flying circles through both St. Paul Downtown and MSP's airspace without talking to a soul it was probably a non-issue. I'd bet they were talking to the right people and had every right (as it relates to airspace, at least) to be there.
You're certainly correct in that it can be a demanding task to fly the airplane, look out for other aircraft, talk to atc and get the photog into position.
And it is certainly a scenario that could, emphasis on "could," lead to the dreaded "low-altitude maneuvering loss of control" accident. (I prefer the more descriptive "stall, spin, crash, burn.")
It's also something that any competent commercial pilot should be able to handle with a minimum of fuss.
In fact, several of the maneuvers required for the commercial certificate focus specifically on safely controlling the aircraft relatively low to the ground while turning and while dividing your attention between what's ahead of you and what's on the ground off to the side.
The training required for the commercial (single-engine) certificate really hones a pilot's understanding of the energy state of their aircraft. And keeping enough energy on the airplane is everything, particularly on a photo flight.
As for the question of altitude, I really have no opinion. I wasn't there and I don't get a good sense from the photo (which is wonderful) if Garvin and his pilot were too low.
I do know that it is easy to lose track of altitude doing those types of flights. And again, altitude awareness is stressed heavily during commercial pilot training.
I do know that you could ask 10 pilots their thoughts on the issue and get 11 opinions. Some would cite the regulations you quoted, some would argue no harm, no foul and still others would say "we weren't there so there's no way to know."
I do agree that a helicopter might have been a better choice of platform (although they crash as well and typically in spectacular fashion.)
But helicopters are expensive to rent (compared to airplanes) and newspapers have cut budgets to the bone.
And while I don't know if that was a factor in this case, I do know that when you cut corners (in both journalism and aviation) bad things happen.
// I do agree that a helicopter might have been a better choice of platform (although they crash as well and typically in spectacular fashion.)
You'll never get *me* in one of those things.
BTW, you should start writing your blog again.
It is common for TV stations to have multiple choppers in the air at the same time over populated areas. Rallies at the capitol, sporting events, major fires, etc. The pilots speak frequently to each other. Gyro stabilized, remote control cameras have pretty much displaced the days of shooting out the window or taking the door off and shooting with the camera on your shoulder, your feet on the skid and your butt belted to the floor. I'm old enough to have done it the old way.
The long lenses and stabilization does allow the stations to get their shots from higher altitudes.
Choppers can land safely even with the engine out using a maneuver called "auto-gyrate." Of course there are other kinds of equipment failure and pilot error that can lead to the spectacular crashes we've heard about.
You don't *know* multiple helicopters until you've lived in Los Angeles, where it is (or was, anyway) not uncommon to see four or even five news helicopters stacked diagonally, slowing keeping pace with a car chase on the freeway, above the police helicopter in pursuit. This was still how it was ten years ago anyway, when we left. For Angelinos, a freeway car chase was like a snow day, with all local television news stations involved with live coverage from the air and ground.
In the movie "Grand Canyon," Kevin Kline's character makes a comment at the Grand Canyon about how quiet it is - how in L.A., you always hear helicopters above the noise. After living there, I realized the writers may have been talking about the news organizations as well.
I hope the FAA gets its act together and comes out with new drone rules soon - drones could greatly reduce some of the risk described above.