By Nic Stoltzfus
Intro: Last week Dad and I came down to Topsail Hill Preserve State Park to do more work for the upcoming Coastal Dune Lakes project. We accomplished a lot over the four days that we were down: interviewed George Langstaff, long-time resident of Four Mile Village,for a story about the creation of Topsail Hill Preserve State Park; filmed freshly blooming lupine (side note: the deep lavender blue of the lupine is how “Blue Mountain Beach” got its name; sailors would see the flowers along the dunes in this area and it looked like a blue mountain to them); set-up a jib shot of carnivorous pitcher plants in a bog close to Morrison Lake; went out to Western Lake outfall to get some shots of small plovers scurrying along the beach. I really enjoyed all these things, but my favorite part about this trip was the chance to do aerial and night-time photography.
On Tuesday Dad and I woke up and were having breakfast outside in the screened-in porch of our cabin and it was absolutely gorgeous outside. Crisp blue sky, not a cloud in sight. I looked over at Dad and his lips were scrunched up and his eyes were sparkling. What was he thinking? He grinned and looked over at me. “Hey Nic, you wanna fly today?” I knew what he was talking about. At some point in time we planned on renting a helicopter to do aerial photography. He wanted to do it sometime in the next few weeks before the summer haze set in and decreased the sharpness of the photos, and before the vivid viridescence of spring faded into the duller olive greens of summer.
Dad called Beach Helicopter out of Destin, but they told him they don’t start flying until 10 o’clock. It was 9:30, so we decided to start driving over that way. On our way the manager for Beach Helicopter (hereafter BH), Kim, gave me a call and said that the pilot Mike was on his way to the landing pad and would arrive in 15 to 20 minutes. I told her we were on our way, as well. She remarked that it was a lovely day to fly, and I smiled and agreed with her. We arrived at BH, right in downtown Destin, and walked into the small shack that is combination hanger/waiting room/check-in/observation shack/cat house. Yep, cat house. BH has an honorary rotar-kitty, Boo, who was given to them by a local fireman on Halloween. She is a small cat with bright yellow eyes and emanated the most interesting purr: part meow, part growl, part purr, and wholly bliss.
Inside the combo cat house/waiting room we weighed ourselves and our equipment (the max the pilot can take up is 550 pounds) and waited for Mike to arrive. He flew in about 10 minutes later and Dad remarked, “Wow, bet it’s hard to fly in to work every morning!” Kim and I laughed. Mike came in and asked Dad to come to the computer to discuss the route he wanted to take today: Dad showed him that he wanted to fly around each of the dune lakes and do full 360 degree passes around certain key lakes. Mike said it was doable and we would be up for an hour or more. He asked Dad if he wanted the door removed on his window and he said yes. Mike turned to me and asked the same question. I looked over at Dad and Dad said, “Yep, he’ll be doing photography, too.”
Here comes the part of the story that I must admit something: I am not exactly fond of heights. And I passionately dislike rollercoasters. I have a certain embarrassing story my sister enjoys telling with relish of a time when we went to Wild Adventures in Valdosta and rode the “kiddie roller coaster” (against my will) and I screamed like a little girl the whole ride. Upon exit, the jeers and sneers of a gaggle of queued rednecks caused me much humiliation (and caused my sis much laughter). Even landing and flying on an aircraft is sometimes a bit much and although I have never gotten sick and thrown up on an airplane, I have grabbed for the barf bag on a number of occasions.
So, I wondered to myself, how would this go? A small airborne vehicle with nary a thing between me and the sky? Wide Open Spaces may be fine for some, but this was not something I desired while 300 feet off the ground.
Boo gave us a final goodbye meow and Dad and I walked out to the landing pad. Dad got in the front seat with Mike, and I was in the back duel-wielding two cameras: a Nikon D70 with an 18-200 lens and a D800 with a 14-18 wide-angle lens. Dad had been very specific about the care of the cameras: Always make sure that you have the strap wrapped around you so nothing flies out. Make sure everything is ALWAYS tied down.
Mike instructed us to put on our headsets and laid down some ground rules: When the ‘copter picks up speed, don’t hang out of it or the wind will jerk you back. We don’t want that. Echoing Dad’s instructions he said make sure everything is always strapped down because we don’t want anything getting sucked up in the rotor. That wouldn’t make for a fun day. He did a final check with the local air traffic control and started to lift off. My heart starting beating wildly and my stomach began fluttering, likewise ready to take flight, but I kept it under control. It was still a bit much having an open door off to my right and I was terrified of anything flying out and messing up the whole flight.
We made the run around the lakes and Mike chatted with us comfortably the whole time. He is a local and his parents live around the area. He used to run before his knees blew out. “Look down, we’re gonna buzz over my buddy’s house; I do that every time for him!” Stuff like that. That helped me to relax a bit. As I got used to the dynamics of it all, I began to feel more comfortable and gained a sense of equilibrium; Now I wasn’t constantly teetering towards sheer terror but only mild shock. The longer we flied the more I adjusted to it and, by the time we landed, I wish I could have stayed in the air for another hour or so.
As I stepped out of the helicopter after my landing, I arched my back and I felt a dull throbbing pain. My back was tender from moving around from side to side and leaning out taking pictures. There might have been some pain involved in the experience–from the terror of heights to back pain–but the thrill of the experience overrode that, and I can now say that I am an aerial photographer!