Just a little bit lower.” Those words are a great way to star in an NTSB accident report (right up there with “watch this”), since they usually precede a dangerous maneuver. While low passes are certainly not a new invention, the motivation for them seems to have evolved lately, and we can thank the smartphone. Instead of showing off to a friend on the ground, the goal is to get the perfect picture for Facebook. After all, life nowadays is measured in likes.
It’s easy to understand the temptation: We each carry in our pocket a device that would have been the best camera on the planet 20 years ago. Then, of course, there’s the irresistible pull of social media, which has created a powerful way to share the fun of flying with the tap of your finger. More recently, digital logbooks have added features that encourage us to record photos or videos, not just Hobbs time.
There’s obviously nothing wrong with taking pictures (or video) from the cockpit, and I personally love adding photos to my logbook app. Unfortunately, the perfect shot often seems to demand we bank just a little bit more, fly just a little lower, or at the very least divert our attention to unnecessary tasks. A fellow pilot confessed to me recently, “I was in an airplane today when we got close to doing something illegal and very dangerous because of the distraction of taking pictures on a pretty morning.” Read through a few NASA safety reports and you’ll find he’s not alone.
One obvious solution to this problem is to simply forbid photos in the cockpit. This black-and-white approach, which can be thought of as the finger-wagging schoolteacher method, is the rule for some airline cockpits. That may work for professional crews, but for most general aviation pilots it’s neither fun nor realistic. If capturing the perfect vista from the cockpit is what gets you to the airport for a flight, I applaud it. More practically, blanket bans rarely work. After all, the “pilots of Instagram” movement happened despite rules against it.
A more sensible option is to create some standard operating procedures for using a camera in flight. That doesn’t have to mean a fancy book with lots of pages; just a few rules of thumb can suffice. For example, do you have a hard deck — an altitude below which you simply will not fly? If you are firm that you’ll never descend below 500 feet for a photo, you’ve eliminated about 90 percent of the obstacles on the sectional chart.
Professional pilots’ sterile cockpit rule is another place to find inspiration. Most turbine airplane crews observe some version of this rule, which does not allow nonessential conversation below 10,000 feet. The idea is that during departure and arrival, pilots should be solely focused on flying the airplane. This can work, with a few modifications, for cameras too. For example, deciding ahead of time that you won’t take any photos within 5 miles of the traffic pattern might be a smart plan for a Cessna 172 pilot. Make that sterile cockpit time.
Devising a plan can help as well. Sometimes the perfect shot simply appears, but often we know before takeoff that a photo is the goal of the flight. If you know you’re going to be taking pictures, brief the mission as if it were a formation flight. What route will you take to the photo site? What altitude will you fly? Will you talk to ATC? How many passes will you make? And will you use the autopilot? These questions will help you structure your flight and force you to make hard decisions ahead of time. Then it’s up to you to follow the plan: If that descending 60-degree bank turn wasn’t in the briefing, don’t do it.
Safety margins can be compromised without flying any dangerous maneuvers, though. The most precious resource in a cockpit is not fuel or weather information; it’s attention — and a smartphone is just about unmatched for hogging our attention. Like texting and driving, reaching for a smartphone in flight ends up being a habit more than a conscious decision.
That means we have to actively resist the urge. To be formal about it, every single electronic device in the airplane, from an iPad to a GoPro, should be part of our task-management plan. It’s a fancy phrase, but the question is simple: What is important and what isn’t? Here, the basics haven’t changed much. To modify the maxim: “Aviate, navigate, communicate — then record!”
If you can’t safely record while flying the airplane, consider using the autopilot (it’s not cheating). Even better, take a safety pilot along to watch for traffic or handle the radios. A safety pilot should be mandatory for any serious, in-depth photography flight.
Technology can also help. Many cameras, like the GoPro, can be set up to automatically record video or still photos without lots of button-pushing. For a single-pilot flight, just hit “time-lapse” and go fly.
The alternative — distraction — can be tragic, no matter how much time you’ve logged. The crew of Eastern Air Lines Flight 401, which crashed in the Everglades in 1972, had over 50,000 hours of experience. Their downfall was not poor stick and rudder skills or some catastrophic mechanical failure. Rather, all three pilots were so focused on a burned-out landing gear indicator light that they forgot to fly the airplane.
Beyond safety, leaving the camera in your pocket every once in a while is healthy. The priorities change when it’s just you and the airplane, because you’re flying for yourself, not to record it for someone else. It’s the difference between a diary entry and a blog post.
While some pilots probably feel as if the un-recorded flight is not worth flying, that’s clearly false. Antoine de Saint-Exupery didn’t need an iPhone to paint an unforgettable picture in Wind, Sand and Stars: “The aeroplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth.”
Now that’s a great image. No selfie stick required.