Favour for a friend

It's funny how you can use aircraft for wild and whacky ideas. My workmate had hatched a plan to secretly propose to his girlfriend of several years. Other people at work have a holiday house up on the Coromandel Penninsula and had invited both of them up there over the recent long weekend in NZ. The groom to be's plan was to have his girlfriend distracted while he and his best man to be slipped out to the next bay over from their house to write his marriage proposal on the beach.

For some reason I cannot remember he chose to tell me of his plans, and I came up with the idea of taking an aerial photo of his efforts to commemorate the big occasion. One of my pilot mates Chris is a budding amateur photographer and has some limited aerial photography experience. There were several problems facing us. One, I had only a rough idea of where it was he was going to be doing this, and two, I had never flown any sort of air to ground photography mission before.

We solved the first problem by using the wonders of the interweb. GPS coordinates from Google Earth are very very accurate, and it was a testament to my workmates attention to detail that it worked out. I got him to pinpoint on Google Earth where his sign would be and we put those numbers into Chris's Garmin 96C. The 172 we booked also has a GPS but I'm not well versed in its use.

I had also looked at my chart of the area and although the contours gave me a rough idea of the surrounding terrain, I was fairly confident that I'd be able to formulate a plan of attack once I arrived.

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The two things I was worried about turned out to be non events, namely the weather and the aircraft's serviceability. Weatherwise the 2000' wind was forecast as 060@20 knots with few CUSC around 3500 with the possibility of embedded TCUs. While the cloud was not a problem, the fact that the wind would be coming from the north east meant that below the level of the ranges close to the western coast we could expect turbulence. Since Chris and I are both pilots I wasn't worried about our ability to cope with it though.

The sky overhead Hamilton was cloudless as we lined up our 172R WAM on grass 36, surface wind was 020@8 knots and my crosswind takeoff went ahead without drama. As we climbed out we could see the cloud building up to the northeast as we headed north. I leveled off at 2200 feet as I wanted to be well under any TCUs we might encounter. Once we crossed into the Firth of Thames I tried to climb up above it but we got to 4000 feet and still needed to climb further and 4500 was the lower limit of controlled airspace so I chose to descend once more. I put WAM into a cruise descent and we hit 130KIAS on the way down.

With about 6 miles to run I could see the area I would be operating in, and I decided we would slow to the bad weather configuration and make a reconnoiter pass at 1500 feet to get the lay of the land. Although there was a bit of cloud around the setting sun (it was around 1815 local) bathed the area in golden sunlight. I did our first pass at 80 knots and Chris scanned the beach for our target. Nothing. We then descended to 1000 feet and tried again. Nothing. We checked the bays on either side of the "target" bay at 800 feet. Nothing. I realised that doing passes offshore would mean that if we did get a photo it would be upside down. I then made a decision to do a pass over the beach itself at 500 AGL for one last go at it before we gave up and went home empty handed. I took us north and performed a very nice coastal reversal turn. As I turned towards the coast we got below the level of the surrounding hills we really got bounced around. At that precise moment I uttered a silent prayer that we were in the bad weather configuration already. I did one run over all 3 beaches at around 500 feet (I was doing my best impression of terrain following), during which Chris aimed his camera at the beach in continuous mode and shot a few 5 frame bursts.

Chris said he was not sure if he had shot anything worthy, and since he works in film and not digital there was no way we could climb up to a safe height and orbit while Chris checked his work so I headed out off the coast, cleaned WAM up and climbed back to 2200 feet for the return trip home.

My memory of the trip back was that we didn't talk much for the first 10 minutes or so, but after a while we just commiserated each other by saying that the adventure aspect of the flight was worth the expense, and we had both learned a lot about the practicalities of Aviation photography.

When I was cleared into Hamilton airspace I was the only plane active, so I got a plain English clearance. We entered the circuit downwind as instructed and when I stood on the toe brakes during the downwind checks the right had side seemed a bit mushy, so I asked for the 2200m runway so I wouldn't have to use the brakes. The wind had intensified to 12 knots since we had been away so fortunately our ground speed was such not only did I not need the brakes I actually had to apply power to taxi to the taxiway.

So after a 1.8 trip we still were in the dark (excuse the pun) as far as whether or not we had succeeded. A day later Chris rang my mobile to say that by some stroke of luck he had managed to snap the proposal centre frame and the right way up. The fact that they had used driftwood instead of sand or seaweed meant the camouflaged nature of the wood made it really hard to see from the air.

The groom to be was stoked at the result, and so were we.

PS. Photos to follow
PPS. Her reply was yes.


Millz said…
Great story! I learned a new word from it: reconnoiter. :)

Can't wait to see the pics!
Euan Kilgour said…
Hey Millz, welcome to my blog. Just been reading your blog so you may see some GPS newbie questions heading your way soon. :-)
ZK-JPY said…
Awesome work... it is quite amazing how often crossing your fingers and pushing the shutterbutton results in some great shots!

Some of my more spectacular flying pics have come more from good luck than good management :)