Guest post by David Raboin
Cloudburst Above South Florida. Much of photography depends on luck. Beyond skill, you sometimes need to be in the right place at the right time. As an airline pilot, the odds are stacked in my favor. I fly thousands of miles of every workday and I keep a camera close. When the sky opens up, I am ready.
I recall the morning when I felt the first pull towards photography. That day, I was scheduled to fly the dawn departure from Knoxville, Tennessee to US Airway’s hub in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I was a new first officer, a copilot, new to the Knoxville crew base and fairly new to the airline. In the fluorescent glow of our company’s crew room, amidst the faded safety posters, boxes of earplugs, and stacks of unfiled paperwork, I met the rest of the crew. Captain Simpson, a former Baltimore cop who came up in aviation the hard way, approached me holding a styrofoam coffee cup in one hand and our flight release in the other. He took a detective’s measure of my enthusiastic smile. In front of him stood a small town kid who’d only traveled on an airliner twice before falling ass-backwards through America’s booming 1990s economy into his first airline pilot gig. My uniform was brand new, the sportcoat a size too big and the pants two inches too short. He could see I was nervous. I hadn’t yet learned the art of the confident flight crew introduction.
“Yeah, we’re flying with an FNG, Don. He’s with us all four days,” said our middle-aged bottle-blonde flight attendant as she dug through her purse looking for a preflight cigarette. Given that I was a "new guy," you can guess what "FNG" stands for.
“I’ll go out and get things started,” I volunteered.
The plane, a 32-seat Dornier 328 turboprop, waited out on the dark ramp. The southern summer night air carried the scent of fresh cut hay, and birdsong mixed with the buzz of the cicadas. Sunrise would be here soon. Holding a flashlight in my mouth, I fumbled around in the dark flightdeck, flipping switches and checking gauges. Our auxiliary power unit came to life, cracking the country morning calm with its industrial turbine whine.
Forty minutes later, with the sky now light enough to give shape to the Great Smokey Mountains along the southern horizon, we lined up for takeoff. Don’s veiny right hand pushed the power levers up to the takeoff position. The Dornier bucked as its twin 2180 horsepower engines burst to life. The six-bladed propellers bit into the soft morning air. The acceleration pushed us back in our seats. With that much energy applied to an object, a transformation must take place. In a moment we were sailing through the dawn sky above the Tennessee Valley. I looked down at the landscape of sleepy horse paddocks nestled between dark ridges where plumes of vapor rose from mysterious folds. We were climbing fast with a light load but still below the highest peaks of the Smokies, which stood black against the morning sun. Who knew America’s Eastern mountains were so massive? Below us, the Tennessee River and its tributaries twisted like silver ribbons leading off into the misty distance.
Air traffic control broke the spell. “Bluestreak 4120 contact departure.”
With the landing gear retracted, and the after takeoff checklist complete, Don turned to me and said, “Yup, some mornings are prettier than others.”
The altimeter wound up through one thousand feet every 30 seconds and the sublime landscape faded into the familiar grey haze of long distance air travel.
US Airways Express Dornier 328 Deplanes in a Snow Squall, Akron-Canton Airport, Ohio. This is the first airliner I ever flew, the Dornier 328 high-speed turboprop. In the 1990s, the DO-328 featured state-of-the-art avionics and was the fastest, highest-flying turboprop in the sky. The Dornier’s technology and high performance were lost on our passengers. They deemed our tough little airliner a “puddle jumper” and complained about the cold walk from the airplane to the terminal.
Up at cruise altitude I had time to reflect. At 24 years old, I had already been flying airplanes for six years. Almost all of my flight time was logged in light-aircraft as a student pilot and then flight instructor flying at the University of North Dakota. For a kid who had been lured into an aviation career by the pilot writers, I felt cheated, a victim of false advertising. Where was the poetic beauty of flight, the inspiration, and adventure? Midwestern flying had been all flat horizons and a monotonous grid of farm fields. And, the University, with its strict procedures and challenging syllabus, sucked all the fun out of something that I had been told would be transcendently joyful. I never encountered the sublime beauty of flight as described in the aviation books and magazines.
But then, in those few seconds above Tennessee, it felt like I was granted admission to a larger, more interesting world. Maybe those writers weren't lying after all? I was finally let in on the big secret. Earth and its possibilities expanded. Immediately, I wanted to share this hidden world with more people than just Don and that toothpick hanging from the corner of his mouth, but how? Throughout those long years in North Dakota I had a dreamed of becoming the next pilot writer, following in the footsteps of Saint Exupery, Ernest K. Gann, and Richard Bach, but that wasn’t going anywhere. Writing frustrated me. I couldn’t string words together in a way that equaled the rush of experience. What I wanted was an exact recreation of that dawn flight above the Tennessee Valley. I probably stated the obvious: “I wish there was some way to take a picture of that!”
Last Light on the High Sierras. Pilots have a unique perspective on the world and I think it’s important that some of us make an effort to share our experiences with the non-flyers and those who keep their window shade pulled down to better watch movies on transcontinental flights. The earth, and even the lower 48 states, are filled with many uninhabited areas and rugged, inhospitable landscapes. If that’s not enough to capture your imagination, there are also infinite shows of color and light that play out as the sun perpetually tracks across the sky. I remember a definition of art that I picked up somewhere in my travels: “Art is any human creation that causes the viewer to think about of the world in a new way.” That’s why I’ve carried a camera on every trip I’ve flown since 2005.
That beautiful Tennessee sunrise happened in the summer of the year 2000. To that younger me, buried in student loan debt and earning less than $20,000 per year, photography was out of reach. Also, I wasn’t sure if it was possible to take quality photos through thick flightdeck windows. Back in the film era, buying a camera never crossed my mind, but then I was saved by two miracles. First, my little airline picked up the leases on five used Dorniers, which pushed me far enough up the seniority list to upgrade to captain. And then, at the same moment in history, digital photography became affordable to the masses.
By the spring of 2003, I was comfortable in my new role as an airline captain and, for the the first time in my life, my checking account was swelling. I bought my first camera, a 3.2 megapixel Canon Powershot S30. I felt extremely lucky. Even though I had no photographic experience and no artistic training, I was sure that the new digital imaging technology combined with my unique job would yield interesting results. That initial naive confidence drove me forward, and because I didn’t know any other way, I took on photography the same way I would’ve approached learning a new airplane. I started by learning all the technical details and limitations of the camera while also seeking the advice of the professionals. I read a lot. My Canon Powershot went everywhere with me including my flight bag. I was soon carrying that camera on every trip. Within a few months I was making competent photos. I soon had enough interesting images to start a crude online gallery.
The gallery quickly became a minor obsession where I’d spend hours changing the order of my photos, playing with the background colors, adding new photos, and deleting the weaker images. At that time, I was one of the few pilots posting photos on the internet and my gallery started to draw some attention. The positive feedback—the 2004 version of Facebook Likes—piled up, but I still felt a nagging dissatisfaction with my photos. To me, the gallery was a cartoonish outline of airline flying, not even close to the real thing. Foremost, I saw the limitations of my little camera. With that first camera I could only make photos from the flightdeck in strong, contrasty light. My Powershot couldn’t capture the soft light of dawn or the twinkle of city lights on a clear winter night above the Ohio Valley. But beyond the technical issues, I felt my photos lacked the magic dynamic force I’d seen in some other’s photography.
I started to ask myself, “How do photographers make their images come alive?”
[Continued in Part II]
Author's Note: All photos were taken in accordance with federal aviation regulations and company policies. Safety of flight is every pilot’s primary concern and the camera only comes out in low workload situations.
©2016 by David Raboin, all rights reserved
Original contents copyright 2016 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
[A different] David: "As an airline captain, I understand. Oh the things we see! I've got some beautiful photos, but nothing beats being there. And for every nice photo I have, there'd be a dozen more where I've looked and thought 'now is not the time.' But those ones are well etched in my memory."