Up in the Air: Shooting with an RC Helicopter Vs. Shooting with The Real Thing

Aug 2, 2010
By Dan Havlik

Up In The Air Tech story
Photo Credit: © Jason Lam
Jason Lam has flown his Skyshutter Aericam (shown here) over Yankee Stadium, Coney Island, and the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco to capture some stunning aerial visuals.
I'm in a helicopter with aerial photographer Vincent Laforet and we're hovering in the swirling winds some 1,500 feet over New York City's Central Park. There's no door on my side of the twin-engine copter, giving Laforet an unobstructed view to shoot the city. He's strapped in with a harness, sitting on the edge of the helicopter with his feet resting on the skids below. I'm in front, wearing a seatbelt that looks like it came out of a TWA flight in the 1970s. Every time I turn around to take a picture, the belt over my shoulder loosens slightly. Yes, it's a little unnerving.

"There's nothing like shooting from a real helicopter," Laforet says later and he's right.

Laforet's communication with his pilot, Mike Kwas and his assistant, Mike Isler, is like an improvisational dance between three partners who know each other well. "Back up 30 feet, Kwas. To the left just a bit. OK, perfect. I'm ready for the tilt-shift," Laforet says over the headphones as the frenetic squawk of air traffic controllers in the background alert us to the status of other aircraft in the area.

Unnerving, perhaps, but also an amazing way to capture the city as few others have seen it. But it doesn't come cheap. Our flight, which lasts just over an hour, will cost approximately $2,000. There are less expensive helicopter rental companies, with some charging as little as $600 per hour, but Laforet considers them unsafe and limiting since they use single-turbine helicopters that can't offer the same reliability or lift.

In the copter we're flying in, a Eurocopter AS355 TwinStar, if one engine goes out, there's another that can carry us back. But again, this level of performance comes at a price. Laforet estimates that all the time he's spent shooting from helicopters—including extensive work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina—translates roughly to over $250,000 of airtime.

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