Story and photos by Jim Clark
Producing the flying show, Out There…Flying!, came from the simple desire to share with the general aviation community the incredible experience of backcountry flying. Flying the backcountry of the Western states is probably the best-kept secret in aviation. I may get into trouble by letting others know about it, but the West is a big place. There’s plenty of room for everyone.
The first Out There…Flying! show was released on DVD last September titled: Utah’s’ Red Rock Country Vol 1 (Red Rock 1). Although you can’t rent it at Blockbuster Video yet, it’s approaching 1,000 copies sold and the critics say it may be close to a best seller in its category – “The Most Fun You Can Have in an Airplane.” We don’t expect such an Oscar category anytime soon, but we’re hoping for it to become at least a cult favorite.
Producing Red Rock 1 has been a labor-of-love, and it would not have been possible without the help of the Utah Backcountry Pilots Association and The Amboys Flying Club from Salinas, CA. We’ve almost sold enough copies to buy Avgas for the next production. Although we’ve been relatively successful with this first release, we haven’t quit our day jobs yet, at least not most of us.
While backcountry flying may appear to be a macho type of flying, there are few pilots in the backcountry who actually fly that way. You won’t last long being a cowboy pilot in the backcountry. It requires precision flying and the ability to understand what’s happening outside of the airplane with only minimal help from the panel. You need to be able to read the weather, fly close to terrain, and figure out wind speed and direction without a windsock. And like all piloting, it requires the wisdom not to fly beyond your abilities and judgment – to know when to call it quits and land, or not to takeoff at all.
Utah’s Red Rock Country is a world-class flying destination with its dazzling desert display of richly colored rock, sand, arches, rivers, and cliffs, which cover much of the southeast corner of Utah. From the ground, you can only see a tiny slice at a time. From the air, the scope of the landscape almost overwhelms the senses. Shutting down the engine after landing at a dirt strip bordered by the Green River and ringed-in by thousand foot sheer cliffs is amazing - the silence moves right through you. It can be even a bit uncomfortable at first, but it has a purifying effect that soon calms the mind and body – something that most of us can use a bit of, or a lot of, depending on what you do in life.
It’s been a delightful challenge to capture what it feels like floating along in a small plane over countryside so vast and expansive that even the crustiest of aviators are moved by the grace and majesty of such a creation. Although we may differ in our beliefs about how it all got here, every pilot I meet who’s flown the Utah backcountry has obviously been touched deeply by the experience. It was that experience that inspired the idea for Red Rock I.
We feature two strips in our first DVD: Mineral Canyon and Hidden Splendor. Both are surrounded by 1,000-foot cliffs, with Mineral Canyon being relatively easy for a backcountry strip and Hidden Splendor considerably tougher.
Mineral Canyon Airstrip sits next to the Green River about 25 miles SW of Canyonlands Airport. It’s a good strip for pilots that are new to backcountry flying, but land there only after some instruction from a CFI qualified to teach backcountry flying. Mineral Canyon sits in a fairly wide-open canyon – wide enough to fly the pattern within the canyon walls – although the standard pattern is to enter the canyon on a base-leg of sorts. You can land in either direction and there are obstructions at each end of the runway, but the approaches don’t require steep turns or difficult maneuvers.
Hidden Splendor is located about 70 miles west of Canyonlands and is a considerably more challenging airstrip. It’s a narrow runway with sheer cliffs on each end. One thousand foot cliffs and rising terrain surround it. Land a foot short or long, or drift six feet off of the centerline, and you will probably be sprouting wings of your own. Definitely do not fly into this strip without proper instruction, the right kind of airplane and weather, and plenty of experience.
So how do we go about producing such a flying show? It breaks down into two major areas: production and post-production. Production is where we run around with the cameras and airplanes having lots of fun flying and seeing cool stuff. Post-production is where I sit chained to a video editing system for weeks on end creating the final product, while wishing I was back out flying. I’ll spare you the details on the post-production part.
The shooting part of production breaks down into three main categories: air-to-ground, plane-to-plane and on the ground. The airborne work is usually best done in the early morning and late afternoon hours. At those times, you have the best lighting conditions (warm side lighting) and usually the smoothest air. Often by late morning, thermal turbulence starts bouncing the planes around so much that you can’t get good footage, so we shift from airborne shooting to working on the ground. On windy days, there may be too much turbulence for shooting from the planes, so we try to have some other scenes to shoot at destinations where we can travel to by car from our lodgings.
The plane-to-plane shooting is the most fun and challenging. We usually use two planes: the camera plane and the subject plane. The camera plane doesn’t appear in the finished video. The subject plane is the “star” and it also carries cameras to show the pilot’s point of view.
In Red Rock 1, we used several different planes including a Citabria, Cessna 170 and185s, a Stinson, a Beech Debonair, and a Maule. The most important requirement for the planes is a window that will open far enough to allow a good shooting angle for the camera. Shooting through the side windows usually produces poor footage because of the glare, distortion, and muck on the Plexiglas. Now we do shoot through the windshield a lot because it gives you the pilot’s point of view – and there you expect to see a few bugs and the prop whirling around.
My new favorite camera plane is the Husky, because the right side door splits in the middle and opens up the entire side of the plane. This lets you operate a camera from the front or back seat and you can also shoot out the small “slider” window on the left side.
We pack a lot of video gear into the planes and it must be carefully organized and secured so that it works properly during the shoot, and doesn’t interfere with operating the plane. We use gyrostabilizers on the cameras to minimize the effects of turbulence and shaky hands. We connect into the planes intercom/radio system so that we can capture the in-cockpit commentary and the plane-to-plane radio talk.
The plane-to-plane shooting requires precise formation flying with the planes sometimes 30 feet apart or less. You don’t want to attempt formation flying without some instruction, and I’ll only do it with pilots that I know and trust. You can get into trouble easily and the results can be deadly.
In places like Utah where we shoot in canyons that are too narrow to turn around in, we have to plan our flight path very carefully. We take into consideration lighting angles, plane and camera position, the approach to the runway if the shot includes a landing, and most importantly, safety. We always know in advance how we will separate the planes and abort the run if we encounter turbulence or other unexpected conditions. Once we begin a run down a canyon, we stay in constant communication over the radio and make flight path changes as needed to fly safely and to adjust for changing light conditions and getting the best camera angle.
At Mineral Canyon, the canyon is very wide and it doesn’t present a difficult flight path for the plane-to-plane shots. At Hidden Splendor, the approach is through a much tighter canyon and required a lot of careful planning to put two planes together in the canyon at the same time.
Once we arrive at an airstrip location, we usually fly one or two test runs with the cameras rolling to check camera angles and the flight. Sometimes we can’t get the setup we want so we may land and look at things from the ground to decide how we can get better coverage.
Often the best lighting at a given location lasts for only 30 minutes or less, so we only get one chance to capture the footage. Occasionally we plan a shot very carefully and still run into unexpected shadows or lighting conditions that reduce the quality of the shot, so we may spend half a day working out a shot sequence only to have the weather or lighting end the shoot before we get started. Other times, we will have the cameras rolling as we fly to a location and manage to capture some excellent footage by chance. Some of our best footage has come from “happy accidents.”
As the sun climbs high in the sky and the turbulence picks up, we usually land and shoot on-the-ground footage. This can include all kinds of activities such as fishing, hiking, camping, and whatever is fun and interesting to do at a given location. Lighting conditions are not so critical for this type of footage and shooting it during midday lets us film all day long. When the light starts to get low in the afternoon, we may stay on the ground for some scenery shots at that location, or get back in the air for more aerial work.
For those of you who are interested in the technical details, we shoot with three different types of cameras. Our main cameras are Panasonic DVX100s. They have good image quality and they’re about the size of a large loaf of bread. We also use Sony TRV900 cameras. These are one-half loaf size, and can be mounted inside of the airplane for in-cockpit footage. The third camera type is a Sony XC999 “lipstick” camera. It’s about an inch in diameter and six inches long. We’re just starting to experiment with this unit and we hope to get some special angle shots with it.
We had a great time producing the Red Rocks show, and we’re now in the midst of producing our next title, Flying the Sierras. In this show, we’ll be visiting several airstrips between Lake Tahoe and Kern Valley, all on the eastern slopes of the Sierras. We’ll be landing at a mix of backcountry and “front-country” strips, so there will be destinations for all pilots and planes to visit. This is going to be a great show with several “guest stars” and tips on mountain flying. Wayne Handley, the well-known international air show performer, will be appearing to talk about unusual attitude recognition and recovery. I’ll be flying with Wayne in his unlimited aerobatic aircraft, an Extra 300, as he shows me how to recover from inverted attitudes that can result from heavy turbulence in the mountains or wake turbulence at an airport. Also appearing will be Rob Hunter, an expert on aviation survival. Rob will be giving us tips on how to survive if we we’re forced to land in a remote location.
We’re headed back to Utah in the late spring to shoot Red Rock II. We’ll be featuring about five backcountry strips, along with some paved strips in southeast Utah. We hope to make it even more fun and entertaining than the first show.
You can purchase a copy of the Red Rock 1 DVD at outthereflying.com, click on the link to the "store". If you’d like to receive our monthly email newsletter on adventure flying and upcoming DVD releases, sign up on the home page and we’ll include you in the next emailing.
Have fun, fly safe, and I hope to see you Out There…Flying!