Gabrielle Adelman - California Coastal Records Project
Gabrielle with her husband and R-44
Gabrielle does the flying in their Robinson R-44 helicopter and Ken, her husband, takes the pictures. Gabrielle has been kind enough to share some of her experiences and thoughts from this amazing endeavor. Those of you familiar with California will recognize the rugged coastline that Gabrielle is writing about - full of beauty, restricted airspace and protected lands.
All photos in this article are copyright ©2002 KennethAdelman. California Coastal Records Project.
Having had the very good luck to be able to fly a different variety of aircraft, I have seen how the very same flight can seem so different depending on the wings used. Take Watsonville to Sacramento International, a trip I've done over a dozen times. In the CJ2 it's a rush through checklists, and during thunderstorm season, an ever-changing maze of magenta cells and approach corridors to weave through. In the Grumman, it's a slightly-too-long encounter with various approach facilities and a quiet haul over geometric fields, searching for a wide flat airport in a landscape of wide flat farms and rivers. In the helicopter, it's like reading a bas-relief map with antenna towers that you look up at, intimidating power lines stretching invisibly underneath and landing sites in every parking lot and athletic field. In a friend's twin that picked us up when we were stranded once, it's a moonlight journey soothed by the doubled noise of a prop engine and the relaxing knowledge that the piloting, for once, was someone else's problem.
But this journey, 1100 miles of coastline flown between 150' and 1000' at 30 to 100 knots, is something only a helicopter can do, so a large part of the experience comes from the aircraft itself. The legs are short by aircraft standards, 150 run at the most. Radio coverage is something not to be counted on at the altitude flown; we sometimes have had to convince the briefers to accept an assumed departure on our VFR flight plans, something they prefer not to do. And we are very religious about VFR flight plans, giving position updates as we go along; some areas we flew over could easily swallow the helicopter without a trace, if we were forced down. We carry a GPS-EPIRB and wear real life vests (that we even tested by jumping in a swimming pool fully clothed and deploying the C02 cartridge. You float really well but you can only swim on your back.) The helicopter's lack of stability and the demands of the photography for changing speed and altitude means we have to ration our alertness: Ken flies the non-photo legs so I can be fresh enough to do the photo runs, which drain me faster than the corresponding time in a fixed-wing would. On the positive side, because we want the photos to be pretty and thus compelling, we go out on some of the most gorgeous days fall has to offer and I have had long slow flights up close to some very beautiful places, feeling the lift off the hills from the shore breeze, floating over seagulls, sharing some hang-gliders' experiences for a while.
The extreme weather dependency means we have to make decisions to go with about an hour's notice. I found I can pack for three days in half an hour if I need to and don't care about a somewhat dull wardrobe (t-shirts, jeans & sneakers are about all that's comfortable enough to wear for six hours in a plastic bubble and will also squish down small enough to fit under the seat). We always had to pack lunches since our fuel stops depended on the fog (unpredictable even by the best minds of the NWS). I have had to be vague to FBOs about when and if the rental car would be needed, whined my way out of a non-cancelable hotel reservation, and several times run into restaurants just before closing with the hope of a dinner when a flight ran extra long. The one time I was stymied was when we landed at Little River Airport. The entire list of public services reads: (from the Airnav website)
The fuel worked, the ramp was clear, management had gone home for the day and we had a cell phone, but the restroom was broken. AUGH!
The North Coast was hard to shoot because there are no airports near the coast for long stretches. All stations can report "Clear" and a stubborn fog layer can be sitting undetected right on the shoreline. On our first run, Shelter Cove (one of the few airports on the coast) sat in a warm circle of sunshine with fog all around, so if you had looked on DUATS it would have appeared to be a great day to photograph!
The coast south of Santa Barbara has great reporting, of course, but is a big challenge in terms of airspace. With only my left hand free I flipped through charts and my blue book and set frequencies. Santa Barbara tower - Santa Barbara approach - Oxnard tower - Mugu tower (they very graciously let us through the restricted area as long as we stayed above 1000' to avoid "live fire"; best reason I've ever heard for an altitude restriction) - Santa Monica tower - Los Angeles helicopter (special frequency for the designated helicopter transition, usually 150' right along the beach, looking up at multiple departing "heavys") - Torrance tower - Long Beach tower - SoCal approach (Santa Ana area) - Long Rifle Range Control (R2503B was hot, no dice) Palomar tower - Lindbergh tower - North Island tower (by prior permission) - Imperial Beach tower (also by prior permission) ...a very careful peek within an inch of Mexico (helicopter ops allowed by military only except with a work visa) and then (after three and a half hours with one break for fuel), the photos were done and Ken was free to navigate, and I was very glad to have him guide me through the VFR corridor back to Palomar and dinner.
With all these lovely photos, I have to report that the best shot is one we didn't get. On our latest trip up north, we stopped in Ukiah for fuel. The only other traffic was a CDF bomber getting ready to do closed traffic: he seemed unusually anxious to keep track of our position as we landed across the runway at the fuel ramp, and we noticed a lot of people for such a small airport standing around watching the runway. The fuel guy told us what was going on when we landed: it was the end of the season and the pilot of the CDF plane had loaded up with water to flush his tanks, and was going to drop it on the runway on a low pass. We just had enough time to spin around and watch the tanker, which looked like a 747 on final when scaled against Ukiah's small runway, come down for a low pass and give everyone a look at what usually only firefighters get to see: hundreds of gallons avalanching out the drop tank, the water hitting the air with a rolling, tumbling motion like white horses galloping in the spray. Thinking of the bravery of the pilots who generally do this run in the horrific conditions of a real fire, I realized that part of what makes aircraft so beautiful (to me at least) is their incredible utility. CDF saving houses and lives, or Medevac pilots getting patients to hospitals in the critical moments after a wreck, or search-and-rescue pilots doing their job, or hundreds of bush pilots moving just about everything in Alaska, or even our photography project finding new uses: an aircraft on a mission just seems to gleam brighter and sound sweeter as it roars overhead.