Good Exposure: A Snapshot of Calgary’s Foto Flite

by Stu Simpson

It could happen to you: You’re relaxing in the backyard on a sunny afternoon, knocking back a cold one, when the unmistakable drone of a piston-twin many thousands of feet up tickles your ears. Being an airplane nut, you immediately look skyward and see a bright white speck hurtling along from east to west. Then you smile, and say cheese! and have another slug of beer. You’ve just had your picture taken by the boys from Foto Flite.

Ariel photography, or more correctly, aerial survey, has been around nearly as long as flying itself. In fact, it’s one of the building blocks of this country’s aviation industry. The government contracted bush flyers in the early part of the century to use their airplanes to map the vast and remote expanses of Canada’s wilderness. These contracts formed an essential part of the cash flow that allowed many aviation companies to keep flying.

Foto Flite is a Calgary-based company that has specialized in the aerial survey game for more than thirty years.

Who Takes Pictures From Airplanes, Anyway?

The government, mostly, says company president Dave Skelton. “Most of our work, 50% of it, is generated by government agencies. They’re the biggest users of this type of information and they all use it for planning purposes.”

Map-making is the most common use of Foto Flite’s data. But is also allows the governement to keep an eye on other things on the ground. For instance, forestry companies are granted access to certain clearly defined areas to do their logging. With aerial photography both the government and the logging people can see exactly where the boundaries are. It helps keeps everyone happy.

Government agencies aren’t the only ones who want pictures from the air. Oil companies, seismic companies, surveyors, and real estate agents all use aerial photography. “We’re used by anyone who wants to look at the ground from up high,” says Skelton.

Bare Necessities

I asked Skelton what’s required to be able to take pictures from the air. Of course you need an airplane and a camera (more on them later), but each of those are useless without the right weather.

“We are very weather dependent,” Skelton says. Simply put, you can’t photograph what you can’t see, and cameras can’t see through clouds.

Foto Flite’s crews fly anywhere from 2000′ to 24,000′. If there are clouds between the plane and the ground, the picture is spoiled, which means they’ll have to come back another day. Thus, large high pressure systems are what Skelton’s flight crews hope for.

Since his business depends so heavily on good weather I wondered what Skelton thought about weather forecasting in Canada. What he said surprised me; Dave Skelton is probably the only guy in aviation who speaks highly of weathermen. “Weather forecasting in Calgary is pretty good up to 48 to 72 hour in advance,” he said.

One of Skelton’s crew members looks at it a bit differently. Ben Chaban has been in aerial survey for nearly 30 years and what he sees is how the whole weather picture has changed lately. “We used to get big, clear high pressure centres all the time,” he told me. “But in the last few years all we seem to get is a westerly flow and lots of bad weather.”

The aerial survey season in Canada is notoriously short, running only from March to late September or early October. Therefore, it’s essential to make the most of time available. And that means the equipment, both plane and camera, has to be in top working order all the time. Maintenance is a top priority with Foto Flite.

Speaking of Equipment…

Some might think all you need to take pictures from the air is a Piper and a Polaroid. But it’s not quite that simple. Oh sure, if you want to grab a few snaps of Aunt Dolly‘s farm from a couple hundred feet up, your trusty pocket Instamatic might just cut it. But if you want pictures that are going to be part of a legal land site description, you’re going to need something a bit more complicated – and expensive, too.

Obviously, the first thing required for aerial photography is an airplane. It has to be one that can fly high enough to get the most cost-effective use of the camera system. It has to be stable enough to be a good camera mount, and it has to have the cabin space to hold the camera and camera operator. Then you need a camera. Not just any camera, but one specifically designed for the task.

Foto Flite settled on two different types of airplanes, and one camera system. Their two planes are a ’74 Piper Aztec and a ’72 Navajo with the Panther conversion (350 hp per side instead of 310, winglets, a quieter cabin, and Q-tip props). The Aztec does the same job, but does it a bit slower.

Talk to pilot Darren Reeve and he’ll tell you the Panther is a much better airplane for the job. “It’ll climb at 1000 feet per minute right up to 20,000 feet,” he says, “and the winglets really help to keep us stabilized on our flight lines.” That stability is important, because a slight error at altitude is compounded exponentially on the ground image.

Then there’s the camera in the Panther; it’s called a Leica RC-30. A highly specialized unit, it weighs in at about four hundred pounds and cost Skelton half a million bucks. As you can see from the pictures, it’s not exactly something you’d take to Aunt Dolly’s family reunion. “With the RC-30, we don’t take bad pictures anymore,” Skelton told me.

The RC-30 sits on a gyro-stabilized mount that keeps it pointed where its supposed to be pointed, even in turbulence. Chaban’s job is to run the camera, which he does through a computer that’s also tied into the plane’s GPS nav system. Each film cassette allows for about 250 exposures. The camera gives a frame overlap of about 60% and this, in turn, lets the photo interpreters see the ground in “stereo”. In other words they’ll have a three dimensional view of the ground, which is necessary for map-making.

The camera looks downward through an optically perfect glass plate set into the belly of the plane. So if the crew has to take side-angle pictures, like those seen in travel brochures, the airplane has to be banked and in a turn in order for the camera to see its subject.

Modifying an airplane for aerial photo work isn’t cheap. Skelton says it costs about forty grand per plane because of all the wiring and control cable re-routing that’s required. The belly glass alone is worth $8,000. And the price for modification jumps astronomically if the airplane is pressurized.

The Nature of The Beast

The nature of aerial survey work seems to be summed up in one word; precision. Toward that end everything is done to make sure the airplane is exactly where it is supposed to be to get the right pictures.

For example, Ben Chaban, whose job title is Aerial Survey Navigator, does most of his work these days on a computer. His flight (course) lines are all pre-written for him and his computer uses an operating system known as QNX, which is very good at crunching numbers.

Most of Foto Flite’s work is done between 18,000 feet and 20,000 feet. Skelton says they make their runs in an east to west grid pattern. Then, once the actual photos are printed, they’re easier to view and orientate with one another.

As pilot, Darren Reeve’s job is to get the plane to the correct position and altitude. Then he turns on course, Chaban punches a button, and the computer and camera do the rest. It’s a far cry from the old days when navigators had to use prisms and maps to get their position right. “Compared with visual navigation,” Chaban says, “I’ve got a lot more work to do now, but it’s easier.”

Chaban has a varied background in physics and photography. He’s been all over the world including Africa, Southeast Asia, and Australia. “I’ve probably been everywhere in Australia that has an airstrip,” he says. He likes the variety found in aerial surveying, likes not knowing where he’ll be or what he’ll be doing from day to day. To say he loves his job would be an understatement.

By contrast, his pilot, Darren Reeve sees this job as a very pleasant stop-over on the way to his dream of being an airline pilot. He graduated from Mount Royal College’s Aviation Program in 1994 and has amassed 2500 hours.

Reeve likes both the variety, and the fact that this job is so challenging. “It’s a great way to build time and I get a lot of responsibility right away,” he says. It also pays about twice what a charter pilot with similar experience would make on a sched-run.

A typical photo mission lasts anywhere from 3 – 4 hours and requires a lot of concentration. Reeve analogized it this way: “It’s like flying the ILS for two or three hours at a time, and doing twenty to thirty intercepts in one flight.”

Teamwork is a key element for an aerial survey crew. I theorized to Chaban that in his thirty years of navigating he must have suffered some less than adequate pilots. He just laughed and agreed, then quickly bragged about how his current driver was very adequate.

Back On The Ground

Once the pictures have been taken, the film has to be developed. Foto Flite has it’s own lab and photo technicians on-site in their office at YYC. With its facilities the company can create huge mosaics from single pictures. Skelton showed me a large poster of Calgary that is actually one of his mosaics made up of 180 separate aerial photos.

Not everyone wants just simple black and white pictures of the ground, so Foto Flite offers different services. They’ll take pictures in color, but that jacks the film price by a factor of 2.5. They also use a technique called false color infrared, which can tell scientists different things about large areas of vegetation.

It’s interesting to note that for every hour spent flying and taking pictures, there’s one day’s worth of work to be done in the lab.

Dave Skelton says the future of Foto Flite looks digital. “There’s no doubt we’ll have to switch over to computer-based equipment in the future,” he says, “but digital photography can’t yet match the quality and resolution we get with film.”

For the moment, though, Skelton is content to expand his business south of the border. They’ve just set up shop in Mesa, Arizona using the company’s Aztec. Skelton predicts good things from Mesa, especially in light of the region’s longer photo-flying season.

So the next time you’re having a beer in the backyard and you hear a twin go over at about twenty thousand feet, don’t forget to look up, smile, and say cheese! You might just be getting your picture taken.