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The Helicopter Club

In 2009 I rekindled an old passion for riding in helicopters when I attempted to re-photograph an historic aerial view of the UW campus, which had been taken from a balloon during the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific exhibition (AYP). After several flights I got it right, or at least close enough given the difficulty of the task.

Meanwhile, I started noticing lots of other things to photograph from the air, and I got hooked again, now having made 31 flights (as a passenger) in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Every single trip has included flying over the UW campus in Seattle.

Unique perspectives of urban sites are possible from a helicopter, so I started inviting students and faculty from the College of Built Environments. That cut down on my costs too because the three-passenger Robinson R44 craft is cheaper per person, as opposed to the one passenger R22  (Classic Helicopter at Boeing Field 206-767-0515).

Sitting in the front seat of an R44 I’ll pay most of the fare, and the two guests in the back seat split the difference. A total of 25 students and faculty have now flown with me on 18 trips in an R44, some of them several times. The most frequent flyers in this Helicopter Club are recent M.Arch. grads Beau MacGregor and Aaron Asis, at four trips each.

Included here are some photos from these trips, mostly recent ones that I have not posted elsewhere, as well as some by students. More aerial views are included in two other posts on this blog site of the UW Department of Architecture:



Aaron Asis has a web page where he has posted his aerial views from these trips, celebrating patterns in the urban landscapes below:



The second photo in this post emphasizes Gould Hall, home base for the Department of Architecture in the UW College of Built Environments. Shooting from this ‘low and close’ perspective in a helicopter, you can make any building look like the most important one in the neighborhood.

Typically we fly in the range of 600 to 1400 feet above sea level. Actual distance to ground varies with the topography. At these heights, single buildings can be photographed well if they are big enough, as shown in two of these photos. But I wouldn’t recommend it for residential buildings (right Dan?) unless you want to show a house in the context of its neighborhood. For aerials of single homes you might try the remote controlled drones that typically fly at altitudes of 100 to 300 ft. I’m told they’re not allowed to fly above 600 ft or lower(?).


On my most recent flight in an R22 on Dec 30, 2011, the goal was to get more photos of the Husky Stadium demolition, but getting there was half the fun. An intense but stationary convergence zone snowstorm was hanging just to the north of the stadium, while bright sun streamed in from the south. That created a rainbow right in our path as we flew north.buy sumo wrestler suits

I always thought that the “end of the rainbow” moved as you moved, so there was no true place where a rainbow ended. Not so, as I discovered on this trip. The end of the rainbow stayed put as we approached and passed it, and I have a series of photos to prove it. One is shown here.

But I’m not going to tell you exactly where that spot is.


“It’s not like Google Earth!” said one student at the end of her first helicopter ride.

By inviting CBE students and faculty on these trips, I hope to show how these low level aerial flights can be good for photographing sites and neighborhoods relevant to CBE studios and programs.

Here are some of the of the 26 members currently in the Helicopter Club:


Aaron Asis      http://asisdesigns.com/landscapes/aerial

Borislava Manolova

Justin Schwartzhoff


With this post, I’m sure to get more requests from CBE students and faculty for a seat on my next trip, probably later in February. But I won’t be able to take all of you, so I encourage you to contact other members of the Helicopter Club and/or try it yourselves. Here are some tips:

The helicopter flights described here are called “photo flights” by Classic Helicopter, and they are different than the “tourist flights” offered by the same company operating as Seattle Helicopter Tours (also at 206-767-0515). On a photo flight they’ll take your door off so you can easily get a wide and clear view. That is so cool…especially in winter.

For taking photos, here are a few starting points:  ISO 400, 1/1000 sec and a zoom lens in 24-105 mm range (full frame format). Most of my photos are taken at focal lengths from 35-60 mm with a Nikon D700. Bring as little as possible. If you’re in an R44 helicopter, it will be colder and windier in the back seats than in the front seats.

Feel free to contact me if you have other questions.


John Stamets
Jan 30, 201

John Stamets teaches photography and runs the Architecture Photo Lab in the basement of Gould Hall. Since joining the faculty in 1992, he has created a very successful foundation course in photography oriented
specifically to the needs and interests of future architects. He also leads an advanced “Special Projects” course in which students photograph a single topic or subject in-depth. The photography courses are mostly film-based with an art and documentary spin.




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