During my career as a professional photographer, I have been blessed with the opportunity to engage in aerial photography above many major cities in the United States and abroad. One of my most memorable episodes in the air was my helicopter flight over Miami, Florida in late April 2013.  The experience was as much indelible as it was bittersweet.

Aerial of Brickell District, Miami.
The Four Seasons Hotel Miami, towering to the left, is the second tallest building in Florida.

I am not a superstitious individual, but the events leading to this flight were quite atypical compared to my other helicopter flights. Usually, I book my arrangements several weeks in advance to make sure the pilot is available at the time I have requested. 

The helicopter company providing the service would confirm the date, duration of flight time, and the cost via email or phone.  For my aerial photography of Miami, this procedure occurred as expected.  For this project, I was in direct contact with the pilot who would collaborate with me.  In late March, we had corresponded about the arrangement, and the pilot told me to call him a few hours before the flight (scheduled for late April) just to make sure we were still on schedule. 

That entire process was completely typical and familiar.

When the date of the helicopter flight arrived, I called the pilot to confirm that we were set for the arranged time, but was unable to leave a message on the pilot’s cellphone.  Either his mailbox for receiving voice messages was full or the line was out of service.

Either way, I didn’t think too much of it because I knew most pilots were very busy engaging and scheduling clients every day.  Any number of reasons could have been applicable for why I couldn’t touch base.  Besides, if there had been a problem or conflict, I was certain the pilot would call me.  The weather in Miami was splendid that day. It was clear, very sunny, and slightly windy – conditions that would not cause concern for cancellation or postponement.

Mouth of the Miami River @ Biscayne Bay

I decided to drive to the location of the helicopter company about 90 minutes in advance of the scheduled time as I wasn’t sure how long it would take to reach its location from my hotel in downtown Miami.  When I had arrived at the hangar of the helicopter company, I was still very early.  I parked nearby, grabbed my cellphone, and decided to go online just to make sure I was at the right location.  When I had typed the name of the helicopter company in Google, I scanned through the list of results, anticipating that I would confirm the correct address.  However, the search results on the first page completely took my attention away from my original objective.  I started reading headlines that a pilot from this very company had recently perished in a helicopter crash two weeks ago.  When I saw the name of the pilot, I was stunned.  It was my pilot – the same one who I had been emailing when I was in Seattle, and the same one who had told me to contact him before the scheduled flight over Miami. 

From what I read, the pilot and another passenger were performing a maintenance test of a Robinson R44 helicopter.  The tail rotor had detached from the back of the helicopter, causing it to collide into a palm tree shortly after taking off.  The reality of the situation was compounded by what I read.  I realized that by the time I had arrived in Miami, the pilot with whom I was meant to collaborate had been deceased for nearly 14 days.  I still had his email correspondence visible on my cellphone’s Gmail application.  According to the date of his death in the article I read, the accident occurred only six days after he sent me the email instructing me to contact him. 

This is a Robinson R44 helicopter, typically the type that I ride in (doors always removed)
when conducting aerial photography over major cities.

For several jarring moments, I was perturbed. I just sat in my car rental, shocked at what I had learned. Thoughts raced hectically through my head. I wondered if I had been one of the last people with whom he had corresponded.  I wondered about his family, his friends, his coworkers.  This news of the accident had apparently sent a few shockwaves in the south Florida region because the pilot was well-known to many, and appeared to be a very amiable individual. I didn’t know the pilot, of course, but as a human being, I was now very curious about his life and the moments before his unfortunate circumstances.  I also thought about the nature of helicopter crashes in which some pilots and passengers do not survive, while others were able to walk away from them. One never knows.  When this pilot woke up that day two weeks ago, he didn’t know that day would be his last.  He did die doing something he loved, according to the few articles I read and re-read.  I had concluded that if I died in a helicopter accident, chances are I would also have died doing something I love to do – photographing major cities from hundreds of feet above in the air.

After several minutes, swimming in the chasms of my psyche, I suddenly returned back to the present moment.  Despite this horrible news, I was still meant to perform aerial photography over Miami.  I had been lost in thought for half an hour, and it was almost time to depart.  However, if my pilot was no longer alive, and no one had called me since he passed away, what did that mean?  There were now some unanswered questions about this unexpected revelation as a result of going online to confirm the address of the helicopter company.  Although I was at the right place, the central office was apparently less than a mile down the road.  I drove there and went into the office.

In the foreground, Brickell Key (a.k.a. Claughton Island) is a man-made island located
in Biscayne Bay directly off the coast of Miami. The Key is a part of the city.

When I explained to the receptionist who I was and what I had learned, her facial expression changed to one of sadness.  She knew of the pilot, and had seen him many times, but didn’t know him personally.  The receptionist said that all his previously scheduled bookings with different passengers, including myself, had been transferred to another pilot at a different helicopter company nearby. My flight was still scheduled for the arranged time. No cancellations. The new pilot ran a helicopter company that was in competition with the one with which I had originally booked my flight.  The new pilot also knew the one who had passed away as they had often recommended each other’s businesses when one wasn’t available to serve a customer at the time of request.

When I met the new pilot, he was upbeat, positive, and spoke of the late pilot with reverence and respect.  However, as an entrepreneur, he didn’t let the somber (and soon to be morose) conversation about his friend and former competitor last long. He switched the subject to my aerial photography project and we proceeded to discuss my expectations. I respected his professionalism despite what had happened. I realized that the news I had just learned was not actually news to the people I had just met.

After the pilot detached the passenger door so I could capture images clearly without glare from the glass, we ascended into the skies, flying towards the multiple skyscrapers of Miami.  We flew over different neighborhoods — one of which, apparently, featured the most expensive property for sale in the United States at that time.  If you had $100 million lying around in your pantry back in 2013, the real estate below could have been yours.

On a humorous tangent — when viewing this massive estate from the air — for those of you who remember or are familiar with pop culture from the 1980s, I couldn’t help but recall the opening themes for the night-time soap operas “Dynasty” and “Dynasty II: The Colbys” when photographing this! Both series featured gargantuan mansions where the main characters lived.

I was only a kid when these shows were on prime time. My mom would let me watch and listen to the opening themes because they were, in fact, excellent scores and featured terrific aerial views of Denver and Los Angeles (yes, I was very much into cityscapes at a very young age). Immediately after the themes ended, she would banish me to bed because those shows weren’t meant for my eyes at that age. (I’m chuckling at this childhood memory). Anyway, the point is: Doesn’t the mansion in the photos above look exactly like the quintessential residence tailor-made for a night-time drama about a disgustingly wealthy and obnoxiously extravagant family who commits all sorts of appalling, over-the-top obscenities? Yes, indeed.

Yes, I’m going all the way there! Even if you don’t care for soaps,
humor me and try to see how many actors and actresses you recognize.
Try your luck again with the spinoff series.

As we flew towards the Brickell district and Biscayne Bay, I informed the pilot, through our headphone system, that there was a portion of downtown Miami that I wanted to capture. However, to achieve this, we apparently had to fly directly across the flight paths of the commercial planes taking off from Miami International Airport (MIA). 

After we had initially taken flight, the pilot was taking all the necessary precautions to steer clear out of the way of the many planes which took off from the airport and flew directly east over downtown before turning north or south along the Florida coastline.  From where we were hovering over Biscayne Bay, we could see the planes taking off from the airport in the distance.

Skyline of Miami

The pilot said my request would not be a problem, but it was important that he have a conversation with the control tower at MIA first to get it cleared.  He smiled knowingly and said, “I love doing this. Feel free to tune in.”  I didn’t know what to expect, but I listened intently as the pilot spoke through his headset.  The paraphrased exchange went something like the following:

PILOT:   This is ________ (identification) located over _________ (location and coordinates).  We have an aerial photographer who needs to perform photography over downtown Miami.  We request permission to pass through the airspace of commercial jets to complete task.

MIAMI INTL AIRPORT:  This is the Control Tower at MIA.  We recognize your location. Did you say aerial photography project?

PILOT:   Yes, we have a photographer who traveled all the way from Seattle who would like to photograph the downtown corridor.  To do this, we need to fly across the airspace of the commercial jets.

MIAMI INTL AIRPORT:  Ah okay. From Seattle, eh? He traveled a long way, then.  How much time does the photographer from Seattle need to perform the aerial photography project?

PILOT (to me):  How much time would you say?

ME (completely surprised):  Me???

PILOT:  Yes!  This is your project!  Tell us.

ME (excited to be a part of the decision-making):  Hmmm. Let’s see.  No more than 10 minutes, I suppose.

PILOT:  Control Tower, we need about 10 minutes to complete project. 

MIAMI INTL AIRPORT:  Very well. We’ll suspend operation of take-offs of commercial planes so your photographer from Seattle can get his pictures. It’s a beautiful day for it too.  You have 10 minutes.  Have fun and get some great shots.  Please let us know when you conclude.

Commercial airlines’ flight paths flew directly above downtown Miami in this area traveling from west to east. Their paths intersected with the flight path of the helicopter traveling from north to south.

At that moment, the last commercial jet (possibly American Airlines based on the logo on the tail wing) had already made its way north from the city.  As I looked towards the airport, we could see no movement from the runways. The planes were lined up and stationary. This was rather fascinating to behold from the sky. We proceeded to fly over downtown and I obtained my photographs. For the next 10 minutes, in between shots, I was reveling at the fact that we had essentially halted the take-off of all the big planes taking off from Miami International Airport so the “photographer from Seattle” could get his shots.  Once we had finished, the pilot informed the Control Tower.  A few minutes after we departed from downtown, we could see the planes starting to take off again, one by one, flying above downtown Miami.

And away they flew once again. . .

In conclusion, the entire experience of this aerial photography flight over Miami was unique because of the unusual circumstances leading up to it, and during the flight itself.  Back in Seattle, while post-processing my images of Miami many days later, I felt a feeling of gratitude that I could do what I love to do and share my work online via my website and social media.  In addition, this feeling had inspired me to share my stories reflecting what took place to obtain these images.  The reality of life’s situations came into play intensely for me that day.   

Writing this blog article with the wholehearted recognition that tomorrow is never guaranteed, I wish for the original pilot’s soul to forever rest in peace.

Please click here to view my complete set of aerial images of Miami.

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