Three years ago my wife gave me an introductory flying
lesson for my fiftieth birthday. During a student
cross-country flight one January morning, I flew to the
airport in Keene, New Hampshire with my instructor. He
usually found tasks to keep me busy navigating or
communicating, but after we took off from Keene, he
suggested we fly east over Monadnock, "Just to enjoy the
mountain." Over the seamless woods of the lower slopes, I
looked down to see stone walls, from which the sun had
melted the snow, making straight black lines to show where
farm fields and roads and clusters of buildings had once
been. I wanted to circle, to study the scene and think
about the pre-Civil War farmers who worked that rocky slope
but I knew that it would not be appropriate for a student
pilot, so close to a big mountain, to allow such a
distraction. I stayed on course for Fitchburg, but I turned
and asked my instructor, who has spent decades in aviation
and thousands of hours in various aircraft, "Do you ever
get tired of just looking down?" "No." he said, and smiled.
That spring, I passed my Private Pilot certification and bought a very simple small plane, which is almost as old as I am. I very soon discovered that what I loved most about flying was taking friends for sight-seeing tours and hearing their excited comments about the perspective. Wanting to share this experience with people I don't know, or who won't fly in small planes, I take pictures.
I use a Fuji medium-format rangefinder camera with a 90mm, slightly wide-angle, lens. The 6x9cm negative has the same proportions as a 35mm image but gives much better detail in the big enlargements. The Fuji is small enough to handle easily in the air.
People ask, "Who is flying the plane?" I am. My little high-wing Cessna doesn't fall over like a bicycle or run off the road like a car if I turn my attention to the side for a few seconds. Airplanes are routinely "trimmed" with the power setting and an elevator tab to fly level, and I control yaw, or right-left, with rudder pedals. I fly diagonally away from the view I want to capture so I can shoot back over my left shoulder, in the nine-to-seven-o'clock direction, trying not to include the wing, strut or landing gear in the picture. Flying with an open window gets cold in the winter.
When I take friends flying over their home or business, what excites them is their place in the neighborhood. An adult friend was amazed that the woods by his home stretch unbroken to the Massachusetts line. A boy I took aloft to tour his neighborhood said, when back on the ground, "Mom, everybody else around us has a pool!" It's a little like looking into bedroom windows. I try to resist counting the dead cars and trucks in my neighboring farmer's woodlot.
I am not an aerial photographer of individual houses.
Seeing the world from above changes my understanding of my environment, and there is a political agenda behind my art. I am thrilled by a new orchard on a hill that is invisible from the main roads, and horrified to see the Quinebaug river trying to push its way through a landfill superfund site. I love to hear what in my pictures catches people's attention. It's almost as much fun as taking them flying.
Mr. G. Leslie Sweetnam