During the Korean Conflict (1950-1953), I served as an aerial observer for Marine Corps Artillery. Sometimes called “The Coldest War,” I volunteered for this, as the L-119 planes used were equipped with heaters. Flying low over the mountainous Korean landscape gave me a new perspectiv—an unexpected surprise—a visual reality in map form. This assignment opened a way of seeing from the comfort of a heated cockpit. It started me on a 50-year journey of photographing while flying in a small airplane.
Released from active duty, I moved to the Monterey Peninsula, CA where I established myself as a commercial photographer, including aerial work. I made friends with Sam Nickele, who had flown for the Marines in WWII. In a joint venture, he would fly a rented plane and I would photograph. Blessed with luck, we found the perfect airplane, a vintage fabric-covered Aeronca. There was no starter or parking brakes.
Working in the air brings on a whole new set of demands, both mechanical and visual. Airplanes vibrate. While shooting, if the photographer accidentally leans against any part of the plane, like the door, the vibration is instantly transmitted to the camera, and there goes sharpness. Cameras built specifically for just aerial work are intentionally heavy, and therefore, more stable. Are there compromises? Of course there are. The Pentax 6X7 is a moose on the ground, but is wonderful in the air. It is heavy and stable, with eye level viewing, large enough film size, good lenses available, sturdy anatomically correct hand grips, and wind resistant. In comparison, the Hasselblad, which is seen more frequently, has an awkward grip, doesn’t weigh as much, has a smaller film size, and when used from an open window, is not windproof. Sticking the camera into the wind stream causes film flutter, because the connection between the camera body and the film magazine isn’t tight enough. Granted, this can be offset by taping the magazine to the body, but who wants to always do that?