aerial photography, aerial view, corporate photography, editorial photography, Equipment, Uncategorized

Surviving a helicopter crash – the one item an aerial photographer must have in their kit

How one device, if you survive a helicopter crash, can help rescue personnel.

In all my years of aerial photography from helicopters, I have never experienced an auto-rotation due to engine failure. I only had one emergency landing: it was at night, with thunderstorms all around us, in a Bell Jet Ranger, and the engine chip light came on, (possibility of metal fragments in the engine accessory gearbox), and the pilot and I decided after a very brief conversation, that given the weather in front of us and the terrain below, it was best to put the bird down at the nearest airfield – which was Lake Charles Regional Airport. (if memory serves me correctly)

The pilot declared an emergency and we did a power-on auto-rotation to the field. The air traffic controller asked us if we needed a fire truck or an ambulance, which we did not.  We landed, took all of gear into the FBO on the field and waited out the storms.  The pilot had a case of get-there-itis, which is a dangerous attitude in flying.  It had been a long day of intense shooting and we were both tired.  I suggested that we get a couple of rooms at a nearby hotel (at my cost) and we take off in the morning. He reluctantly agreed after hearing my argument for not continuing our flight, plus I flat-out refused to fly with him if he decided to continue on to New Orleans that evening.  My reasons were: adverse weather and flying at night over marshes that included at least twenty-five miles of the Atchafalya National Wildlife Refuge with no place to land if we did have an emergency.  He agreed.

The following day, the pilot did his pre-flight checks and announced that we were good-to-go. I also did my own mental preflight of the aircraft and more importantly, the pilot’s state of mind. One of the advantages of my holding a pilot’s license is the training I went through in ground school that taught me what to look for in terms of demeanor in myself and other pilots and how this relates to aircraft safety. I felt that we were safe, and a couple of minutes later we were air-borne for a helo base south of New Orleans.


Our route from Lake Charles over the Atchafalaya Refuge

Fortunately, we crossed the Atchafalya National Wildlife Refuge without the chip light warning and landed back at the home base with enough time for me to make a flight back to Virginia.


Why you should buy a Personal Locator Beacon


A couple of years earlier, I shot aerials of Blue Ridge Mountains for Virginia Tourism.  It was a long-two day shoot and the weather was severe-clear, perfect for early morning light on the Eastern edge of the ridge, hopefully with a bit of fog in valleys and above rivers. During the flight, the pilot (a good friend who I have flown with for years) mentioned that if we had a power-outage over some of the remote valleys areas, we would be, in his word, “totally screwed.”  I asked him, how we would be found, if we could not hike out, or worse, did not survive the crash.  He mentioned that the ship (the helicopter) carried an ACR ResqLink that would automatically start sending out our location to Search and Rescue satellites, giving them our location within a few meters.  Then, help would be dispatched.  I laughed and told him I was also carrying a PLB in my gyroscope case.

Photo of a portable ME406 from the Artex web site

Four years before that flight, I was on an assignment in Wyoming for Field and Stream magazine photographing animal migration corridors for a piece on how natural gas wells were disturbing animal migration. The pilot for the project, the late, great Sparky Imeson,  suggested I carry a personal locator beacon with me on my flights.  I promptly ordered one. Sparky, besides being a legend in the aviation community, was the author of Mountain Flying Bible, the de-facto, how-to book, about flying fixed-wing aircraft in the mountains.

My personal ResQLinkthat goes with me on every helicopter flight.

How does a Personal Locator Beacon work?


In an emergency, a personal locator beacon will broadcast your location, within a few meters, to a network of search-and-rescue satellites. That starts the process of search and rescue teams heading out to find you. The beauty of the any PLB is that you are required by law to register the device. (In the United States, it is NOAA)  Each beacon is registered for two years to you. Your full name with additional information is tied to the beacon.  I consider it a must-have at this point. Even though, most pilots that I’ve worked with, carry a personal locator beacon, every helicopter I have flown in, during the past ten-years or so, has an ELT tied to the ship.

ACR Locator Beacon

To activate the beacon, you release the antenna and the device starts broadcasting your location.

Antenna side of PLB

Additional Safety Equipment for aerial photographers

Recently I ordered another ACR product – the Pro Solas.  It is a portable beacon that can be seen for up to three miles. Using a super bright set of LED’s bulbs, this little device is going to be a handy addition to the safety kit.

Image from the Amazon site

Another Option


There is a wonderful little app called What3WordsWhat3Words does is Geo-locate your mobile phone location and tie it to three words.  Those three words never change and describe a three meter square. Those words tell emergency personnel where you are within a grid. Just about every spot on the planet has been mapped.  This would be a back-up to an Personal Locator Beacon. Because, as most of us know, not every spot on the planet, particularly remote locations, has cell coverage.

Check out the website that tells how the film industry uses the app, how emergency personnel respond and a few heart-warming success stories.