Risk and the perfect picture

There’s no question that Pioneer Press photographer Ben Garvin’s aerial photographs of the Crashed Ice event are some of the most spectacular photographs ever taken of the Capital City. True to the nature of geeky pilots, I wondered how it was possible the pilot could legally — not to mention, skillfully — get them.

It was difficult airspace for the pilot of the Cessna aircraft to navigate, given the smokestacks along the river (note: they’re not so much aviation hazards as they are markers of the point at which the big airport’s airspace begins at ground level), the height of the Cathedral, and the heavily-controlled airspace overhead that’s meant to protect the jets at the big airport. Any safe pilot is always mindful of the possibility of an engine failure, but Garvin’s pilot left himself with few options if something had gone wrong.

Having witnessed the plane circling the Cathedral at a low altitude on Saturday, I tweeted on Sunday that the pilot may have been breaking the regulations to help Garvin get his shot. He was that low.

In MinnPost writer David Brauer’s excellent interview with Garvin, the suspicion was confirmed with this passage:

“We had to fly low because of the smokestack of the District Energy power plant. The pilot mentioned a couple of times, ‘We’re too low, we might get in trouble.’ I was kind of saying ‘Do what you have to do, but keep doing it,’” the photographer says with a chuckle. “He said he hardly ever got to do cool things like this. He was banking sharp, and flying in high-traffic airspace, so it was technically challenging.”

It was also likely illegal at some point. Here’s the relevant FAA regulation:

Except when necessary for takeoff or landing, no person may operate an aircraft below the following altitudes:

(a) Anywhere. An altitude allowing, if a power unit fails, an emergency landing without undue hazard to persons or property on the surface.

(b) Over congested areas. Over any congested area of a city, town, or settlement, or over any open air assembly of persons, an altitude of 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle within a horizontal radius of 2,000 feet of the aircraft.

If the engine had failed, there was nowhere for Garvin and his pilot to go but into a neighborhood, building, or the crowd below (one might have been able to limp over to the Sears parking lot to minimize the toll). And on ( b), the pilot also likely failed. The highest obstacle in the area, of course, was the Cathedral at 306 feet, requiring a minimum altitude of 1,306 above it. That would have put him in the so-called Class B airspace above the city, which protects the jets landing at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport (It’s not restricted airspace, a pilot simply needs permission to enter it). It appears that he was circling just outside the reach of the controllers at the downtown St. Paul airport.

This photo, which raced around the Twitterverse — and deservedly so — reveals the pilot was no more than 200-500 feet above the top of the spire (estimate adjusted for the use of an 80-200 mm lens).

Who couldn’t look at that beauty all day?

Fortunately, airplanes don’t usually develop mechanical problems, and Garvin wasn’t responsible for following aviation rules — his job was to get the shot. But the regulations exist because of the high risk involved in low- altitude flights with steep turns, which increase the danger of a stall/spin crash that, in this case, could have far eclipsed the toll in the recent Reno airshow crash.

A study by the Aviation Safety Foundation found that 80 percent of all crashes involving a stall/spin, began within 1,000 feet of the ground.

The challenge of photographing an event like Crashed Ice is also why TV news organizations use helicopters for their photo platforms. The FAA regulations exempt helicopter pilots from the minimum safe altitude requirements above, as long as the helicopters are flown “without hazard to persons or property on the surface.”

It’s hard to know whether the “trouble” the pilot of the plane was concerned about was the potential problem of an engine failure, or the possibility the FAA would find out .

The FAA has not yet responded to inquiries on the matter, and it’s fairly unlikely it will.