Chris Boyer hard at work in the red plane.
Award-winning conservation photopgrapher, owner of Kestrel Aerial Services, and LightHawk volunteer pilot Chris Boyer is based in Bozeman, Montana. I flew my first LightHawk mission (with the door off) with Chris last August and have been interested in his unique story ever since. I’m sure you’ll enjoy Chris’ perspective and will want to spend some time viewing his web galleries.
Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself, Kestrel Aerial and what you do?
I was raised a conservationist, and always knew that my life and career would be intimately bound up in rural and wild landscapes. I just never knew how. Still don’t. I moved west to work as a farmer, ranch hand, and outfitter and did that for many years until I decided to participate in a “real” economy to see what that was like. This led to working in landscape restoration, going to graduate school in hydrology and geomorphology, and then starting my own ecosystem restoration racket. Learning to fly was practically free at Oregon State University, and an incredible synergy quickly developed between my access to the aerial view, and my study of complex landscape dynamics. I knew that being a weekend pilot would not be enough for me so I worked very hard to find a similar synergy between money and airplanes, and began mapping restoration projects for my company, and then expanding to other natural resource professionals. Although constantly using the aerial view to inform my techniques of ecosystem restoration, I became aware that from the air, I was witnessing much more of the landscape coming unraveled, than being patched together. This led me to devote my cameras and airplane towards more of an advocacy role.
“Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming”
You fly a very distinctive, classic, bright-red plane that’s tricked out for photography. What makes your plane special and what’s the flying experience like?
The plane is a 1957 Cessna 172 with several important and wonderful modifications. The 145 hp engine was upgraded to 180 hp, and a constant speed or variable pitch prop replaced the fixed pitch prop. With the conventional tailwheel landing gear configuration, the main gear is forward of the door allowing for a large, unobstructed area to shoot at wide angles. Because of the simple instrumentation of the 50’s, the instrument panel is small, and the windshield is large, allowing for excellent visibility. It will practically hover at speeds as low as 40 miles per hour, can be flown with the doors removed, and is a near perfect platform for my work. There are some kit-built craft that are more suited to photography, but there is only one aviation-related rule in our family: Not allowed to ride in homebuilt aircraft. I have no problem with this rule.
For mapping, I designed a vibration-damped camera mount which positions the camera over a small inspection port in the belly of the craft. This setup allows me to create georeferenced aerial maps with amazing resolutions of 3 inches per pixel.
When did you begin flying LightHawk missions and why did you want to volunteer your plane and your time to fly for conservation? How many hours have you flown for LightHawk?
The aerial view quickly became such an influence in my conservation ethic, that as soon as I heard about Lighthawk, I knew I needed to join. I had to wait a couple of years though, because Lighthawk places a high emphasis on experience, and does not accept volunteer pilots with less than 1,000 hours of logged pilot-in-command time. This is because, as you saw, Lighthawk missions are typically conducted at relatively low altitudes, in remote locations, and where the need to see all sides of an issue may require some creative flying. On September 12th of 2005, I took off from Bozeman with 999.3 hours in my logbook, and returned with 1,000.7 hours. I signed up that afternoon. I think that my first Mission was with Joe Riis, now an ILCP photographer. I’ve probably flown about 200 hours for Lighthawk.
“Berkely Mine, Butte, Montana”
You may be the most humble award-winning photographer I know. How do you go about making great images while flying an airplane?
The nuts and bolts of operating the plane is the easy part. On my best days, the plane is simply a suit that I wear when I go to the sky. I imagine where and how I want to be lined up and go there. While in flight on a photo mission, I devote 70% of my attention to not bumping into other traffic or the planet. 20% of my attention is devoted to monitoring gauges, reevaluating weather, fuel and flight planning components. The remainder of my brain cells are available for the nuts and bolts of flying and shooting—up, down, right, left, click, click, click.
I think that any inherent ability I have to make images from a plane is a direct result of reading the landscape from aloft for a couple thousand hours—I guess I’m just gaining some fluency in translating what I see.
You’ve flown some remarkable conservation missions. Are there a few that really stand out? Why?
I can’t point to individual missions, but there are elements that I like to see in the missions I fly. I tend to gravitate towards those that include big issues, collaborative efforts, and informed science and policy components. I have always jumped at missions with conservation photographers because these tend to have all of the above components, yet they are typically a 1 person show: an a passionate and motivated advocate with a camera who has learned about the issue from every angle, generated their own funding, assembled a diverse assortment of informants, and has adopted the project as their life for a period of years.
“Roadkill” Between Four Corners and Norris, Montana
“Monument Valley Sunrise, Utah”
** All images except the plane shot ©Chris Boyer. Plane shot by Moe Witschard.