Capturing A Bumblebee

August 05, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

My recent article A Lot In A Little presented the wide range of images I captured during a single air-to-air mission. In that piece I stressed the need for efficiency when aircraft are airborne — it's expensive to fly these things.

In this article, we'll see the wide range of images I captured during many hours of photography at an active firefighting helibase. In situations such as this, where the aircraft are not under your control but you have time and reasonable access to them, I stress variety rather than efficiency.

In case you're not familiar with the term, a helibase is, according to the U.S. Forest Service, "The main location within the general incident area for parking, fueling, maintaining, and loading helicopters." In this instance, the helibase was located in the Grand Canyon National Park and, though I photographed the gamut of aircraft operating there, for a photo essay I was crafting for a trade magazine, I'll illustrate my approach to ground-based image making with just one of those aircraft — the "Bumblebee!"

(Nick)Name that Helicopter!

Bumblebee is the affectionate appellation for an MD 900 helicopter, owned and operated by Papillon, on a 365-day lease to the National Park Service that has it marked as an NPS aircraft. Why Bumblebee? It's the livery — the rear half of the aircraft is glossy black, bisected by a broad, swooping, yellow stripe. Very jaunty. I have seen photos of the aircraft for many years, but this was my first time seeing it in person.

The above image presents both a clean portrait of the aircraft and an example of using the environment to make images that are more than "photo of helicopter," despite my being stuck to the earth. This is at the helibase, where the terrain is surprisingly hilly, so I took advantage of the hilliness in letting the foliage slightly occlude the aircraft. How hilly? Just take a look at the next shot, made shortly before this one.

The aircraft, at least what we can see of it, is spinning up on the ramp outside its hangar, and through the magic (well, through the intentional effect) of a "long" lens, I have definitely put the aircraft in its environment by blocking much of the fuselage with the grassy hill and framing it against its home.

And switching to a view from inside the hangar, shot through a "short" lens, I offer a totally different approach to showing the Bumblebee in its environment. Note how both of these images have the helicopter at its home, yet the emphasis in the first shot is the aircraft, while in the second shot it is the hangar. The choice of equipment and vantage point make all the difference while telling, essentially, the same story.

In the "hangar" shot, the pilot, Heather Saur, has her back to us in that cluster of folks in the center, so I moved in a bit, and switched to a different lens, to frame the aircraft, out of focus, through that cluster. They were planning for a medevac flight, which required not just loading some medical equipment…

…but also cleaning the interior of the cabin due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. I chatted with Heather about the MD 900, also known as an MD Explorer, and she lauded its utility, versatility, safety, and low noise operation (those last two enhanced by its lack of a tail rotor). With it she can haul people and equipment in the cabin, carry gear or a firefighting bucket on a line, and if need be, fold up seats and lay in a stretcher. (A note on masking: while some of the crewmembers were sans mask, I was always wearing mine if I was near anyone, anywhere at the base.)

The Bumblebee departed on its medevac run and I prepared to move to another location (nearer the canyon). I figured they would pick up the patient and transport them to a local hospital, which would undoubtedly take a while. My car was parked near the ground equipment of another helicopter, a K-MAX, and I got to chatting with those folks (readers of my articles will know I have a lot of experience with that model aircraft (though you may not be aware that I have at least as much experience with MD Explorers, having flown many air-to-air missions with them)). And just like this paragraph, the chatting went on for a while when, suddenly, a ground ambulance pulled into the lot. "Hey! I bet the Bumblebee is bringing the patient here!"

Sure enough, a little later the Explorer came zipping in over the forest and settled onto the ramp where, once the rotors were stopped, the ambulance backed in through the gate (above) and picked up the patient (below), a firefighter who, I believehad injured her ankle. (I, of course, purposefully did not photograph the patient in an identifiable manner, in accordance with HIPAA regulations.)

With that bit of excitement captured, I did push on to a Grand Canyon overlook called The Abyss. Why? Because this deep canyon provides useful terrain for aircraft entering and exiting the canyon proper, and provided me a photogenic vantage point for photographing those aircraft. (It might also be preferable for operators by not being visible from the major tourist viewpoints, thus not disturbing visitors' reveries. That's just a guess, though.)

How photogenic? I thought you'd never ask! Here's the view from The Abyss. Notice the slightly yellower clouds near the horizon in the center, and the darker column of something-or-other at the left edge of that center section? Here. I'll zoom in for you.

That darker column is smoke rising from a wildfire on the north rim of the canyon. On the day I was there the helibase was active with aircraft working that fire. I never saw the Bumblebee head toward the fire, though it ran other errands in and out of the canyon, but Huey, K-MAX, and Air Crane helicopters came and went that way. (Look for those in the photo essay!) But we're here, today, for the jauntily-clad Explorer, so let's wrap up with a few images of it from this vantage point.

The wind had picked up, at least along the ridge where I was standing, blowing into the canyon, so Heather executed a single rising orbit to gain the altitude she needed to exit the canyon against that headwind. This image has her about 270 degrees through that maneuver.

Here she is rising out of the depths of the Grand Canyon, one of nature's most wondrous wonders.

The lighting this day was mostly cloudy, which is not always useful, but especially considering the subject — a black-and-white(-and yellow) helicopter already has extreme contrast, just in its paint — direct sunlight would have been a challenge. Then again, the overcast means less light overall, so shutter speeds might face their own challenges, in that they have to be slower to allow enough light to reach the sensor, while using a long-focal-length lens usually calls for faster speeds. As always, it's a balancing act.

A little bit closer and nearing the rim, the Bumblebee was not buzzing around for my photographic pleasure, but rocketing past as it climbed out of the gorge. In all of these images, my shutter speed is just a bit faster than I like it for helicopter photography, but even then, considering the very long lens I was using, even with vibration-reducing technology in the lens, it was a challenge to capture the aircraft crisply as it maneuvered.

She has cleared the steeply rising terrain and is headed back to base…

…and, on a separate evolution, heading back in for more.


Unlike the need-for-speed of an air-to-air mission, photographing on the ground allows not just more time, but more options for activities, angles, distances, compositions. A photographer should take advantage of those options to show the aircraft and its crews in multiple ways. From my first photo of the Bumblebee to the last on this day, over nine hours had passed. And I was hustling the entire time (remember, I was photographing other aircraft, too).

The result? Lots of images to choose from. Need a beauty shot for a full-page ad? Got it. Larger landscapes with the aircraft? Details of people working? Less-usual compositions? A collection of images suitable for telling a story in a magazine or annual report? It's all there.

Keep your eyes open, move your feet, and know and use your gear to the max.

Bonus Image

I have never seen an image like this, featuring a (bumble?)bee and the Bumblebee in one shot. I noticed the buzz of activity among these flowers and did what I could to make something interesting. The difference in distance between the camera and the bee, versus the camera and the helicopter, precluded my having both in focus. That was fine by me, though, because if everything were in focus, our eye would probably not notice the bee in flight. By putting only the flowers and the bee in focus, we notice them and then make the connection. "Oh. I get it. It's a bee and the Bumblebee. Ha. Ha." (This would be spoken deadpan, of course.)

A big "thank you" to Papillon and National Park Service for allowing me access to the helibase.


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