Magical Flight Over Yosemite’s Firefall

Every year in late February thousands of photographers descend upon Yosemite to get photos of the famous Firefall, in which the last light of the sun lights up Horsetail Falls on El Capitan (not to be confused with the pre-1968 Firefall when rangers would toss a bonfire off of Glacier Point). I read that for the new Firefall some people were staking out a good photo location six hours or more ahead of time. I decided I wasn’t going to participate in that, but then I remembered something.

I have an airplane.

The Firefall “window” lasts a few weeks. I went up flying alone one evening but couldn’t quite manage to fly the plane and at the same time get the best photo. It’s hard. I did however figure out a good (legal) altitude and angle for a great wide angle shot with both the horizon and El Cap / Firefall in the image.  

OK, I may have arrived on-station a little early so I did a tour of the Yosemite high country.

So, I tried something new for me. I invited a professional photographer, Ranz. I had seen his work online and was impressed. This is from the flight:

And he invited professional photographer Mike. This is from the flight:

Now I could focus on flying the plane and these guys could do what they do best. Capture great images. Two professional photographers. And they both wanted the window open. And they have two cameras each with big ole’ lenses and they can’t share the one window that opens without getting into a fistfight. Well, not really, but they both certainly wanted an open window.

So I had a plan. The rear side windows on my Cessna are old anyway and I have had new ones sitting around in my hangar for a few years. So, I decide to cut a hole in one side and figure out how to make it into a photographer’s porthole later. But when I tried to cut out a round hole it shattered. I managed to pull out most of the pieces and then fly out to meet the photographers at the Mariposa airport. I’m sure they were impressed with the broken, jagged window. It looked like I took a sledgehammer to my window, because, well, I did. But they did get in the plane.

A little windy, but not as bad as I thought.

We had a magical flight. A storm had just passed which left snow on the ground and debris clouds in the air. Both added drama to the photos. A wind blew snow off of Half Dome and Cloud’s Rest. It was 4 degrees F and I was a bit cold even dressed in all my ski gear, for we had one open window and one broken out window the entire flight. A water bottle partially froze during the flight.

It was worth it. Wow. I think we’ll see some similar images in the years to come because these unique images definitely caused a stir – but for now I’m happy to have helped figure out and create some fantastic images!

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