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Drones versus planes

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Very often people ask me whether aerial photography from fixed wing planes is still economical in these times with drones.
The answer is a simple but convinced yes! Of course, the market for aerial photography has changed drastically the last decade because of drones. Especially above the land drones for aerial photography have become the standard. However, strict rules have been made for drone flying, with restrictions in altitude, distance and airspace. Therefore, the use of helicopters or airplanes is still necessary.

A drone pilot may fly his drone up to 400ft above ground in line of sight. For a nice overview of a city or a large company estate a higher altitude is better. There are also restrictions in operating a drone in harbour areas, near airports or in military areas. In a large part of the Dutch North Sea area drone flying is only legally possible for an AOC operator with large drones equipped with transponder and with two-way radio communications with Air Traffic Control, all after written permission.

Our photo flights with fixed wing aircraft are executed under the rules of EASA Part/SPO, but we are far more flexible in executing flights over the North Sea, over land in restricted airspace, or in military airspace. In most cases this can be arranged within one day. Also, from photographic perspective using an aircraft as working platform has the advantage of the ability that photographer is directly behind the camera and more able to see the right angle and to see the light changing.

Another disadvantage of the use of a drone is restrictions in distances to fly, partly because of power capacity and partly because of regulations about line of sight. Furthermore, the weather, especially wind and turbulence, can be a problem for flying a drone, while we can fly out for photography up till Beaufort 10.

To illustrate the great advantage of fixed wing aircraft as platform for aerial photography a few examples. For the books and calendar about the Dutch wetlands we published we have been waiting for a few years to have the isles covered with snow. One of the last winters we finally got snow, and it even stayed a little while. Within 3 hours we could fly and photograph the whole area, impossible to be done by one drone crew.

We also have to photograph the building stages of Offshore Wind Energy Projects regularly. In less than hour we can photograph all works in the whole project with a 10 Nm radius. With a boat with drone crew it would have been much more expensive and take more preparation and time for the final work.

We have a lot of occasions yearly where we have multiple targets to photograph on the North Sea. With a long-range fixed wing aircraft we can fly to Dover Strait for the first target, then to Den Helder to intercept a passing vessel, to end the flight with a photoshoot near Helgoland.

The use of drones can give advantages, especially with filming and for close ups. But I am convinced that aircraft will stay a good working platform for maritime aerial photography over the North Sea.

Storm flight 25 september 2020

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Friday morning September 25 I noticed some posts on social media about a pilot vessel in the southwest sailing out and expecting galeforce wind. Storm, really? Because the last days were very busy at work we only checked the wind and waveheight forecast for the area in the vicinity of Texel and nothing over 30 knots of wind was predicted. A quick look at the weather maps shows a low pressure area on the North Sea just west of Noord Holland surrounded by a circular windfield. Next was checking the meteo reports and forecasts for Vlissingen, Rotterdam and the P11 platform west of Rotterdam to find out there was a warning for 40 to 50 knots of wind from the northwest in the afternoon, with gusts up to 56 knots. Because of the direction of the wind and the large area I expected a chance for extra high waves.

Within 10 minutes pilot Peter Bos was informed. We decided to go airborne around 1530 for a photo flight of approximately 3 hours to the Noordhinder area.
I continued checking all the vessel movements on marinetraffic, an online tool. Because of the winddirection the best chance to make spectacular stormphotos would be the outbound shipping lane from Rotterdam to Noordhinder. In the other shipping lanes the ships would not sail into the wind and waves. Luckily I spotted a small coaster, the Arklow Clan, approaching Noordhinder on its way from Antwerp to Dundee, sailing straight into wind and waves. That will be our main target!

Just after 1530 we take of from the southeast runway at Texel airport with only about 25 knots of wind to follow the coast from Den Helder to the Maascentre area west of Rotterdam, to start following the outbound shipping lane from there. West of Scheveningen I said to Peter the pilot that there would be a chance the whole event will be a big setback. The weather is grey with many of low clouds around 1000 ft and rain. The wind is northwest but not very strong. After that it seems to clear up a bit with rapid increasing winds approaching The Maascentre area. We started there photographing two large tankers outbound from Rotterdam, but due to their size and slow speed we were not able to make very spectacular photos.

We decided to follow the westbound shipping lane in the direction of Noordhinder to intercept the Arklow Clan. The closer we got to Noordhinder the higher the waves with still increasing winds and turbulence. The visibility is deteriorating again, but the relatively small coaster Arklow Clan was found easily, sailing slowly into the seas with a groundspeed of only 3 knots. In about 20 minutes we were able to make a spectacular series of spectacular photos showing the high waves. The last run we could capture the vessel diving into an extra high wave and we decided we were ready to return to Texel. Flying to the northeast again the weather improved within 15 minutes, with decreasing wind and waves. West of Petten the wind seems to calm down completely and we see an area with clustered showers with lots of rain. That must be the centre of the low pressure area. And then, as icing on the cake, we spotted a very nice waterspout moving southwest.

20 minutes later we landed at Texel on the southeasterly runway, impressed by the forces of nature and a very spectacular and special photo flight.

Cessna 172

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The good old Cessna 172 is still operated all over the world. This aircraft first flew in 1957 and since then 43.000 of them were built! What makes this aircraft very suitable for aerial photography? Firstly its high wing design with good all around visibility. Furthermore there is enough space to move around, especially from the back seats, to use a wide angle for photography. And its performance in slow flight is very good and forgiving in case of too slow flying.

I spent a few thousand photo flying hours in a Cessna 172 since my first photo flight in 1985. Sometimes we even used it’s little sister’s the twoseaters Cessna 150 or 152. Sitting next to the pilot, you can only photograph on the right side of the aircraft, while during photoruns around ships it is often better to photograph on the left side, using the wind to minimize the groundspeed during a photorun. Sitting on the backseats of a 172 gives you the luxury to be able to photograph from either sides of the aircraft. Untill the end of last century we frequently rented Cessna 172’s on airfields as Rotterdam, Hilversum, Lelystad, Den Helder and Texel. Getting busier and busier it became more difficult to find a plane for the job, so I decided to buy one myself. We purchased a Cessna 172M from 1976 with a total flying time just above 3000 hours. This model is slightly lighter than later models with better slow flight capabilities.

Immeditately after the purchase of the aircraft plans were made for customizing the aircraft for our specific job. It lasted a few months until completed, after that we had a perfect workhorse for maritime photo missions. A GPS was installed for navigation, as well as a Marine VHF installation for contacting vessels. Special hatches were made in both doors, to be opened or closed during flight. The range of the aircraft was lenghtened by extra wingtanks, bringing the total amount of fuel to 240 liters, or 7,5 hours of flight with 30 minutes reserve. On top of the cockpit two skylight windows were installed enabling the pilot to keep our target in sight during turns around a vessel. More recent two extra photo windows were installed to be used from the backseats and a fifth hatch was made in the bottom of the aircraft for vertical photography. Both doors are equipped with an emergency release system to be able to escape from the aircraft after ditching in the water. Our aircraft is also equipped with 2 Emergency Locator Transmitters, one with the antenna on top of the aircraft and the other with the antenna under the fuselage. This it to be more sure at least one of the antennas will stay out of the water for a while to transmit after ditching, even if the aircraft flipped over.

Our Cessna 172 PH-PBL is still the most used aircraft of our little fleet, flying several photo missions every week. Maintenance is done in compliance with the highest standards, all according the PART/SPO regulations for aerial work. The Cessna company has provided maintenance protocols for a lifetime of 30.000 flying hours for the Cessna 172. Our PH-PBL recently passed the 7000 flying hours so is not even mid life and many more photo missions can be flown in the future.

Our choice for the Cessna Skymaster

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For many years we have been operating single-engine Cessna’s over water, always much aware of our vulnerability and dependence of a good functioning engine. We never had engine trouble during thousands of flying hours, nevertheless we always have been prepared by wearing survivalsuits, life jackets and Personal Locator Beacons. Because you never know…. In the course of years we were commissioned for photoflights further and further away offshore, sometimes also over the high seas on a stormy North Sea. I, personally, never had a problem with the single-engine photoflying over water, as long as there is a chance of survival, in case it went wrong. So not too far offshore in areas where there is no shipping or other activity and in wintertime not too far offshore because of the low water temperature.


In 2003 we had a photoflight above the shallow waters of the Stortemelk entrance near Vlieland with Beaufort 8 from the northwest to photograph beamtrawlers between the high and breaking seas. Sitting in the open photo window I could even hear the waves breaking. After the flight I told this to the pilot and we started a conversation about our chances in case of engine failure. We concluded our chances would have been very slim, because of the high seas. What kind of aircraft would be better for this job? We promised to start searching for an alternative type of aircraft.

The discussions continued the following months. A twin engine helicopter would be an option, but these were very expensive and the endurance of most helicopters is often less than with a fixed wing airplane. A classic twin-engine fixed wing aircraft with one engine on each side of the cabin was not the best option because of the imbalance when one engine stops. Theoretically you can keep flying with only one engine, but we agreed it is too much of a challenge when the difficulties occur at low altitude slow flying around a ship or platform, without endangering our target as well.
From a photographers point of view a classic twin is not ideal, because when looking around from the cabin there is always a large engine in the way.


In the past I had seen a Cessna Skymaster operating from Texel airport for some time and talked to the very enthoustastic pilot/owner. This Cessna design from the sixties was unique with two engines in centre-line thrust, one in front and one behind the cabin between two tailbooms. In case of an engine failure there is no imbalance with this design and the flight can be continued easily on the good running engine that remains. In time we got more and more excited about the characteristics and performance: 140 knots cruising speed, good slow behaviour, 6 hours endurance and no engines in the way for the photographer.

You still continue to hear the same comments; a noisy aircraft, expensive maintenance and possible cooling problems for the rear engine. Time to talk to experienced Skymaster pilots. We found one based on Antwerpen Airport and he was willing to show us his aircraft and to tell all about this special design, followed by a test flight. But what about the poor accident statistics? After evaluating many accidence reports on the website of the American NTSB we concluded that most accidents in the early stages had nothing to do with the design, but more with the fact that there was regulation to fly the machine with a ‘centre-line-trust’ approval. A MEP (Multi Engine Piston) license was not necessary and it was easy to move one from a simple single engine aircraft to this complex twin, with retractable gear, a complex fuel management system and adjustable propellers. Most accidents in the beginning were pilot errors. For instance, being not able to take-off because the pilot was not aware the rear engine was inoperative. Or crashing because of an empty fueltank while there was enough fuel available in the other tanks.

The 337 Skymaster got a bad reputation because of the accidents in the beginning of its ‘career’ and the rumours about cooling problems for the rear engine and expensive maintenance. Luckily we talked to very experienced 337 pilots who were very positive about the performance. So in 2004 we purchased a Cessna 337B in USA which arrived at Midden Zeeland in november 2004 to be modified for our special job. In January 2005 we took off for our first stormflight with the 337 with Beaufort 9 from the southwest. We were impressed about the amount of wind the aircraft could endure, about the stable platform it was for the photographer and in general about the good performance. Now, more than 15 years and more than 1200 flying hours later, I am still 100% in favour of the decision to operate this unique aircraft.

Expensive in maintenance proved to be true, but the safety of the centre-line thrust concept is more than worth the investment. We did photoflights with Beaufort 10 and 60 knots of wind, mostly we were the only ones operating over the North Sea at that time. We flew non-stop to Ireland and Finland without any problems and are also flying out to the middle of the North Sea, 200 Nm offshore, on a regular basis. We never experienced cooling problems on the rear engine, likely because the air over the cold North Sea is never above 20 degrees Celsius. The aircraft is coming of age and we have to spend large amounts of money in keeping the plane airworthy due to all kind of age related inspections. In my opinion it is the only concept suitable for our special operation, so it is worth the investment. Like on the North Pole where they are still flying with the classic DC-3 Dakota, the unique concept offers unique operating possibilities.