|THE FUTURE OF FLYING|
|Change does not come easily to a venerable, tradition laden institution like the National Geographic. For good reason, of course. What they do, they do quite well, and for quite a long time now. But the digital revolution was howling at the door, and at one point or another yellow boxes of Kodachrome were bound to give way to streams of pixels. Appropriately, it was this story, a forward looking piece about aviation and what was to come, that firmly opened that digital door. |
This was the first ever all digital story shot for National Geographic. In other words, not a frame of film was expended in the field. It was all shot with ones and zeroes on Nikon D1X cameras. Doing a story for Geographic is always a pressurized experience, this one doubly so because of the technology involved. All eyes were on these pictures. Would they hold a candle to Kodachrome? Would pixels somehow alter the experience for the reader, and look different in the magazine? How do we store all these electronic pictures? How will this affect our time honored workflow?
Bill Douthitt, my editor, and I must have answered those questions and others reasonably well, because within a few short years of this December, 2003 cover story, about 90% of the coverages in Nat Geo were shot with digital cameras. Like virtually every other publication in the world, the yellow magazine left film behind, and embraced the digital world.
As I mentioned, this was a good story to break the ice, because while I was shooting with amazing, cutting edge visual machinery, I was covering and flying in even more amazing machinery. I was not after the old warbirds, and historically important aircraft, beautiful as they are. I was assigned to report on what was in the air, and what was literally about to be in the air. I got shot off aircraft carriers, spent time in the Persian Gulf, flew in formation with the Blue Angels, tracked the B-2 bomber in flight, had medical reviews, parachute training, and air chamber tests. Nat Geo was the first magazine to get dedicated observation time on the F-22, of which there were only five flying at the time. I shot the V-22 Osprey, still in test phase. I landed a 747, badly, a few times in a Boeing flight simulator. I shot experimental pilot-less drones out in the desert.
Typical of Geographic, they immerse you in the story. I went to flight school to train my body to take g-forces. (I've taken up to 9.1.) My flight trainer forced me to push the stick, and try to develop what pilot's call "situational awareness," by concentrating on the environment outside the canopy. We flew in a civilian aerobatic plane called an Extra 300, which is basically an engine with wings, and did all sorts of maneuvers. Sounds like fun, except early in the training I would wake up every day knowing I would barf at least four or five times later on. I was eating a lot of bananas. As pilots will tell you, they look the same coming up as they do going down.
One of the best barometers of the impact of the story was that most of the take was acquired by the Library of Congress. The curators there felt it was an important continuum in the visual history of aviation they have maintained since the days of the Wright Brothers. They also felt strongly that the first digital effort on the part of National Geographic was worth noting and preserving. For me, I was given a window into the world of flight in a very special way, and I got to fly in some amazing aircraft, flown by terrific pilots. As I was settling in the backseat of one of the Blue Angel jets, one of the ground crew just chuckled and tapped me on the helmet. "Back seat in an FA-18! You're about to get a helluva ride, son!"