Zach Sweetser, a 17-year-old junior at Bellevue’s Interlake High School, has been an aviation enthusiast since he could talk, and he loves building and flying radio-controlled planes.
He has attached a camera to an R/C plane to take pictures from the air in the past, so when storms blanketed the Seattle region in snow last week, he decided to send his plane aloft again, to check out the view from above.
“Snow completely changes the way an area looks from the air,” he says. “I have taken many pictures in the area I live, but have never gotten any when it snowed. So, I took the opportunity, turned on the plane and camera, and flew. I was very happy with how the shots turned out, especially the morning shots that had the sunrise in them.”
He got some spectacular shots. He submitted one to KING5 News, which featured the picture on air. After seeing it, we wanted to know exactly how he did it.
With help from the team at KING5.com, we were able to find Zach, and we asked him a bunch of questions via email. Continue reading for excerpts from his responses.
The setup: “I am using a Multiplex Funcub, which is very similar to a real-life bush plane. I use a GoPro for the pictures, which is attached on the bottom of the plane via a GoPro mount facing outwards and slightly down. In un-cropped pictures you can see some of the wing and wheel/tire since the GoPro has such a wide angle lens, so I crop the pictures accordingly.”
The process: “To capture the pictures, the GoPro has a camera mode which takes pictures every three seconds or so. I turn on the GoPro in this mode, and then take off. (I fly) in a way that points the camera towards the areas I want to capture for at least 30 seconds so I’m sure I get the picture I want. Then, I come back and look at the raw files and pick the best. Surprisingly, they all come out very clear for being on an airplane that can sometimes bounce around in the wind.”
The distance: “The range of the transmitter I use is well over a mile. However, I never fly farther than I can see. I would guess the average altitude I’m at for the pictures is around 400 feet, but for a couple of them, I went even higher, probably around 700-800 feet. I could barely see the plane and had to keep my focus on it; if I were to look away from the area for even a split second I could lose the plane.”
Risk of crashing into something? “The legal FAA altitude for full scale planes over a heavily populated is 1000 feet over the highest obstacle within a 2000 foot radius, and since there is a 300+ foot antenna a little ways away from where I live, that would put a full scale plane at 1,300 feet, well above where any R/C plane is. As for hitting things such as birds; the odds are as slim as hitting one in a full scale airplane, if not less, since the R/C plane is so much smaller.”
His R/C photography tips: “For any current R/C pilots or people interested in taking aerial photography, my main recommendation is to have a plane that can support the weight of the camera and still fly well, especially climb well. The plane I have has about a 2:1 power to weight ratio. It weighs about 40oz and the motor puts out about 77oz of thrust. When the plane is at bare flying weight, I can hold the plane in my hand, apply full throttle, and it will fly straight up vertically out of my hand. Having this power is essential when you add an extra four ounces to the plane. … The only other thing I would recommend is fly a plane that is very stable; any plane that is squirrelly (very erratic in the air), will make for blurry pictures.”
Zach belongs to the Northwest Electric Flyers and the Marymoor R/C Club, serving as an instructor, but R/C planes are just the beginning for him. He earned his sport pilot’s license a month ago, on his 17th birthday, after learning to fly powered parachutes under the instruction of Mark Martin, of Seattle Powerchutes.
Next he plans to transition to fixed-wing aircraft, major in aviation in college, get his commercial pilot’s rating, and ultimately make his living as a pilot.
“I’m grateful that my parents, friends, and family support my dreams and enthusiasm towards aviation. My grandpa and grand-uncle were pilots in World War II, and my great-uncle on my mom’s side is currently a charter pilot in California,” he says. “I would say I caught the bug.”
No kidding. Here are more of the pictures that Zach took from his R/C plane last week, including one that shows the Bellevue and Seattle skylines in the distance. (Click for larger versions.)