The greatest office view in the world — 36,000 feet above the ground

Recently I got to photograph a very special thing. I got to follow my sister around on a normal workday — 36,000 feet above the ground!

Cruising altitude | 70D, 10mm Fisheye lens, 1/13, F2.8, ISO 6400

The background story

My sister is a pilot. More accurately, a First Officer for a charter airline flying European destinations. Back when she was at the pilot academy I had my first experience flying with her. She had an upcoming lesson with an instructor one evening and I got to join for the flight. Since then she’s been with a couple of different airlines and has moved up in rank.

Preparations

I was determined to capture the experience of this day and had packed a bunch of gear. Two different cameras, a couple of different lenses, charged batteries, extra memory cards, and a power bank for recharging phone and cameras. Prior to the trip I’d been researching tips and tricks for photographing on the flight deck of an aircraft but without much luck. So I had to prepare properly and hope that I had taken everything into account.

At 6:15 am we jumped on the train towards Copenhagen Airport. We met up with the captain and colleague of my sister and walked towards the gate together.

Walking to the gate | X100F, 1/220, F2.8, ISO 3200

While they boarded the Boing 737–800 to begin inspections and prepare for the flight I waited to board with the rest of the passengers.

Boing 737–800 in Copenhagen Airport | X100F, 1/30, F2.0, ISO3200

When boarding began, instead of finding my given seat, I turned left after entering the aircraft and met them on the flight deck. They were busy with planning the trip and doing a full walkthrough of the pre-flight checklist. I got the quick instructions as to how my seat (the jump seat) worked and they continued preparations.

The temperature was just around 0 degree celsius which meant that the first stop on the route would be deicing the aircraft.

Deicing before flight | X100F, 1/300, F2.0, ISO3200

After deicing we were given permission to taxi to our runway and were ready for departure.

Parking brake on | X100F, 1/25, F2.0, ISO6400
Ready for take off | X100F, 1/30, F2.0, ISO3200

Cleared for takeoff!

I was firmly planted in my seat, strapped in, and ready with both cameras for the takeoff. As soon as the aircraft was pointing straight down the runway the Captain pushed the throttle and we started accelerating. “V1” a voice said — which indicates that the aircraft has hit its minimum speed for taking off. At this point everything is shaking, the aircraft is making a ton of noise, and I was struggling to get some sharp shots in. But seconds after, the yokes are pulled back and we all leave the ground.

It’s a great feeling. I’ve always loved it. And it’s even more impressive when you can see everything that’s going on.

Take off! | X100F, 1/90, F2.0, ISO3200

While climbing to our cruising altitude we dove into some cloud cover and couldn’t see much. But it didn’t take long for us to reach the top of the clouds.

Climbing to cruise altitude | X100F, 1/1000, F2.8, ISO200

The wait

Shortly after takeoff we hit our cruising altitude of 36,000 feet, heading south, with a ground speed of around 450 knots (Mach .78 / 834 km/h).

During longer flights the pilots have 2–3 hours on cruise where the autopilot is set and they can lean back, fuel up with some lunch, and just keep an eye on the autopilot doing its job.

Lunch is ready | X100F, 1/220, F2.8, ISO3200

I don’t know why I’ve never thought about this. But it seems surreal having such a big part of your work day being waiting time. Time where reading up and preparing for simulator tests, having a meal, just enjoying the view or playing a game on your phone is acceptable — and is part of your job. It’s important for me to say that this is not me making the job seem lightweight or in any way easy. Keeping focused, constantly checking systems and meters, and staying alert is not an easy job.

Cruising | X100F, 1/240, F2.8, ISO100
The view | X100F, 1/750, F8.0, ISO200

Approaching the destination

A few hours later we started preparing for approach. Passengers were briefed about the weather conditions and the ETA. Landing gear down. Final approach speed. Cabin signal given. Cleared to land. Auto brake setting 3. Hang on to your stuff!

Fuerteventura approach | X100F, 1/450, F4.0, ISO200
Almost there | X100F, 1/320, F8.0, ISO250

There’s a common misunderstanding amongst passengers of air travel. “Wow, that was a hard landing..” and therefore not a good one. This is in most cases wrong. The aircrafts are designed to touch down firmly on the runway to get weight on the wheels and to avoid drifting off or skating around.

In Spain we disembarked, refuelled, and performed the walk around on the aircraft to make sure that everything was in order.

Refueling | X100F, 1/1250, F2.8, ISO200
Preparing to go home! | X100F, 1/320, F8.0, ISO640

We took off again no later than 45 minutes after arriving with an aircraft full of new passengers returning from vacation.

Going home

Exiting the Fuerteventura airspace and then some hours later approaching Scandinavia the weather was a bit different fromwhen we originally left Copenhagen. The conditions are probably best described with the following photos from our approach.

Visibility = None| X100F, 1/40, F2.0, ISO12800
Landing in Copenhagen | X100F, 1/90, F2.0, ISO640

A smooth landing in rough weather and we we’re back after a long day of cruising and shooting — and what an experience!

It’s hard to describe how awesome I think my sister is and how proud this experience made me feel!

Taxi to gate | X100F, 1/100, F2.0, ISO12800

On the photographic side of things I was really challenged. Having shot many different scenarios over the years this was one of the hardest ones. I expected shaky circumstances and difficulties in dynamic range, because of the dark flight deck and the super bright sky, and that’s what I got.

Something extra for the photo nerds

I mostly shot high ISO and larger apertures to bring the shutter speed up. I also exposure bracketed some shots to have the extra dynamic range when editing. All in all I’m extremely impressed with the Fujifilm X100F both in terms of ISO performance and image quality. It’s a professional tool but in a size you actually bother carrying with you.

Thanks for reading!

Feel free to share my write-up, please ask questions and just reach out if you find any of the images useful and want to talk.

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