Aerial photography business takes off

Jerry Luther takes to the air with photography that captures a bird’s eye view of everything from Sandpoint scenics to sporting events and large-scale construction projects such as the Sand Creek Byway. (Photo by DAVID GUNTER)

SANDPOINT — Jerry Luther doesn’t mean to look down on the rest of the world, it’s just the nature of his work. And as an aerial photographer, Luther has found a way to mix business with pleasure every time he sends up one of his radio-controlled aircraft.

His passion for flight began at an early age, when he used to watch his older brother craft expert rubber band gliders at home.  Later, he belonged to a club that specialized in building and flying sophisticated balsa wood and paper airplanes, where he took top honors in free-flight contests for whose plane could stay airborne the longest.

Jump forward about 50 years and you can still find Luther gazing skyward as he stands with both feet on the ground while his heart and soul soar hundreds of feet above. When he’s not gathering images of major construction projects or snagging specialty shots of upscale properties, the flier takes what he calls “relaxation flights,” guiding his Styrofoam airplanes up to about 300 feet and cutting engine power to enjoy a silent glide.

“When you have the plane up there, you’re totally with the plane,” Luther said. “It takes you to a place of meditation.”

Readers of the Bonner County Daily Bee regularly are treated to one of his bird’s eye views of the community — whether an aerial shot of big event like Lost in the ’50s or The Festival at Sandpoint, a running visual update on Sand Creek Byway construction or the kind of scenics that most photographers would trade a Leica camera to capture just once in their lives.

“These are the art shots,” Luther said, pulling out a print that is painted in golds, greens and blues that spring from a wide-angle shot of the west side of town as it sits hugged by the Pend Oreille River in the background. “Days like this are numbered, so when they happen, I have a plane ready.

“It’s sunset, it’s fall and everything’s golden as the sunlight flashes across the trees,” he continued. “It may take two years to get a shot like this.”

Depending on the terrain involved, Luther might use a small patch of grass or a dirt field as a runway, but just as often has to release the plane by hand as it takes to the air and then reverse the process when he brings it back down. In those cases, a takeoff becomes a “toss” and a landing is known as a “catch.”

Luther’s love of radio-controlled airplane flight was rekindled a little more than four years ago, when his wife, Becky, got him a plane as a present. For a time, he was engaged in more tosses than catches as he developed his skills as a flier.

“That first year, I was in so many trees it was ridiculous,” he said, adding that scaling branches with an assortment of makeshift hooks, slings and grabbers was commonplace for a while. “I was going way higher into them than a man my age should be.”

In-depth training from an expert radio-control pilot — an individual who now trains predator drone pilots — improved his technique to the point where Luther now flies what are considered to be expert courses. The best example of such a course would be the Sand Creek Byway, where his planes are required to avoid heavy equipment and dodge cranes as they chronicle the progress below. Because the highway project is divided into five construction zones, the flier must launch his planes an equivalent number of times in order to capture shots at different heights and angles.

In a day of aerial photography along Sand Creek, he will come home with approximately 300 images, 7-10 percent of which are usable. Different aircraft provide different camera angles, he explained, with some shooting forward while others are designed to shoot straight down. Each has its set of trials to overcome, since Luther is flying blind when it comes to knowing precisely what the lens is seeing at any given point in the flight.

An ability to visualize the camera view as being similar to the beam of a headlight, supplemented with the assistance of an occasional low-tech ground crew, helps bring the images back to Earth.

“When I was shooting Lost in the ‘50s downtown, I had to stand on the byway and have a spotter on a cell phone tell me when I was directly over the target,” Luther said.

Last year, the Lake Pend Oreille School District contracted the aerial photographer to provide overhead views of all district schools as part of an improved snow-management plan. With 17 locations involved, Luther spent considerable time photographing the roof slopes and flat spots where snow load could present a problem after heavy storms.

Although his electric engines are virtually silent at an altitude of 100 feet and the slow-flying planes — 20 miles per hour at cruising speed; less than half that when he cuts power to minimize vibration while he trips the shutter to take pictures — weigh only about two pounds, Luther made his flights on days when school was out or during class times when the children were indoors for safety reasons.

Because his attention was glued to the plane as he manipulated the two joysticks on his hand-held controller, Luther didn’t notice when an audience was coming his way one morning.

“All of a sudden, this teacher marches out and surrounds me with students,” he said. “You have to have complete focus on what you’re doing and here I’ve got this kid tugging on my sleeve saying, ‘Hey, mister — can you bring it down so I can see it?’

“They had been to the Bird (Aviation) Museum the day before,” he added. “The teacher saw this guy outside flying a plane and thought it would be a perfect follow-up lesson.”

More challenging than youthful enthusiasm can be the vagaries of wind and weather, according to Luther, who said three ingredients go into the recipe for a perfect day of aerial photography: “Low wind, puffy clouds and blue skies.”

He monitors the wind speed and direction using an advanced forecasting program that leads him to the best locations for still skies and keeps an eye on the weather in real-time on his computer. Heeding a lesson he learned after dumping a plane into the river when his battery ran out of juice, Luther now consults a “talking timer” attached to his controller to keep track of flight length and battery power.

All of this technology is useless when Mother Nature proves fickle, as she often does on otherwise perfect fall days. It was just such a day that caught Luther off guard when a gust of wind made a surprise attack on his flight plan.

“All of a sudden, my plane is 200 yards out over the lake,” the flier said. “I had to have the power on to fight the wind, so it was climbing and diving all over the place while I was trying to bring it back across the lake to me. It was like landing a marlin.”

Luther’s workshop is a well-organized and neatly labeled domain that has moved in time with the incarnations of his career. During the 1970s, he and Becky, along with son, Travis, mounted the Hooey Man’s Medicine Show and traveled with a Chautauqua troupe, where Jerry starred as the pitchman for a miraculous propellered stick that magically changed directions when the verbal command “hooey” was given.

In the 1980s, the shop turned out the wooden toys, jewelry boxes and lamps he and Becky sold as a business. It was also responsible for the creation of the duck marionettes — Billy, Silly, Tilly and Sheriff John — that accompanied performances of “The Duck Man” at barter fairs, community parades and children’s festivals for more than 20 years.

Today, the workbenches are covered in Styrofoam planes. Luther builds them from German-designed kits that he modifies for his own applications, including a floatplane that will allow him to skim down for landings, as opposed to having to catch the planes in mid-air as they make their 5 mile-per-hour final descent. His new “main plane” is under construction, destined to replace a battle-worn aircraft that has had its nose ground down from too many landing on the gravel roadways of the byway project.

“The planes last for about two years and then they get too beat up,” said Luther. “My cameras are Nikons with high-end glass, but I go through two or three of them a year.”

The cause of death?

“Water,” the flier answered, his face breaking into a grin. “And mishaps.”

To view gallery shots of Luther’s adventures on high, visit: www.calljerry.biz

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