Newsroom Notebook: Taking photography to new heights in a Black Hawk helicopter

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A phrase that we often hear is that the landscape of North Dakota is boring and bleak. Those who have uttered those words probably have never seen the state from an elevation of 6,000 feet while leaning out the open window of a Black Hawk helicopter. 

When I joined the Tribune this summer as an intern, I expected that I would be given a wide variety of interesting assignments. It’s not every day, however, that you are assigned to take photos from a helicopter. I was given the opportunity to fly with the North Dakota Army National Guard to Williston for a flyover of the opening ceremony of the Babe Ruth World Series.

I showed up to the Army Aviation Support Facility south of the Bismarck airport early on a Saturday morning for the flight. The fog and cloud cover gave the morning a moody feel as the flight crew chief explained how my seat belt, chair and headset worked. Within an hour, we were taking off. 

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I was surprised with how smooth of a ride it was. The helicopter had a heavy vibration while starting up, but that subsided once the engines were at speed. We taxied to the runway like we would if we were in an airplane, but takeoff was much quicker and on a steeper ascend. 

The helicopter was loud. I was given a pair of earplugs to wear under my headset, but the roar of the engine was still deafening. All I could hear was the chatter of air traffic control through the headsets. The conversation mostly discussed the weather conditions, as it seemed like the cloud cover might make it impossible to do our flyover.

We did get lucky. Clouds started to clear as we approached Williston. I opened my window and started taking shots of what I could see: farms, oil rig sites, unique landscapes and rural communities. The views were stunning, but the clouds soon returned.

On final approach into Williston Basin International Airport to refuel, we didn’t see the airfield until we were nearly over it, but eventually found the runway and landed. After stopping for about an hour, we embarked again. This time we were setting up for our flyover.

We flew to a spot about 7 miles south of Williston, where we rendezvoused with a second Black Hawk that was participating in the flyover. By now, the clouds were almost completely gone, allowing me to snap shot after shot of what I saw out my window, or while leaning out of it.

We circled for a few minutes before making a beeline for the stadium. It took us only four minutes to reach the stadium and complete the flyover.

Unfortunately, I missed a shot of the stadium. I produced more than 250 frames that day but missed the one shot I was supposed to get. I was on the wrong side of the helicopter so I never even saw the stadium.

We returned to Williston International to refuel. While we had enough fuel to get us back to Bismarck, a strong headwind was enough to make us nervous. The crew chief told me that if risks can be eliminated in aviation, they always are. 

Flying back to Bismarck was much of the same as earlier. Cloud cover made it impossible to see the ground. I spent this time sending the few photos I took on my phone to people I knew on the ground.

Capitol Building

The North Dakota Capitol, as seen from the air on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2022. 

Zachary Weiand

We approached Bismarck from the northwest, which gave me the opportunity to photograph Bismarck from the sky. I snapped some photos of landmarks around town, mainly the Capitol and the downtown area. 

We landed back at the Bismarck Airport. We raced across the airfield and touched down back where we had started nearly six hours earlier.

As I walked to the hangar, I glanced back at the piece of machinery I had spent the morning in. The experience gave me a new perspective of our state.  

Newsroom Notebook is a periodic column written by members of the Tribune newsroom that focuses on our community and everyday life. Weiand, a summer intern, is a student at Bismarck State College.

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