April 1, 2011
By Dave Hirschman
Since we’re living in the YouTube era, video cameras are making their way into an ever-increasing number of general aviation cockpits for the purposes of recording flight training, sharing spectacular views, and spreading silliness.
Unlike the heavy, complicated, and expensive video equipment from a few years ago, which commonly failed when subjected to high Gs, high altitude, and high moisture, today’s cameras are light, simple, and nearly indestructible. These digital, high-definition cameras are totally self-contained and require no external power, their image quality is exceptional, and, at about $300 each, they’re relatively inexpensive.
Old-style video cameras had an annoying habit of distorting spinning propellers by making them appear to stop, bend, or turn backward. Sadly, the rolling shutters on today’s HD cameras create even more ridiculous-looking prop distortion, and the only sure way to avoid it is to mount the camera out of view of the prop arc. (Purpose-built aircraft video systems such as those available through DataToys or Onboard Images eliminate prop distortion and add many new features but also are more expensive.)
The AOPA media staff has been experimenting with a variety of portable HD cameras suitable for aircraft use, and here are a few of our favorites.
This small, streamlined HD camera can attach to a headset or helmet. It’s easy to operate with a simple on/off button and a slide that starts and stops each recording. A pair of red laser pointers cleverly defines the camera’s field of view, making it possible for the operator to know exactly where the camera is pointed without a viewfinder. And a single screw can secure the Contour HD to a tripod, mounting bracket, or just about anything else. An internal microphone records outside sound, but in most airplanes, the recorded sound is limited to engine noise.
The Contour HD is the most streamlined and least obtrusive of the cameras we tested, and its ruggedness and image quality are excellent. (Also, Sporty’s Pilot Shop has begun marketing a $500 “FlightCam” package that consists of a Contour HD camera with an input jack that can record headset audio, and an internal GPS that can show groundspeed, altitude, and a Google Earth track of each flight.)
This small HD camera comes in an extremely tough, waterproof housing that allows it to be totally submerged without fear of damaging the camera. It’s perfect for external mounting on floatplanes or aircraft likely to fly through rain. AOPA photographer Chris Rose even mounted one on a pole and dunked it underwater to record northern pike and lake trout during a flying/fishing trip to northern Canada ( see “Arctic Lodges,” February 2011 AOPA Pilot).
The Hero is the right choice for situations in which the camera could get dropped, knocked around, or soaked. Interchangeable lenses of various focal lengths are also available, so you’re not limited to a single wide-angle view. And it’s capable of taking high-quality still photos with excellent image quality. (It also has an internal microphone.)
The Hero’s drawbacks are that you can’t see exactly where you’re aiming it, and two buttons manage all the camera’s functions. The button sequences and combinations can be confusing, and the buttons themselves can be hard to manipulate.
The Drift is larger and heavier than the Contour HD or Hero, but it’s still compact, slim, and easy to keep out of the way.
The Drift’s main advantages are that it has its own viewfinder, so you can see exactly what’s being recorded as it is being recorded. The Drift also has a remote control with an on/off switch so you can start and stop the camera without physically touching it—a major advantage if the camera is mounted in or on an aircraft in such a way that the operator can’t reach it in flight. It’s also the only one of the three cameras mentioned here that has a jack for an external microphone.
And even though the Drift is physically larger than the competition, it can still be easily attached to an aviation helmet or headset, or mounted inside the cockpit.
FAA regulations on the legal requirements related to carrying external video gear on Standard-category GA airplanes (FAR 43 Appendix A) don’t specifically address attaching video cameras to the airframe, and experts disagree about whether such actions are “major repairs or alterations” that require FAA Form 337 field approvals, or “minor” alterations that can be addressed with logbook entries from qualified mechanics. There’s also the possibility of putting the aircraft in the Restricted category when a camera is mounted externally, then moving it back to the Standard category later.
Even under the strictest interpretation, however, video cameras are allowed for Part 91 operations in Standard-category airplanes as long as the cameras are temporarily affixed inside cockpits (using Velcro or suction-cup mounts); the cameras aren’t hard-wired to aircraft electrical systems (cigarette-lighter adapters are OK); and pilots take common-sense precautions against cameras blocking their view, limiting control deflection, or becoming dislodged and fouling flight controls or other aircraft systems.
Sophisticated multi-camera systems mounted to airframes and wired into aircraft electrical system ( DataToys and Onboard Images are experts in this area) typically require field approvals. And large external camera systems such as those used by TV networks and movie studios require STCs and detailed engineering studies.
Experimental-category aircraft owners and pilots have much greater flexibility in this area. Most are only required to notify their local FSDOs of “significant” structural or aerodynamic alterations, and mounting tiny video cameras generally hasn’t met the threshold of significant alterations. (Aircraft Spruce sells a variety of Motocam systems of varying complexity starting at $765.)
Anyone flying with video gear, whether it’s inside or outside their aircraft, should be aware of the hazards. Art Scholl, a legendary airshow performer and movie pilot, was killed during the 1985 filming of Top Gun when a large film camera mounted in his Pitts S–2A apparently changed the flight characteristics of that aircraft in such a way that made it impossible for him to recover from an inverted spin—a maneuver he’d performed countless times in that same aircraft.
Consider the ways that the mere presence of video gear can affect our own behavior and judgment. YouTube contains a horrifying menagerie of buzzing, scud running, and other bad pilot behavior that seems as though it was scripted by the makers of the Jackass movies. How many of these actions would have taken place had cameras not been present?
E-mail the author at email@example.com.
AOPA Pilot Senior Editor Dave Hirschman joined AOPA in 2008. He has an airline transport pilot certificate and instrument and multiengine flight instructor certificates. Dave flies vintage, historical, and Experimental airplanes and specializes in tailwheel and aerobatic instruction.
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