Aerial Amazement

Small airplane and camera captures mountains' majesty

April 1, 2012

John Scurlock isn’t an astronaut, but he does have something in common with them: He’s used a flying machine to reveal the beauty and structure of planet Earth in ways few people have ever seen. Flying a small airplane he built himself, Scurlock photographs mountains.

These are not simply snapshots taken while flying over the peaks. They are carefully considered portraits—images that could only be achieved by combining light, season, and the position of the airplane into one optimum moment. The results—some of the most dramatic landscape photographs made in recent decades—have stirred viewers from both the scientific and aesthetic communities.

John Scurlock Photographer John Scurlock

Spiritual home

It certainly wasn’t a case of being “born to it.” Scurlock grew up during the 1950s in southwestern Michigan, a place conspicuously lacking anything resembling a mountain. During his high school years he encountered a National Geographic magazine article on the mountains of the Cascade Range. The Cascades extend from Canada into California, bisecting the states of Washington and Oregon along the way, and finally merge with the Sierra Nevada range that extends to Mexico. While not as famous as the Rockies or the Sierras, they contain some of the most dramatic wilderness in the lower 48 states.

As a Boy Scout, Scurlock had backpacked extensively in Michigan and the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, but when it came time to attend college, those National Geographic photos were fixed in his mind and he chose Oregon State University in Corvallis, a mid-size town in the Willamette Valley just west of the Cascades. On a clear day the high peaks are visible from campus. It wasn’t long until Scurlock was tramping among—and later, climbing—them. He knew he’d found his spiritual home.

In 1979, Scurlock’s wife, Karen Nolan, was offered a forestry job in Concrete, Washington, in the foothills of the Cascades, not far from the dramatic peaks of the North Cascades National Park. It was just too good to pass up, so the couple relocated and began to take long backpacking and climbing trips, exploring and photographing the park and surrounding country. To support their lives and journeys, Scurlock qualified as a paramedic and has remained in that profession for the past 20 years.

With both of them established in professional careers, Scurlock decided to pursue flying. He soloed after a few hours of instruction and obtained his private pilot certificate in 1985. After a few years and a couple hundred hours in the usual trainers and rental airplanes, it became apparent that he and Karen needed an airplane that could handle the mountain country and cover ground quickly. A look at the available factory-built airplanes left him unimpressed—they were too old, too inefficient, or too expensive.

The alternative was to build his own airplane and, after a search of available designs, he decided on a Van’s RV–6. He started construction in 1993. The job was prolonged, because neither he nor Karen were willing to give up the backcountry skiing, mountaineering, and climbing they loved so much. Finally, Scurlock flew his bright yellow airplane in 2001.

As he gained confidence in the airplane, he began cautious forays over the mountains. Several flights into North Cascades National Park and the North Cascade range provided initial glimpses of these remote mountains under winter conditions. Although Scurlock had a wide knowledge of the terrain through climbing, his own hiking, and historical books and maps he’d studied, he soon realized that much of what he saw from the airplane had never been seen in quite the same way before; certainly it had never been photographed.

Always flying alone, Scurlock learned to shoot photographs and fly the airplane at the same time, working with the combination until it became instinctive. His photographic flights probed deeper into the range, trying to capture the light and beauty of the Cascade winter. The effort gradually expanded to cover the entire North and North-Central Cascades. With encouragement from the legendary aerial photographer Austin Post, and at the urging of the renowned climber John Roper, Scurlock began publishing his photographs on his website. The images were quickly found by climbers anxious to explore the range’s winter climbing and skiing opportunities, and soon were being used for a number of notable first ascents and ski descents.

  • Image 1

    Mount Robson is the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies with an elevation 12,972 feet.

  • Image 2

    Fire-killed forest near the Pasayten River in the Pasayten Wilderness, which is located near the Canadian border

  • Image 3

    This view is high above the 1,000-foot-high Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. The Chinese Wall is the result of a geologic upheaval, which formed the 20-mile-long wall.

  • Image 4

    The south peak of Hozomeen Mountain, elevation 8,071 feet, at sunset in the Pasayten Wilderness.

  • Image 5

    Lenticular clouds flow over the Glacier Peak volcano in the Glacier Peak Wilderness of northwest Washington.

  • Image 6

    Cloud torrents wash over Colonial Peak, elevation 7,771 feet, in North Cascades National Park, Washington.

  • Image 7

    This is the west face of Mount Buckner, elevation 9,119 feet, in the North Cascades National Park in Skagit, Washington.

Geology at work

Mount Baker, one of the prominent peaks in the North Cascades, particularly fascinated Scurlock. From his new aerial vantage point, he could begin to “see” the geology at work. The flow of volcanic lahars, the paths taken by glaciers, the effects of avalanches and braided rivers all were exposed. He began reading historical accounts of the region and soon branched into more technical geological texts.

In an effort to learn more about some of the glacial features he was seeing, particularly on Mount Baker, he contacted Kevin M. Scott, distinguished scientist and Mount Baker expert at the USGS/Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington. Scott took one look at the photographs Scurlock was bringing back from his flights over the mountains and realized that he’d been presented with a very valuable resource.

“There are millions of people living in areas that could suffer great damage if one the Cascade volcanoes erupted, and many of them have in recent history,” said Scott.

“One of our jobs is to attempt to foresee the course of events stemming from an eruption and give people accurate and timely warnings. To understand what might happen, we have to know what has happened in the past, which is where Scurlock comes in,” Scott continued.

“His mountaineer’s eye and the vantage point of his special airplane give us something we’ve never had before. We’ve had aerial photographs, usually taken from high altitude and directly above. But Scurlock uses his airplane to really get down into the terrain and shoot from angles we’d never seen before. A couple of his photos have become known around the office as Eureka! shots—we were suddenly able to see features that explained the exact sequence of events.”

Scurlock, on the other hand, was delighted to find an office full of smart, educated, and extremely knowledgeable people—two of whom also had built their own airplanes. Solid friendships resulted from the common interests, which led to a collaborative project, photographing virtually every feature of Mount Baker. Because of his association with Scott, Scurlock became widely known throughout the community of northwest geologists, vulcanologists, and glaciologists.

Learning from the mountains

Flying a small single-engine airplane over wild and high country is a potentially dangerous pursuit, and Scurlock doesn’t ignore the risks.

“I take the issue very seriously,” he says. “I control the variables as best as possible, and fly as professionally as possible in every respect. I’m compulsively thorough in all aspects of flight planning, file detailed flight plans and stick to them, carry copious survival gear, and I’m religious about fuel and fuel management. I study and know the weather, and I don’t have the slightest shame or disappointment if I decide to turn back.

“One thing you learn from a life in the mountains: The mountains will still be there another day.” 

An RV–6 might seem like an unlikely photo platform. It has a low wing, and there’s no way to open a window or canopy in flight. Scurlock has developed techniques to deal with these drawbacks. He’s made a black “skirt” out of a nonreflective fabric that he drapes over himself and the interior of the airplane. After some careful adjustments, his design does not interfere with control motions and it effectively absorbs and blocks light that might reflect on the canopy.

He experimented with mounting the camera to the airplane, but ended up shooting by hand, directly through the windshield or canopy.

“The RV–6 actually suits what I do quite well, even if it isn’t an ideal photography platform,” he says. “In fact, I’d say the airplane and its performance are what makes my work possible. Many of my photos are shot on winter afternoons, when the snow and light are at their best. Daylight hours are short at my latitude, but the speed of the airplane allows me to take advantage of small windows of opportunity. I can take off, make it to the mountains, shoot, and return home in the time a more typical airplane would take to simply get there.”

Scurlock adds that the RV climbs well. “Even at mountain-top altitudes, I’m more or less in the middle of its performance range. It has no problem climbing away from even the tallest peaks,” he said. “That’s a very useful photographic tool, because I can often adjust the lighting by simply climbing a few hundred feet, but even more, it’s a safety item.

“Wind is a big issue around mountains, especially in winter. Mountains perturb the air mass, making flight down amongst the peaks extremely rough at times, with strong downdrafts. I never take the strength and climb ability of the RV for granted, but they do give me safety margins that other airplanes couldn’t.”

Wonders of the world

Over the past several years, Scurlock has flown widely, photographing nearly every glacier and important geological feature in Washington, Oregon, Northern California, and British Columbia. He is currently working with Andrew Fountain, glaciologist at Portland State University, developing a project to photograph glaciers in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and California.

Scurlock’s images have appeared in a number of scientific publications and will be featured in the upcoming USGS monograph about the geology of Mount Baker. He has provided photographs to other scientists at various government agencies, and at a number of universities in the region.

A beautifully produced coffee-table book, Snow & Spire: Winter Flights to the North Cascade Range, was recently published by Wolverine Press.

As respected as Scurlock has become in scientific and mountaineering circles, he’s developed an even bigger audience among those who appreciate the pure art of the images. If Ansel Adams had had a digital camera and an airplane, he might have made similar photographs. Certainly, he would appreciate the composition of the images and the eye that brought them to life.

Both men show us the striking beauty and wonder of our world, taken from vantage points most of us will never reach. And in both, the personal love of nature and the light that radiates on it—and from it—shines through to the viewer.

Scurlock’s pictures provide a timeless record of the way things are, up in the high, cold, remote places in western America.

Ken Scott is a freelance writer living in Oregon who works for Van’s Aircraft and owns an RV–6.