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Aerial photographer shares views of a shut-down California

The effects of California’s stay-at-home order to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus are telling from the air.

  • The Coyote Creek Golf Course is empty on a beautiful, sunny day. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • What is striking about downtown San Jose is what you won’t see: traffic or people. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • Airliners are parked and parking lots are empty at the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. Julie and Pat Belanger were even allowed to fly opposite direction of traffic (if any) at the airport to get this shot. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • The parking lots at the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport are almost completely empty. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • Trains are lined up and waiting at the VTA Light Rail facility. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • School buses are parked, and not because all of the students are already at school. Schools are closed as part of California’s stay-at-home order. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • FEMA trailers that will be used to isolate homeless people are parked at the Happy Hollow Park and Zoo in south San Jose. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • Parking lots at the Eastridge Shopping Center are empty. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • Few cars are on the road and shopping centers in Gilroy, California, have empty parking lots. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • The Gilroy Premium Outlets, Pacheco Center, and Gilroy Crossing Shopping Centers have empty parking lots. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.

Major highways that are typically bumper to bumper are mostly empty, airliners are parked at the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport, and outlet mall parking lots are deserted while the lots at businesses such as Walmart, Costco, and Lowe’s are overflowing.

Aerial photographers and pilots Pat and Julie Belanger own The 111th Aerial Photography Squadron and have been photographing major California cities that appear like ghost towns from the air. From San Jose to Silicon Valley and San Francisco, these once-bustling metropolises have come to a standstill.

I asked Julie what it was like to document this crisis.

You are able to see the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders from a perspective few are able to experience right now. How does the weight of that spur you to capture and share as much as you can?

Being in the air and only flying with each other as a husband and wife team, we are complying with social distancing rules so we take this opportunity to document as much as we can of this unique time. I do feel a responsibility to capture the big picture outside for those who are behind the closed doors of our communities. We are so fortunate to be able to use the tools of our trade to share what we see.

How has this situation impacted you and your business?

Many of our clients are commercial [real estate agents]. Even though they are working from home, work still must get done. Orders for aerial photography have taken on a more significant importance for our clients. Before the Shelter-in-Place order, our clients' clients may have come out in person to tour a large property, where now they must depend solely on photography and other information to determine if a project suits their needs and to make a decision to buy.

This situation has also motivated us [to] find new ways to help our clients. We can offer our clients unique visuals including 360[-degree] panoramas done from a helicopter that can be labeled and can hold a potential client's attention. To see a recent sample click on the link and scroll around and zoom in and out with your mouse: 111th Panorama Downtown San Jose.

What has struck you the most, seeing these cities, airports, and other areas seemingly lifeless?

Seeing how quiet and empty things look at first it seems like it is a Sunday afternoon. But it is a workday in the middle of the day. Things should be busy, there should be traffic and people and activity. But there is none of that. There is an eerie ghost town feel. Even airborne, the air traffic controllers want to talk. They ask how we're doing, what we’re seeing and they tell us how quiet it is with limited personnel keeping as far from each other as possible. And there is no one flying around to interrupt our conversations. Like everyone, we look forward to getting back to normal, but in the meantime, we will be flying, photographing, and documenting as much as we can. We believe that it is history and that it is important.

Learn more about Julie in “Grandma’s 182,” a story about three generations of women who share the same airplane, in the May issue of AOPA Pilot.

  • Afternoon traffic is sparse on the Golden Gate Bridge. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is also light on traffic. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • Stanford University is almost completely devoid of signs of life as it complies with guidelines to minimize the spread of the coronavirus. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • Shopping center parking lots are nearly empty on a weekday afternoon in Stanford, California. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • Oracle Corp.'s racing yacht is among the few vehicles visible at the software company's headquarters. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • Due to slow air traffic, San Francisco International Airport allowed a low flyover to see grounded United Airlines aircraft parked at maintenance facilities. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • San Francisco City Hall still shows signs of activity. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts is being converted to a homeless shelter during the coronavirus pandemic. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • Marine traffic is also seeing a dramatic drop, with the majority of slips occupied at San Francisco’s Pier 39. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
  • Multilane highways are exceptionally spacious. Photography taken by The 111th Group aerial photography.
Alyssa J. Miller

Alyssa J. Cobb

AOPA Senior Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor
AOPA Senior Director of eMedia and Online Managing Editor Alyssa J. Cobb began working at AOPA in 2004, is a flight instructor, and loves flying her Cessna 170B with her husband and son. Alyssa is also co-host of AOPA Live This Week.
Topics: People, Helicopter

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