Stripped of all but the essential tools, pilot and photographer Garrett Fisher explains how flying low over the ground in a vintage aeroplane offers a new perspective on human civilisation.
I have been called a traditionalist for flying an aeroplane manufactured in the 1940s. It is a simple craft, weighing less than 800 pounds when empty, with seating for only the pilot and a passenger. Cruising at a meagre 80 miles per hour, the aeroplane has only the essential instrumentation: compass, airspeed, altimeter, RPM, oil pressure, oil temperature and fuel. If the law allowed less, my grandfather, who bought the plane in 1988, would have slimmed it down to save weight. He restored the plane with no radio, transponder or starter, deeming such things unnecessary, particularly because they did not exist when he took flying lessons.
When it comes to flying, I am a committed individualist. It is just me, the stick, the rudder and looking out the window. Forget complicated dials, panic buttons, airframe parachutes and autopilot – modern aeroplanes make flying boring. It has become fast and brainless, meticulously planned and horrifically expensive. I am in pursuit of freedom and it is hard to find freedom if I have a machine thinking for me, or if the flight is planned down to the minute and millilitre of fuel. Instead I have a three-hour fuel supply and I fly and photograph inside those limits, picking the flight path as I go.
Today’s pioneers are planning manned travel to Mars, the colonisation of the Moon and the mining of asteroids. To be at the forefront of current aeronautical innovation requires a willingness and ability to outrun a wave of people racing one another to be the first to develop the next big thing in space flight. In the process, we have normalised flying above 9,000 metres and at any time there can be as many as 6,000 flights in the air. For me crossing an ocean on an airliner, where the biggest inconvenience is choosing a seat and trying to sleep to avoid jet lag, is an act of following the crowd.
Happily, though, the area just above the surface of the Earth, where I can take the best photographs, has become the emptiest part of the sky. Humanity’s fixation on automation and instrumentation has reserved the areas nearest the ground for some of the most flexible flying. Other than around airports, few aeroplanes are there, all opting to get away from the landscape and meteorological interactions – while I head straight for them.
Photographing these sites is an expression of my drive to explore and to document. Light, weather and vegetation are constantly changing and the terrain I fly over is always in conflict with the sky – mountains making or breaking clouds, the weather shaping the surface of the Earth and the snow and rain forming rivers. I like to identify the individual pieces of large systems. Whether it is during my day job working with theoretical economics or surveying a region from my aeroplane, it is usually the small elements in these large spaces, populations or timeframes that define the entirety of a system. As I fly, I try to record these things, passing over incredible expanses of land, inaccessible by car, putting together the pieces of the puzzle of human civilisation. At the very least, it prevents me from getting bored in the air.
This is an excerpt from issue 4 of Avaunt, on newsstands now. Subscribe to Avaunt here.