The following is a very lightly edited transcription of an interview of me by Cheryl Papas. As it is very hard to faithfully edit an interview with oneself I decided to distract you all with this photo I took of the beautiful Ohio River near sunrise while surveying the area with my loyal team of misfit photo pilots. I want to thank Cheryl for her very kind description of me and for her many contributions to this quarter's Vortex.
Words like non-conformist, lateral thinker, rebel, innovator, iconoclast, even revolutionary come to mind when I hear the name Elias Zwillenberg... along with amusing and loyal friend. So it only stands to reason that he would take the road less traveled to achieve his dream goal of becoming a professional pilot.
After getting his instrument, commercial and multi engine ratings, the next logical step that most pilots take is getting a CFI rating to build hours. When I heard Eli mention that he was considering becoming a survey pilot it sparked my interest and I started asking him a ton of questions. The story is as interesting as Eli is.
How do you become a survey pilot?
Be a CPL with a burning desire to travel and an even more burning desire to not be a CFI and get way more hours than a CFI. The magic number of hours seems to be 450 - just enough to be close to 500 without being at 500 and thus more hireable at another company.
Aside from the plane, what type of equipment do you use?
Aside from the typical EFB and headset the most important three pieces of non-standard equipment a survey pilot can have are a Spotify premium account, a lunch box and a portable urinal. Today I flew for 6.7, and that's not close to my record. A sense of humor and desire for adventure are pretty useful as well. As for technology, the airplane is equipped with some interesting gear as well, and it
varies from company to company, but some sort of readout to monitor our ground track and camera operations are always on board as well as a computer rig and of course some kind of cameras. These can range from a battery of very nice commercially available cameras to some pretty intense custom jobs you'd expect to find on predator drones and the like.
How precise is the equipment?
Some of the lower end cameras can, no joke, read a license plate from 7500'. The highest end can read your palm from 14,500. But what's more interesting is the non-visual spectrum cameras which can detect heat leaks from roofing or underground gas leaks and even measure agricultural plant health! As for our own precision, we have a pretty tight tolerance of 200' vertically and laterally on the less precise equipment and 100' in the plane I'm flying. We also have lim
its on allowable yaw, bank, pitch and roll. All this is hand flying so it can get a little tough until you learn how to relax and do it at the same time. Especially in a Cessna. Everyone knows these suckers never fly straight.
Is it a pre-planned route?
The client who is paying for the imagery - and it's their camera equipment flying on our airline - plans the routes and altitudes. Some clients do this well others... errr some do it well. Yes, you cannot deviate from the line unless you want to start it ove
r or pick it up halfway depending on what R2D2 says, so it can get a little tense when there's VFR traffic refusing to talk to ATC and heading right at you.
Do you need prior permission to fly these routes in controlled or uncontrolled airspace?
Absolutely. My current assignment will be taking me or one of my wingmen over R-2515 where they test supersonic aircraft, rockets and all sorts of wild stuff. That's by Edwards AFB. You bet your butt we don't go near it without talking to ATC every morning!
What do you survey?
Standard answer: "The ground," or, "Roofs." Truth is they don't tell us and we don't ask. We can surmise bas
ed on where we are what we're shooting but we don't necessarily know why. We do know that construction, pools, roofs, development, wildlife and sewerage, disaster relief damage, wildfires and things like that are all on the list.
Is it top secret?
Shouldn't that be question 1? No, no clearance is required for this job. So far we haven't been anywhere that isn't in public view. But we do see some cool stuff. I got a picture of the U2!
What time is day is best for survey flying.
So we have a sun angle window of opportunity that we are allowed to shoot. The plans my plane shoots is 30 degrees of sun angle which means right now in California that's 0945 to 1415. [note: Since this interview the sun angle has opened dramatically to 0930 - 170o. This is accounting for the change between ST and DT as well.]
How does sun height in the sky, weather, clouds affect surveying or photos?
See above for sun height, but the answer is we don't shoot clouds and we don't fly in rain with the cameras exposed so, sadly, this is entirely a day-vfr gig when we're on mission.
How do you get from job to job.
I fly my plane, and I love it. That's what I signed up for. I started in Louisiana and ferried to Georgia. From Georgia to Florida. To Ohio. To South Carolina, back to Louisiana then west to California via Texas. The varied landscape, the people, the incredible experience in my own little ship... I can't express how grateful I am for having this opportunity and for my boss putting his faith in me with 1/20th of his capital assets. It's a great feeling to have the responsibility to plan my own routes and be a true PIC. [note, since this interview I've now shot across Texas again from SoCal to Arkansas from where I edit this article.]
Do you fly the same airplane each time?
Barring a situation in which m
y plane was down and another pilot got sick (in which case I'd fly their plane until they got better or my plane was back on the line) then, yes. She's my girl and I'm responsible for her care and feeding.
Do you fly every day?
Every fair weather day, yes. I don't get holidays, weekends, leave, vacation or anything like that. This is a job for a person who wants to fly their ass off. Expect 100 hours a month and my slowest 30 days has been 65 and that was due to an actual ice storm.
Night flights, night vision? Maybe that's spy flights not survey flights.
So there's a technology called LiDAR, and it's used for survey. Those guys fly night, but I don't think they have night vision. Those lucky guys never sleep.
Where do you sleep?
In cheap hotels. It's a pain point. I have a company reputation for getting the best hotels and rental cars within our very tight budget constraints. The magic words are, "My two favorite things in this world, Sir/Ma'am, are free upgrades and writing glowing customer service reviews."
They pay for every single day I'm
on the job, flying or not. They coordinate with the client. They make final decisions on non-vital Mx. That's pretty much it.
Mountain flying experience ?
Boy, howdy. Just flew across Texas to San Angelo then El Paso and from there across the Rockies to LA via Lake Havasu. Now that I'm here the western and southern ends of all my flight plans end at mountains. I've started to get an in-the-guts feel for it. In case any mountain rookies are reading this here's a sensation you'll never forget. That little bit of vibrating and rocking that's normal in any daytime flight? It just evaporates. There's almost a silence. You may not e
ven notice it the first time. Then, WHAM, something grabs your plane and flings it up or down or sideways or just shakes the hell out of it like a storm cloud. You might not feel that silent calm the first time, but the second time? Your stomach will go cold with anticipation. It's like in a monster movie when you just know Godzilla or whatever is right around the corner. [note: Since this article I have now flown the Guadalupe Pass and I highly recommend anyone who wants to test their mettle do so. Just Google some stories about it, she's a doozie.]
Scariest moment so far?
A wingman nearly flew himself into a mountain at night then blamed ATC and the company. That same guy then bragged about landing after a different flight with two gallon
s of fuel left. I don't want to like the man because I am sure he'll be an NTSB report some day.
Second scariest: Florida, returning to KISM from the west coast. Lots of those typical Florida clouds that materialize out of a clear blue sky and then somehow turn into mountains of mashed potatoes. I wasn't about to fly all that way under them so I climbed on top and enjoyed the view of the cotton sea from the glassy-
smooth above, noting the 30 degree wind correction angle. There wasn't a good hole to dive bomb through to get into KISM and the bravo was coming up so I did what I normally did: request a pop-up IFR just to descend. Normally the controllers in Miami center or Kissimmee approach give that almost off-the-cuff. Something like, "November waka waka waka uhhh cleared to wherever via vectors, descend altitude your discretion heading your discretion," after getting just fuel and souls and type of aircraft. Not this time. This time they wanted all my information and were very specific to mention, three times, it was my search and rescue information. Then they gave me my descent. And I understood why. I feel like it's hard to talk about how rough it was without sounding like I'm telling a big fish story but I am being sincere when I say I was shocked at how rough and sustained the turbulence was. Hardest half hour of flying I've had so far.
Is it a competitive business.
No idea. I expect so.
Do some pilots get more flights then others, and why?
If you want hours, this is the gig for you. 99% of the time there's a good reason to attempt to collect imagery. The pilots that get fewer hours are either unlucky with weather or, more likely, are like Mr. CFIT I mentioned above who are constantly trying not to fly or to convince others to come back early.
Why do some companies choose a manned aircraft over an unmanned aircraft and benefits of one over the other?
Drones just aren't there yet in terms of endurance, reliability and legality. You can't fly a drone over private property without getting the permission of the owner of said property. You
go try to get permission from every homeowner in a county. And any drone that can reliably fly for 8 hours a day and take millions of pictures will cost more than any small business can afford.
Can you use autopilot?
sigh One day...
What kind of lifestyle do you have?
That of a long haul trucker who can impress people by saying, "I'm a pilot." Also my "truck stops" are often Million Air's, which is awesome.
What type of hours, VFR only or IFR?
Night and IFR are available for ferrying.
Single and multi engine ?
My company operates 172s and Aztecs, that's pretty typical. Next tier is 310s and Navajos, all the way up to Dash-8
s for the fancy folks flying where they do get night vision goggles and flack jackets.
What happens if you have mechanical problems?
Get 'em fixed! An idle plane is a money pit.
Is what you're photographing on the ground clearly evident to you?
Nope. I'm just listening to sea shanties and trying to stay in the tube!
Equipment checks and how often?
Every single morning.
What type of companies hire survey companies?
Governments. Then the client can resell the images because they own them! Hell of a business.
So, Eli, why did you think becoming a survey pilot would get you to the magic number of 1500 hours sooner?
As a CFI one must contend with student schedules, other CFIs, plane availability, weather, maintenance and all the other things that keep planes on the ground. As a survey pilot the only thing that keeps me grounded is weather or maintenance and we
- like most survey companies - have our own maintenance. Every 30 days I'm getting about 100 hours, and it's just up to me. If I think it's safe and productive to fly, I fly. Everyone's incentives are for me to do precisely that. 80 hours in a month is a mediocre month for me, 60 is low. Most CFIs I hear consider 80 hours top of the pops.
How did you get your foot in the door?
The same way I've gotten every job I've ever had: Pure bull-headed tenacity and optimism. Anybody who thinks getting a first pilot job is hard I encourage to attempt to get a book published with no record. My first lead came from a Facebook group post
for low time pilot work where I posted something to the effect of, "I'm looking for literally any work to do while I study for my CFI. I do not want to be a full time CFI. Anybody have any leads?" Made friends with a great guy who introduced me to his former boss, interviewed at that company whi
ch decided to hire me and then promptly went out of business. It was a comedy of errors from there. I rode right seat in a C-310 learning to fly the plane and fly the lines. That got me an interview with another survey company which hired me on the spot and ... promptly went out of business. When my current company hired me I was looking over my shoulder for meteors and the horsemen of the apocalypse. The way I got the interview for this company, by the way, was another Facebook post. I posted a meme of Oliver Twist holding his bowl of porridge with the caption, Please, Sir, can I have some more TT?"
How likely are your chances of transitioning to flying a twin?
About 99%. My current boss told me that if I sign on for another season I'm "pretty much guaranteed" an Aztec. I'd be in one now if he'd wanted to pay for another 5 hours of stick time in one,
but he had enough qualified Aztec pilots at that point. At this point I'm most interested in turbine time as I have over 50 ME and 0 turbine. I'm also blessed to have been offered a job with another survey compan
y that flies primarily twins. All in all I just feel extremely grateful to be able to fly for a living. It's a hell of a far cry from being a freelance writer and poker pro! I finally feel a true sense of worth. I know if my mom is watching she's proud.
Thank you Eli, for your insight into the life of a survey pilot. It sounds like an interesting step in your journey. There's something to be said for having only your own hands on the controls while going around and around in a sort of different pattern. I wish you the very best with all of your future endeavors.
Thank you so much to Cheryl Papas for being so interested in how I mow the sky, and for being a great friend and the most persistent Membership Committee chairperson that I am sure the JAC has ever had.