Ah Las Vegas. How I love thee. I remember (and don’t remember) many good times in this desert oasis of fun. But, Sin City is not just known for stealing hearts and robbing bank accounts. Every so often, visitors break themselves away from the bars, restaurants and Blackjack tables to explore all that southern Nevada has to offer. While Las Vegas sits in a desert, that doesn’t mean the surrounding areas are barren and boring. Quite the opposite, as I would come to find out on a recent trip with Sony that aligned with Spring Break for Photographers, otherwise known as WPPI.
When I landed in Las Vegas and arrived at our hotel, the beautiful W, I was shocked to see that Sony had brought out many of my journalist friends for this trip. I knew at that moment that the industry leader in mirrorless cameras had something big to announce. And indeed they did. On Monday at 5pm PST, Sony gathered us all together at the Industrial Event Space to show off their latest full-frame mirrorless camera, the A7III, which is the third generation of the one that started it all. I have always thought the A7 and A7II were the perfect cameras for those who wanted to either wanted to step up their game from a point and shoot, or if they were already DSLR users, the perfect all around camera to enter into the mirrorless universe.
So naturally, I was excited to get my hands on the A7III. But, being a travel photographer, I am usually not used to taking photos of models in elaborate sets (although I got some great shots of them too), so when I learned that Sony planned to strap us in some open door helicopters with Las Vegas based Maverick Helicopters, I was excited. Being that it’s much easier to drop things out of an open door helicopter, we were told we wouldn’t be able to change lenses during the flight, so I opted to just board the chopper with the A7III and the insanely versatile Sony FE 24-105mm f/4 G OSS Lens, tightly strapped around my neck, of course.
*Editors Note: I had finished this article on the afternoon of Sunday March 11th, just hours before the tragic helicopter crash in New York City. While our flight with Maverick Helicopters was doors off, we did not have the type of harness systems that was on the helicopter in NYC. I am fully confident that in case of emergency, I would have been able to quickly get out of my ‘seat belt,’ which was released with a strong turn of a wheel positioned over your stomach. While the type of belts used by Maverick do not allow for the type of free movement that the harness does, I was easily able to put my camera out of the helicopter (and even my head) to get the shots I desired. I decided to publish this article to show that, while there is always danger involved in experiences like this, the safety record of helicopter tour operators is very high, and I think it is important to tell the story of our incredible tour, one which I always felt safe, and would do again in a heartbeat. Our condolences go out to the victims and the families affected by the NYC tragedy.
So off we went to McCarren Airport, where my group met our pilot Danny Green, a man who could have easily been cast as Iceman in the original Top Gun if he was only 30 years older. Danny was the lead pilot who would navigate our squadron of four ECO-Star EC-130 helicopters for the 30 minute flight to the rugged and beautiful Valley of Fire State Park. Luckily, my friend Ted Forbes from The Art of Photography was in my helicopter to capture the incredible video above, which really shows how surreal the experience was.
As soon as we were off the ground, the famed Las Vegas strip, with giant buildings packed into minimal square acreage, became seemingly as small as a toy model. We quickly reached our cruising altitude of 1,000 feet and barreled towards Valley of Fire at 100mph. Although it was late afternoon, the sunlight was still harsh, making it hard to get the photos I had envisioned. But, really, from this altitude, the scenery looks unique an interesting in any time of day. So I started snapping. Even though I wasn’t at the open door for this part of the flight, I was still able to get some great views.
While the majority of helicopters out of Maverick’s base travel to Arizona’s Grand Canyon, a select few pilots are tasked with bringing the adventurous visitors to Valley of Fire. This responsibility falls on the shoulders of Maverick’s most experienced pilots, as the landing into the State Park is tricky, technical, and insanely exhilarating. Having visited Valley of Fire before by the not as fun means of transportation known as the car, I figured we would be landing the helicopters somewhere on the park’s floor, in a nice wide open space. I was pleasantly surprised to find this was indeed not the case. Danny approached a large rock cropping, told us to get ready for the fun and made a hard bank left as we quickly descended towards the rocks.
As we inched closer and closer to the top of this stunning mountain made of rock, I was amazed at the concentration and precision that went into Danny’s landing. Being able to see the ground below me, I had no clue how he was going to pull this off, as there really isn’t much ‘flat’ area to get his landing skids. But after about 60 seconds of slight maneuvers, we touched down. The other three choppers followed suit and impressively found their own minuscule spots to land, and we jumped out onto the rocks with a feeling of excitement and amazement.
Danny informed us that we had about 45 minutes to enjoy the view, so I started exploring with my Sony A7III in hand.
As we packed up to head back to Las Vegas, I noticed the light hitting the rocks was getting much softer and more attractive than when we had flown out, so I gladly took my seat on the open door at the back left of the chopper. We took off and made our way back to Las Vegas.
As we flew over the Hidden Valley ridge, we noticed the winds had picked up considerably, adding a little more excitement to our return home. But, this wasn’t going to be a standard return home. Danny had a surprise in store for us.
Allright guys…so I have checked our fuel level, and we are doing pretty good. So I want to take you guys on a little side mission. Have you ever seen the Hoover Dam? Even if you have, there is no better way to see it then from the sky!
Now this was an awesome addition to an already incredible experience. While I actually HAD seen the Hoover Dam from above (I skydived over it many many years ago), I didn’t have a camera at the time. Nor a vivid memory of the experience. Because, Vegas. To get to the Hoover Dam, we had to fly by Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States in terms of water capacity. The soft light made for great photos of the clear blue water and the setting sun cast an eerie shadow of the mountains on the land just off the lake’s edge.
As we approached the Hoover Dam, I adjusted my position to hang my camera slightly out of the door to get exceptional views of 82 year old engineering marvel, now the second biggest dam in the United States. The pilots made two circles around the dam, giving both sides of the chopper a great view. For the approach where I didn’t have a view of the dam, I was greeted with the rugged looking Colorado River, weaving through the landscape as it made it’s retreat south from the Hoover Dam.
When we made our final pass over the Dam, Danny informed us that is was time to head back. But, as I glanced out of the open door, I could see the setting sun casting an almost unreal light on the approaching landscapes and the Las Vegas strip in the distance. This is where I would put in the hardest, and most painful, work of the trip. To get the photos of the bright sun setting behind the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino, I had to put my head completely outside of the helicopter. The brutal cold force of the winds as we approached the strip at 100 miles an hour felt like hundreds of needles being stabbed into my face, but the resulting photos were worth the pain.
As we approached the strip, I returned to my position fully inside the cold, yet, less windy helicopter as we flew parallel to the Las Vegas strip. As we slowly made are final approach to McCarron, I couldn’t help but think of all of the unique stories unfolding in the casinos, restaurants, bars and hotel rooms below. While I had spent much of my many trips in Las Vegas making those memories below, it was a welcoming and refreshing feeling to be making a new memory of Las Vegas. One from high above the chaos, where a peaceful feelings replaced the usual madness that Las Vegas is known for.