The coolest job in London? We swoop over the city with aerial photographer Jason Hawkes

Posted at 5:30 pm, June 26, 2012 in Photos of London, Secret London
Dusk over London. © Jason Hawkes

You might recognise Jason Hawkes’ terrific aerial photographs (and videos) of the iconic London skyline. A few weeks ago, he invited us to join him on his latest shoot, so we dashed off to meet him faster than Arnie could scream ‘GET TO DA CHOPPA!’ Hawkes’ work might focus on the sights of central London, but we meet at the distinctly suburban Redhill aerodrome, where all his flights begin. The evening’s mission is to shoot photographs of a particular east London site at sunset and at night, which will then get the ‘artist’s impression’ treatment of whatever new building is due to be built there. And to kill time between dusk and night shots, we get to fly all over the city taking photos of whatever we want.

First, we wait for the optimum amount of moody duskiness, during which much squinting at the sky takes place as we attempt to predict the likely visibility. ‘It’s hazy.’ Not good. ‘Then again, sometimes it looks great, but once you get up there, it looks like crap anyway.’ So it’s a matter of hazy = bad, not hazy = possibly still bad.

How does one get into the aerial photography game, anyway? Jason studied photography, and after graduating hatched a crazy plan with a fellow graduate to buy a microlight, get a pilot’s license and fly it around taking photos. On hearing this, I instantly regret failing to purchase a microlight after I left university, and begin harbouring bitterness towards my so-called friends for never having suggested it. (Although it’s not too late, if you’re tempted – a second-hand microlight will set you back around £3,000.)

I ask if the Olympics will cause extra demand for Jason’s services. On the contrary, it turns out that airspace over London will be so heavily restricted that Jason will be grounded for the duration. So if you thought that ‘helicopter’ was your secret weapon in Getting Ahead Of The Games™, think again.

Instructions on what to do if your flight over London is intercepted.

A handy-dandy guide for pilots on ‘what to do if you stray into prohibited Olympic airspace and then fighter jets start swerving around in front of you.’ [Thanks to IanVisits for finding it.]

Our pilot. Like all pilots, he has an excellent ‘soothing pilot voice.’

The light start to dim and we get ready for take-off. The pilot and his colleague cheerfully remove an entire door, which isn’t something that often happens on EasyJet. Jason rides in the back, secured with a harness, while the pilot and I sit up front.

Jason Hawkes.

Jason suiting up. I’d probably wear this all the time, just so I could be all ‘excuse the get-up guys, I only just got back from the HELICOPTER.’

We take off and over the radio the pilot asks me if I’m comfortable. ‘Fine,’ I say as casually as possible, although my internal monologue is more along the lines of ‘WHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!’ as we spree through the air in a magical sky van. Only a few minutes later we’re at 800ft and Proper London starts to emerge from the haze.

The Shard emerges from the haze.

We find the site we’re due to photograph, and Jason and the pilot work to find the perfect angle – a more dramatic version of parallel parking a coach. ‘Shall we go left a bit, and… see that thing there? The blue thing?’ ‘Next to that big building?’ ‘No, next to the round one.’ ‘Oh, that blue thing.’ ‘So let’s go there and then go back the way came. But more to the right than last time.’

After a few approaches, the necessary shots are all done, and we’re at liberty until night has properly fallen – time to fly over the whole of London and take some cool pictures, then! 30 seconds later we’re flying over the Olympic arena:

Aerial view of  the new Olympic Stadium at night, London. © Jason Hawkes

‘That’s weird, they’d finished the field the other day…’ It turns out we were getting a sneak peek of Danny Boyle’s fake rural England set for the Opening Ceremony.

And then, an orbit of the City…

I start to forget I’m flying with a professional photographer and begin madly taking photos with my iPhone. So if you wondered what difference two decades of experience, a gyroscopic stabiliser and a Proper Grown Up Camera make, well, this is my attempt:

The Shard at night.

And here’s Jason’s:

All in all, we spend an hour buzzing over town, nipping from the West End to Stratford and back with a speed that makes me long for our flying-car future. We briefly return to the original target for some night-time shots – it’s hard to believe that all these spectacular images are really just the by-products of the ‘proper’ work, but they are. Then, although we can just about see my house (well, Peckham in general), fast-roping down to my front door is apparently against regulations, so with 800+ new photos to edit and £1,500 of helicopter hire fees to pay, we set a course back to Surrey. Job done. Guy Parsons

Checking we didn’t leave the lens cap on.

Thanks to Jason for letting us ride shotgun with him – check out more of his photography on his website

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