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Flying Pinto Canyon

A few months back, Leslie Baldwin from Texas Monthly emailed and asked, “am I going crazy or did I see somewhere that you got your pilot’s license?” I called her back and explained that she wasn’t going crazy and that I did in fact get it a little while back. She said they were working on a story for a big feature in the fall on adventures around Texas. The one in particular she was interested in having me photograph was one on flying through Pinto Canyon. I told her I was game, so after some back and forth, we booked it to shoot in mid-August.

Pinto Canyon is roughly an hour and a half southwest of Marfa along Pinto Canyon road. The reason the story calls for flying over it is because it’s not an easy road to drive without 4X4, but I’ll leave those sweet details for the Texas Monthly article to explain. Pick up your copy this week. For my experiences though, read on.

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We flew out of San Marcos around 7:30 on Thursday morning in hopes of getting out to Alpine before the weather would become an issue. Summer time is monsoon season in West Texas, which is not the kind of weather that mixes well with planes. Luckily, for the most part, the monsoons are isolated to the afternoons.

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Climbing out of San Marcos airport we cruised at 10,500 where things were nice and smooth and we could avoid the intermittent cloud cover below.

Approaching Alpine.

As we approached Alpine, the sky started to clear below us and reveal the lush green ground below. For anyone who has spent time in West Texas, the idea of anything being lush green may come as a surprise, but this year the rains had been so frequent and so heavy that the desert was a beautiful dark patchy green.

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I dropped my friend off in Marfa by using the hilarious Marfa Airport Courtesy car and then continued back on over  to Alpine.

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Along the way, I also happened upon a train that was making its way between Alpine and Marfa. I shot a series focused on the shapes and colors of the cars that I was really happy with. This is only a small selection of what I was able to come away with.

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Alpine has a great little airport, and that day the weather couldn’t have been better. I was glad to get down when I did though because as you can see, in the distance there were some gnarly storm clouds developing over Fort Davis. A couple of months back, I purchased a foldable full sized Montague bike that I can fit in the back seat of the plane. I unfolded it and rode the 5 miles to the Hampton Inn in town and stayed there overnight, though I did get away for a great dinner with my good friend John, out at the Gauge Hotel.


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The next morning I biked back to the airport and got the plane ready to fly. I had enough gas to fly for the first couple of hours, so I just loaded up my bike, mounted the GoPros, got my regular cameras ready, did my checklist, and burned off.

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I shot for about an hour and a half making several passes down through the canyon and around the mesas before finally flying back to Marfa around 11 AM. If you’re flying-inclined and are interested in seeing the flight-track log, you can see it here.

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I gassed up in Marfa and checked the images on the cameras while I waited. I was pleased with what I got, but wanted to get more just in case, so took back off shortly after landing.

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The picture above is of Marfa immediately after turning to the south from Marfa airport. Afterwards I flew straight back to Pinto Canyon to get my afternoon shots before the storms rolled in.

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I get a lot of questions about how I’m able to shoot and fly. First of all, the window on these 182’s open, so you can stick a lens out pretty easily. As for the flying part, this one has autopilot so it’s easy to get set up in line for what I want to shoot and then turn it on. Even without it though, learning how to make the plane straight and level without having to make constant inputs on the controls is the first thing you’re taught as a pilot, so shooting isn’t hard if you’re careful about it.

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After some waffling on both of our parts, Leslie and I made the case for the image below to be the final image. It’s gotten a really great response thus far, so I’m really pleased with the project overall. Big thanks to her and TJ Tucker for wanting to do a story like this. It was a blast to shoot. Look for it on the shelves in the coming week.

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