Flying Low and Slow Over a Lava Flow

Posted on Mon, December 17, 2012

This September, Larry Crumpler, a research colleague at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, and I were able to fly in the back seats of two weight-shifting ultralight aircraft during a two-hour flight over the McCartys lava flow in central New Mexico. This flow is 3,000 years old and over 47 km (29 miles) long, one of the longest fresh lava flows in the continental United States. It has been the subject of on-going research by Larry, other colleagues, and me as part of my research grant funded by NASA through the Planetary Geology and Geophysics program.

Jim Zimbelman

Geologist Jim Zimbelman and pilot Jeff Gilkey flying above the McCartys lava flow in New Mexico.

Larry made contact with the ultralight pilots through his museum in Albuquerque, and following some field work on the McCartys flow this past April, Larry and I were able to make the first ultralight flight over the lava flow. Pilots Jeff Gilkey and Paul Dressendorfer are very experienced ultralight pilots, both having flown hundreds of times over the many natural wonders that abound in New Mexico and neighboring states. The April flight convinced both Larry and I that ultralights could represent a wonderful platform from which to obtain low-altitude stereo photographs, which should show much more detail than could be obtained from either commercial aerial photographs or satellite images.

For the September flight, I attached a Canon Eos Rebel digital camera to a monopole, with a remote trigger taped to the pole, plus two separate safety lines that attached the pole to me in a way that still allowed for easy movement. As we flew over the lava flow, the camera was held out from the side of the two-person open cockpit, oriented to point straight down. I was able to collect over 1,800 vertical photographs, including ones taken while following several GPS-specified lines to provide aerial coverage of places that we have investigated extensively on the ground. Meanwhile, Larry took photos from the second ultralight (for safety reasons, the pilots prefer to fly in pairs), providing context information of the mapping ultralight.

McCartys lava flow in central New Mexico

Vertical photograph of the McCartys lava flow in New Mexico.

A quick check of the vertical photos has confirmed the great scientific value contained within low-altitude, low-speed aerial photographs. The stereo photographs should provide many new insights about the McCartys lava flow during the coming months, and they will also be included in future proposals to support research of lava flows in the New Mexico area.

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