Written by Holly Kays
If Garrett Fisher had his way, he’d live on the side of a mountain with a glacier as his next-door neighbor.
Some people might consider his Wyoming home, located at 5,633 feet above sea level, to be close enough, but Fisher craves more elevation than that. So, he satisfies his thirst for altitude with aviation.
Namely, a little Piper PA-11 Cub Special that putters along at 75 miles per hour.
Fisher’s not a joyrider, though. A freelance financial consultant by trade and the author of eight books — seven of photography and one on economics — it’s safe to say he’s a driven person, and when he’s behind the controls of a plane, he likes to have a purpose behind the trip. For the past few years, that purpose has been aerial photography, and he’s showcased the results in a series of five books.
His two most recent publications, Appalachian Altitude: Flying the Highest Peaks of the South and Flying the Blue Ridge Parkway, venture east to show off a slew of vistas dear to anyone who’s ever explored Western North Carolina.
“Part of what drove me,” Fisher said, “was the fact that a lot of the Carolina mountains, as beautiful as they are, you’re sitting in the forest at the top of the mountains, which is very disappointing to me because the purpose of climbing a mountain is to look at something.”
Though he currently resides in Wyoming, Fisher’s lived in Charlotte off and on for a total of 10 years. During those years, he’d make it a point to get out in the woods of WNC as much as possible. One of those years was 2010, the year he inherited the plane that reignited his love of flying.
He’d been warned to stay away from the mountains, told that mountains and airplanes don’t mix well. So naturally, he started to “putz around” the Smokies and the Balsams, snapping photos out of the window for fun.
At that point, though, he didn’t have anything close to a book in mind, and before long he’d moved way out to Colorado, where 14,000-foot peaks tantalized him as he stood in the airport. Nobody seemed to know much about flying the mountains, but Fisher was OK with the learn-as-you-go approach. He soon seized on a project: photographing all 58 of Colorado’s mountains over 14,000 feet.
He finished the project and published a book. Soon afterward, he found himself living in Charlotte for six months and figured that, by comparison, photographing the southeast’s 40 peaks over 6,000 feet should be pretty easy.
“I was like, ‘I’m here, I already did the 14ers,’” he recalled. “‘Seriously. How hard could doing the 40 over six be?”
Famous last words. As it turns out, flying the Appalachians is a lot harder than flying the much-higher Rockies. There are trees everywhere, meaning few safe places to land in case of emergency. The air holds more moisture, and judging the suitability of weather conditions requires more finesse.
“I was more petrified flying in the Carolinas than in Colorado, just because of the weather, the clouds,” Fisher said. “If the engine quit, it really would have sucked.”
Luckily for him, that didn’t happen, so while there were some scary moments — once when flying on the Blue Ridge Escarpment, which is only 3,000 feet above sea level, fast and turbulent winds actually flipped his plane in midair — there were many more beautiful, tranquil ones. The pinnacle was on a flight near Marion during a calm, mostly cloudy day.
“I circled up through a hole in the clouds, and there was just this sea of beautiful light everywhere. Oh, it was just stunning,” he recalled.
There’s an air of discovery to the flying, a quest for places that would take days to access on the ground but can be reached in a matter of hours from the air. The views are sweeping, serene — but for Fisher, it’s not enough to get in a plane just for the sake of the flight. Having a finished product to chase is crucial.
“I’m kind of driven in that respect,” he said.
Now, with five aerial photography books published — and seven photography books total — he’s got a total of 15 different projects in the works, some of which are mostly done and others that might never get started.
“I’m looking for things that have not been done and are unconventional, and everything has to be pretty,” he said. “I won’t touch it if it’s not pretty.”
He sees his books as utilitarian, as well. Fisher recalls his frustration as a hiker at not knowing what views the trees obscured and his inability to attach individual names to the sea of blue-green peaks greeting him at overlooks. He hopes his books will act as an addendum to traditional hiking guides, a way for adventurers to put names with the views they see and experience an angle that’s impossible to get from the ground.
“I try to make things useful and beautiful,” he said.
For instance, he said, one of the projects in his ever-lengthening docket is a book cataloguing the path of the Appalachian Trail, a much-revered route that’s largely covered with trees. It would be a hard project to complete, he admits, as it’s easy to lose track of the trail when following it from the air. And he’s got plenty else to be getting on with — current projects include aerial shots of the New River in West Virginia and Virginia and a catalogue of glaciers in Wyoming and Montana.
“Some days I wonder what the hell’s wrong with me,” Fisher laughs.
But then the plane takes off, mountains pierce the blue sky and the question answers itself.
How it’s done
Aerial photography comes a lot easier to pilot Garrett Fisher now than when he first began experimenting in 2010, but “photo-ing,” as he calls it, is still an art that involves doing two things at once.
“Basically, one hand’s always on the stick, my feet are always on the rudder anyway, so I’m still flying the plane,” he said.
To prepare for a photo, Fisher will first check that there’s no other air traffic around, and then he’ll point the plane away from any obstacles, such as mountains, that might be in the vicinity. He picks up the camera — equipped with a polarizing filter and wide-angle lens — and snaps a series of photos. The whole thing takes about 10 seconds.
“It’s gotten to be completely instinctive,” he said.
Sometimes he’ll circle around to get few different takes of the same area, but mostly he just lets the plane meander, taking photos along the way and seeing what he’s got when he’s back on the ground. The plane can go for about three hours before refueling, but he often stays out longer than that. When shooting his Parkway and Appalachian books, the longest day was a nine-hour excursion from Charlotte to Shenandoah National Park and back.
“When I get home, it’s kind of a glorious mix of exhaustion and complete satisfaction,” he said.
The plane itself is a lot different than the commercial airliners that blast along at speeds of 600 miles per hour. Usually, Fisher’s flying at about 75 miles per hour somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 feet above the ground — an altitude most commercial jets exceed in their first 9 seconds of flight.
“People would basically crap themselves,” Fisher said, if their commercial flight flew like his plane, but for him it’s a good setup. “Slowness translates to a margin of error and time to deal with a crises.”