The sky is the limit

Tuesday, July 26, 2011 12:53 AM
AERIAL VIEW of Main street, Cortez.
Chip Olson displays the helicopter he uses to take aerial photographs.
Chip Olson controls the helicopter as it lands in Parque de Vida after taking photos of the Cortez Recreation Center.
Tara Olson fastens the camera to the helicopter for taking aerial photographs.

The helicopter flies low, skimming through the forest trees and squeezing through impossibly tight spaces while a camera snaps photos of the creek below.

These photos offer a unique perspective.

This helicopter is flown by Chip Olson, while his wife, Tara lines up the photographic shots. There is a huge difference though in the helicopter’s size and noise, that sounds like a weedeater overhead.

This is not the normal kind of helicopter. It has no pilot.

A remote control is used to fly the whirlybird, the same goes for the digital camera. The Olsons recently moved to the area and own Dolores Helipics, a company that specializes in low-altitude aerial photography and video.

Shot from 10 to 300 feet in the air, Tara Olson said the photos are perfect for land developments, real estate, hydrology, home construction, roadway design, legal documents and marketing materials.

The business is fairly prolific in Europe and Asia, but it hasn’t hit the mainstream yet in the United States.

“It’s part of our challenge business-wise, because people don’t think to use a service like this,” Chip Olson said.

The chopper has a 6-foot rotor span and is definitely not for remote control hobbyists. A larger version is even used by the military.

Chip and Tara Olson each have remote controls for operation. Chip runs the helicopter, while Tara takes photos with a specially configured camera on board. The remote control helicopter is also equipped with a webcam so Tara can see images on a video screen and let Chip know where to fly. Tara Olson compares their 12-year marriage to their business interaction.

“It’s kind of like a marriage, you have to communicate well,” she said. “(Chip) doesn’t know what I’m seeing, so I have to say ‘right, left, up, down.’”

The couple started the company in 2007, while living in Northern Idaho. They each decided to make radical changes in their careers to start the business. Chip Olson was a graphic designer, working in production and advertising for a retailer for 11 years. Tara was a social worker for 20 years and has a master’s degree in forensic science. She did psychopathology and also has a background in forensic photography.

“I really liked the photography piece, I just didn’t like what I was taking pictures of,” Tara Olson said.

Now the two have government contracts with the Forest Service in Idaho and with their aerial view have helped with hydrology work. When a flood washed out a bridge, the Forest Service had to restructure the channel for the rehabilitation of bull trout. The Olsons used their chopper to fly over at 50 feet and take high resolution still photos so designers could see the eddies and everything that was going on. Forest Service planners, after viewing the photos, realized that what they had planned wasn’t going to work correctly.

“(The photos) actually showed them something that they’ve never seen before and didn’t even know what was happening, so (the Forest Service) had to change a lot of their plans due to what the photos were showing,” Tara said.

Helipics work is more reasonable than having a full-size aircraft fly overhead and gather images at $2,000 an hour, according to Chip Olson. Also, the height of where the photos would be taken from a full-size craft wouldn’t be able to necessarily show things like salmon spawning so fish and game could count fish in the river.

Dolores Helipics charges $185 an hour and has a day rate of $1,200 for six hours, which includes per diem for hotels if they have to travel.

The Olsons have also worked with local chambers of commerce to shoot towns to be placed on websites, universities to give an overview of campuses, high-end custom homes in the mountains that are hard to get photos of, and have helped organizers plan festivals by looking at overhead shots to determine where to place tents and vendors.

The chopper is equipped with a global positioning system tracker that integrates digital images with GPS coordinates that hooks to Google maps.

The remote control radio that Chip operates has a range of about a mile, but the helicopter has to yield to full-size aircraft in rural areas so there is a 500-foot ceiling that he can’t go above. That’s really not a problem since with the camera’s wide-angle lens, the chopper rarely gets above 250 feet.

“If it gets too high, even though the helicopter is fairly large, all I can see is a disc and if I lose track of the tail boom, and don’t know which direction it’s going, it becomes very difficult to bring the helicopter back down,” Chip Olson said.

He always has the craft in line of sight and tries to keep it within 500-1,000 feet of him. In an open field, he has had it as far away as half a mile. Chip said the farther away the chopper is, the less reaction time he has to make corrections if a gust of wind comes along. He can’t feel the wind on the chopper and so if he can’t see it well, he doesn’t know when a correction needs to be made.

Crashing isn’t something the Olsons want to think about with the cost of equipment at $15,000, and skillful operation is a must. The couple went to Texas for an intense eight-day training session to learn how to use it. So far, so good — the only controlled crash landing came on an extremely windy day when a stick hit the tail rotor, splitting it and flaying it open.

Flying the chopper takes intense concentration and the Olsons laugh about Chip’s inability to move when a bug crawls down his shirt while out in the field.

They also sometimes fly around wildlife and said the droning sound in the air doesn’t seem to phase the animals, which makes it a good option for areas that have endangered species that are protected by law.

Occasionally it makes for interesting interaction with animals. Once a flock of geese thought the chopper was just another bird and they began flying along with it.

Even with the creepy, crawlies, they are doing what they love, and enjoy the flexibile schedule. The couple home school their two children — ages 9 and 11 — to maintain the flexibility for travel and say the kids love it.

“It’s fun work,” Chip said. “It’s hard work, but fun work.”

For more information on Helipics, call 970-403-5651 or visit them at

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