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Flying North

Helicopter adventures to the top of the world
with Alastair Fothergill

Flying North

Helicopter adventures to the top of the world with Alastair Fothergill

Image 0398 Arctic Wolf, Ellesmere Island

In producing the iconic series Frozen Planet the BBC the crews had to learn a number of new skills to enable them to tackle filming in the harsh conditions above the arctic circle. Some of the same crew returned to the arctic last year to film the BBC series The Hunt with David Attenborough. Last month Helipaddy spent the weekend with Alastair Fothergill, executive producer of Silverback Films and the producer and director of such major BBC wildlife series such as; Planet EarthBlue PlanetFrozen Planet and most recently The Hunt.

Alastair has spent 1000’s of hours in a variety of helicopters, probably as many as the average commercial pilot. His favourite, if asked, is the B3 Squirrel. Otherwise known as the AS350 B3e (or now the H125), this chopper is the high-performance version of the B1, powered by an Arriel engine. This Arctic expedition was nonetheless done in the workhorse Bell 407 as shown in the pictures.

Image 0258 – The Bell 407 perched on a mound on Ellesmere Island

We discussed the impact of drones and, interestingly, although many people feel that their increasing use heralds the end of heli-filming, Alastair thinks this is highly unlikely for his particular genre as the type of filming and the quality of image required in wildlife documentaries means that there is nothing to beat a stabilized cineflex camera rig attached to a helicopter. The use of this camera attached to a helicopter mount was first pioneered in the filming of the series Planet Earth in the early 2000’s. The key point about the Cineflex is that its gyros stabilise a very powerful lens. This allows for flights at 200-300 metres, high enough not to disturb the animals but still allowing a full range of shots, including close ups.

Image 0243 – Fitting the cineflex

Filming of arctic wolves, wild dogs and polar bears for the BBC series The Hunt demonstrated that a helicopter hovering above the animals at 300ft did not cause them to break concentration or even look up. In edit, the vibration produced by a heli is easier to damp out than the vibration produced during drone filming, and of course a heli has the added advantage of carrying all the kit and the photographer.

Image 0506 The conclusion of the hunt, Arctic wolves and Musk ox filmed from above.

Image 0242 – A bit too much kit for a drone!

Alastair and his team succeeded in getting remarkable footage with the help of Universal Helicopters (UNHL) and their legendary pilot John Innis. John, who is now in his seventies, has accumulated over 30,000 hours in a wide variety of helicopters and has spent over 20 years flying in the arctic. He has endorsements on an impressive number of aircraft including the Bell 47, 04, 05, 06 and 407, the Sikorsky 55 and 62, Enstroms 28 and 48,  and the Allouette 313!

Image 0446 Silverback film crew with John Innis, chief pilot for UNHL, on the far right

Refuelling is always a major problem in these remote areas, one that can either be solved by the addition of extra tanks or by flying in barrels and leaving them at strategic locations. In the end it was the latter approach that was used. Although it meant more hours flying, this freed up the weight allowance for all the extra camera kit.

Image 0284 – A brace of 407’s refuelling from barrels

It would have been a shame not to have watched a bit of Frozen Planet and The Hunt whilst we were at Alastair’s so, sure enough, we were treated to some highlights of the filming with the man himself. We hope to take readers even further north to the very tip of the world in our next article about a trip to Svalbard and the North Pole itself.

© All images are the property of Alastair Fothergill and Helipaddy Ltd and may not be reproduced without permission.


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