High art: Aerial survey pilot Steve Benner has distinct perspective

June 1, 2014 

Steve Benner is searching — for what, he’s not sure.

He’ll know when he sees it.

Benner’s at the controls of a Cessna Skylark II, high over Ferguson Township, not far from his Pine Grove Mills home. He peers out his side window at the ground below, scanning for something unusual, noteworthy, photogenic.

His Canon digital camera sits on his lap, ready to go.

A veteran aerial survey pilot, Benner, 53, now takes different types of shots from above — dramatic images of landscapes full of color, shapes, light, shadows and textures, geography as art.

He has captured memorable perspectives of desert and mountain terrain, but on this May morning, a simple farm field catches his eye.

It’s a study in green, an irresistible checkerboard of cut and fallow sections. Most people would pass right by it on the ground, but Benner literally brings a different perspective.

This is worth a few clicks.

He slows the plane to about 80 knots and opens his window. Cool air rushes into the cabin.

“With that much green and that much sun today, this might work,” he says over the roar.

Quickly shifting from the controls, he leans over and snaps off some shots. If they turn out good, once again he’ll have found gold.

“It could be anything,” he later says. “That’s much of the fun of it: not going out with any intention to shoot anything, just seeing what you can find.”

Finding looks

He has discovered plenty of masterpieces.

Preserved by his lens, eastern Maine wild blueberry bogs seen from the air resemble a mottled wound, full of purple swatches and ponds forming dark whorls.

Fields south of Oklahoma City sport wavy, twisting furrows almost like runes, as though someone were trying to communicate with an alien mothership.

In contrast, the precise circular layout of a suburban Phoenix development brings to mind both an ancient maze and modern electronic circuitry.

Behind a lone Arizona butte in the remains of the day, a giant triangle of a shadow stretches across the desert, a sun dial for the gods.

But Meteor Crater, another Arizona subject, provided one of his all-time favorite shots.

As Benner recalls, he was flying one morning back from a two-month aerial mapping job in California, cruising at about 11,000 feet. All of a sudden, he realized that Meteor Crater, the result of a cataclysmic meteorite collision 50,000 years ago, was close.

He had never seen the enormous pit in the middle of nowhere, and hoped he would catch a glimpse. But to his delight, it just appeared on his side as if custom-ordered, nicely aligned with Humphrey’s Peak, 40 miles away near Flagstaff, in the background.

Years later, he calls it “the ultimate found look.”

“I didn’t have to move the airplane at all,” he said. “The crater was in the perfect spot for the shot. Talk about stumbling upon a shot out of dumb luck — that was definitely the case with this one.”

In-flight field trips

Flying came first.

Growing up locally, Benner started taking flight lessons at 14 and soloed two years later out of Mifflintown Airport in Juniata County. It was a beautiful day, he remembers, so calm his instructor couldn’t resist cracking a joke.

“He said, ‘I could have soloed your grandmother,’ ” Benner said.

But no matter: He had his wings.

“You don’t have to twist my arm to fly,” he said. “It’s all I’ve wanted to do since I was 12.”

Cameras came next.

“I was always interested in photography,” he said. “It kind of bit me after college.”

Along the way to an earth sciences degree at Penn State, he developed an appreciation for Mother Nature’s myriad wrinkles and folds. Geomorphology, the study of landforms and the processes that shape them, became a favorite subject.

He loved it even more once his feet left the ground.

“Every flight was like a field trip,” he said. “We’d talk about a certain landform and then I’d go see it.”

Each geomorphology class also fueled his photographic aspirations.

“We’d see this picture in a textbook, and I’d think, ‘Hey, I could be taking these,’ ” he said.

There’s an art to the science

After graduation, Benner learned all about “mowing the grass.”

He didn’t join a landscaping company, but rather an aerial mapping one in New Jersey. The term is used to describe the methodical process of collecting geographic data.

Surveys are done either with overlapping photos taken by sophisticated cameras “that cost three times the plane,” as Benner says, or with LIDAR, Light Detection and Ranging equipment that send out thousands of laser pulses a second “to create a very dense grid of data.”

Survey pilots must fly exact grids over their assigned areas, maintaining their target altitude and ground speed, sometimes through mercurial winds and weather.

“It’s usually OK to go slower, but it’s not OK to go faster because then there are gaps in the data,” Benner said.

When flights last for hours, often at night using LIDAR and by instrument, and with “very tight specs” in any case, concentration becomes paramount, Benner said. He relied on bags of Life Saver mints to withstand the tedium of long jobs and stay alert.

“It requires very precise flying,” he said. “It makes you a good pilot.”

Back in labs, technicians convert the raw data into extremely accurate maps and three-dimensional renderings of landscapes, a process called photogrammetry.

To ensure the data’s accuracy, mapping planes also employ survey-grade airborne GPS sensors and inertial measurement units. IMUs, technology first used in cruise missiles, constantly measure atmospheric conditions and an aircraft’s ever-changing speed, altitude and position relative to the ground.

“Even with the best flying on a smooth day, the aircraft is never traveling straight and level,” Benner said.

As he continued in the business, moving to State College in 1985 and eventually co-owning a firm, he landed occasional oblique photography gigs, the kind of “pretty pictures” from above and at an angle he eventually turned into a hobby.

He credits veteran aerial photographer Don Stephenson, who loved oblique photography, for helping fuel his interest. Stephenson took Benner under his wing early on.

“He was an institution,” Benner said. “He had been doing it forever.”

Taken for clients, his oblique photos usually were of businesses, suitable for framing in offices, or of construction sites for developers.

But on his many trips, including one to Mexico to map archaeological ruins cloaked by jungle, Benner began taking note of more impressive subjects. Buildings can’t hold a candle to the majesty of the Sierra Nevada mountains, a Michigan island dotting Lake Superior’s azure waters or PNC Park in Pittsburgh on Opening Day.

It wasn’t long before he was taking photos.

Benner considered himself “very lucky.”

“In the course of flying all over the country and Mexico, we got to see some really cool stuff,” he said.

These days, he’s also taking a break from survey flights, his new day job focused on marketing and promoting the service and technology.

He misses the flying, but not the unpredictable schedules and the weeks away from his three children. Now he has more time to spend with them, his two stepchildren and his fiancée.

His current life also gives him more chances to hunt for fleeting combinations of texture and light, art that can’t be planned but only recognized.

“Most of my aerial photography is going out to see what I can see,” he said.

Ann Kasunich, a longtime friend and former aerial mapping and surveying colleague now living in Boulder, Colo., for years has been encouraging Benner to pursue his artistic images.

“He had said to me that he hadn’t really considered his photography as art,” Kasunich said. “And I was thinking, ‘How is that possible?’ ”

She said she realized his potential during their mapping days. There was an art to the science, but Benner went far beyond.

“Even then I could see such a stark contrast to what the company was producing and what he was doing up there on his own just to bring in extra business,” she said.

Kasunich said she likes the way Benner now plays with color, light, forms and structure in his compositions. Having studied geography and cartography, she also appreciates his enthusiasm for the beauty of landforms.

“I’ve always believed he had the heart of a poet, and his photography, to me, is his poetry,” she said. “I’ve always felt that his photography was his poetic expression of what he sees.”

Always exciting

Benner downplays any talk of artistry.

“It’s just a matter of looking out the window and seeing that the light is right,” he said. “You’re bound to get something.”

But when he’s in his element, his artistic sensibility becomes apparent. He notices the details others would miss.

“Look at the differences in those Christmas trees,” he said, passing over groves of varying heights on a local farm.

The huge scar of the Oak Hall quarry didn’t escape his notice.

“That thing is a problem with taking pictures of Mount Nittany,” he said. “All the angles you want, it’s in it. You have to use a little creativity.”

And like many artists, he has his obsessions. He still hasn’t caught the perfect light that would silhouette the parallel ridges near Seven Mountains against each other.

“The last time I got something close to what I wanted was 20 years ago,” he said. “So that’s something I’m still looking for.”

But even if a flight yields nothing, it’s never a total wash.

A passenger recently marveled at the scenery below — the endless shades of green, the creeks snaking through checkered fields — and the serenity above.

“You and me both,” Benner said. “It never gets old.”

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