OK, digression is over and I am back in Yuma with the drone. I spent the night at Quality Inn, just across the freeway from Home Depot. I was squarely facing my fears and the car tires were pumped! After the complimentary waffle and omelet breakfast, it was time to get the hell out of Yuma.
I made it to Sedona by noon. It was 86 degrees F. Wind speed 8 km/h (NNE) with occasional gusts to 52 km/h. Visibility was 16 km with average humidity of 39%. Conditions were nominal and it was time to pilot. Our Sedona home is so close to the Coconino National Forest, I wondered if the drone’s software would prevent take off. I attached the iPhone to the remote controller and fired up the drone. Propellers were attached and I had 4 green lights.
My iPhone now functioned as a flight instrument console and live feed screen. It demanded compass calibration. I spun the drone around like a small child on a playground until dizzy. Eventually, I got calibration confirmation, then put it on the ground, just free of the roof overhang.
Our home’s overhanging roof
Having already mastered the “unboxing” tutorial, I was feeling cocky. I knew that there are self-launch, self-land, and return to home functions built in. What could go wrong.
With buoyed confidence, I swiped the auto launch function. The four motors came to life, equilibrated and then revved to an annoying pitch. The Phantom 4 auto launched to 4 feet and hoovered, awaiting further instructions. In the heat of the moment, I was clueless. Clueless how to fly, how to get free from under my home’s overhang. Clueless how to avoid branches, dogs, and children. Even clueless how to bring it down from its towering 4’ height! Normally cool-headed, I admit to full-on alarm. I WAS NOT READY FOR FLIGHT! If I had a flight instructor, he would have walked away, embarrassed for me.
Risking a violent amputation of my still numb right thumb, I grabbed Wizzy from midair and tried to remember how to shut it down. I thought both control arms had to be pulled down and inward but only had one hand to use. The gyroscopic force of the four blades resisted my grasp and it dodged back and forth with motors blaring. By my calculation, the battery had 23 more minutes in them before shutting down.
Clarity replaced fear as I remembered the simple, can’t forget, one hand shut down maneuver. Wizzy, with lights still blinking, went still in my hand. The three green lights on the battery told me I had already used a quarter of the power. I muttered to no one in particular: “Well, that was fun!”. I put Wizzy down on the glass patio table and went back inside to get some post graduate training on YouTube. I walked back to the computer wondering if I had the right stuff.
The additional training paid off. With buoyed confidence and in the worst light of the day, I packed up and drove out to some raw land we own off Red Rock Loop Road.
During our first infection with “red rock fever” in 2005, we purchased 8 stunning acres of raw red rock, with 3 washes, a bluff, ocotillo, a wagon train junkyard and a well. We did a remarkable job buying a few months before the market peaked and planned on building a brutal cabin over one of the washes. In a few years, this cabin concept turned into a mini Fallingwater with a price tag to match. When building costs alone topped $1200/square foot, we balked, instead buying a 1966 mid-century modern fixer and have held the land ever since. It’s not like the land hasn’t paid dividends, as we go there regularly to fill our water bottles with some of the most delicious water we have ever had.
My job was to capture these 8 acres with the drone, otherwise hard to take in by walking the barren, undulating acreage. Feeling very self-conscious about the drone, I gingerly took it out of the car, looked far to the left, then to the right and laid it down with a job to do.
With no one in sight, I had a textbook perfect auto launch to 4’ and soon began photographing the property. The result was a stilted set of random photos that could have been taken by any child if they had severe ADHD. In a word, they were horrible and useless. On the plus side, I didn’t hurt myself, the police didn’t come and I didn’t down any passing aircraft or birds. My chest puffed just a bit, as I refilled my water bottles from the well and grabbed another piece of rusting garbage from our on-site junkyard for my ever growing rusty artifact collection.
On my way home, I got a weather alert on my iPhone that thunderstorms were coming into the 4 corners area. Now a seasoned drone pilot, I wanted to cut my teeth shooting Ship Rock in New Mexico.
Ship Rock has been on my mind ever since we became aware of the photographic works of William Clift. William is a nephew of actor Montgomery Clift. We own one of his iconic photographs, “Shadows and Sandbar”, Mont St. Michel (France). Here is one image from that series:
Reductive and elemental, scale turned on its head, and for me, so contemplative. I could stare at this photo for the rest of my life and feel that I spent my time well.
A Google search shows how others have taken on Shiprock, some highlighting their Camaros, girlfriends, or a flashlight lit tent. The one below is quite grand, with milky way and setting sun. I could not best this but wanted to have a go with the drone.
I imagined lightning strikes on Shiprock, me soaked and my drone a melted pile of white plastic and camera bits. I would retrieve the mini-SD data card which captured the impossible just before it was struck down in a flash of lightning. I was all in. Is it water proof? Could it fly in the rain? Maybe Google knew because I sure didn’t. It turns out no and no. Even if waterproof, rain would hopelessly spot the lens and the lightning would fry the electronics or at least make it unresponsive to radio control. With this new information, I left the next morning.
MapQuest gave me several route options, mostly through the Navajo Nation. The quickest route is about 280 miles or about 5 hours. This country is desolate, sand-swept and breath-taking. Much of the scenery is a raised ocean floor, salt water rusted and eroded by wind and water over the millennia. Much of it is sandstone with some granitic incursions from volcanos. Minerals imbue the sandstone with some rainbow pastels. Human intervention is often visible, more often derelict. Farms have mostly been long abandoned, walls festooned with graffiti and occasional religious iconography.
The sky can be majestic, sometimes mimicking the land with sculpted clouds and colors reflected or stained by the sand and minerals. I stop every few miles to take in a composition. Camera in hand, the car door is either whipped open or held shut by the wind. Drone photography is out of the question, but I manage to get a few shots with the Nikon before the lens is hopelessly sandblasted. The thought of farming out here seems crazy. For the next few hundred miles, I dodge entire families of tumbleweeds as they speed across the highway. These round piles of dried sticks explode on the grills of passing big rigs.
As I approached the town of Shiprock, New Mexico, truly menacing thunderheads move in from the horizon. Lightning strikes begin arcing from cloud to cloud and cloud to land. The Cars “Just what I needed” is playing, loudly punctuated by thunder which rattles my chest. Hail begins to fall and I wonder what will be left of my windshield and paint after this journey.
Just to add to this surreal scene, my phone rings with an unknown number. I pick it up and hear my oldest childhood friend’s deep booming voice with a thick New Jersey accent. I hadn’t spoken to him for a few years and the conversation went something like this:
“Hey Steve, it’s your old friend!”
Me: “Oh…ummm…I’m in a storm…somewhere….somewhere in New Mexico….Lightning…lightning strikes! Umm..oh, hail now… Wow! Hear that? Whoa! Close!”
“Steve, are you alright?”
Me: “Uhhh…oh! (I’ve pulled over and grabbed my Nikon). Hey (minimal New Jersey accent). What’s up?”
“I wanted to give you a heads up about something. Call me later!”
The only word I’d spoken in the past two days to anyone was a “no” in Yuma when someone asked if I was using a chair on the breakfast patio. Was I flummoxed by the storm or is this what I sound like without regular human interactions? I know I am prone to go hermit when apart from Marie, but had I fallen so far so quickly?
Me: “Sorry! Yes! I’ll call!… um later”.
“My Best Friend’s Girl” by The Cars was now playing and it was raining hard. The lightning was now quite distant and the streets were flooding fast.
The town of Shiprock is by no means upscale but is “nicer” than most other Native Indian communities I’ve driven through. It is governed by the Navajo Nation, is 98% Navajo, but there is a college, Medical Center and a regional power station which employs many of the locals. Annual income is relatively high at $31,000 per household (2000 census). There are fewer derelict cars and boarded up houses than, say, in Chinle Arizona (next to Canyon de Chelly). I feel simultaneously sad and guilty as I drive into a neighborhood trying hard not to spray returning school children in their soggy shoes and soaked bluish-black hair.
I have no internet access and couldn’t see the Shiprock formation (the almost 2000’ tall throat of a volcano). Now, Eilenbergs are not known for their navigation prowess. Once, in August 1977, I was driving a visiting Israeli friend (Yael) to the Jersey shore. I mistakenly took the NJ Turnpike instead of the Parkway. Instead of Atlantic City, we made it to Philadelphia. Luckily, I hadn’t made a hotel reservation to cancel. Yes, in my young adulthood, I was already turning into my parents.
Because you asked, here is a picture of Yael I found on Facebook. Coincidentally, this recognizable landmark building is the German Parliament building in Berlin, the Reichstag, which Marie was visiting during this trip.
I wondered if there was another Shiprock, perhaps not in Shiprock, New Mexico. I was momentarily embarrassed, but as no one knew me or where I intended to go, I reverted to the familiar emotions of sadness and guilt. I knew it just had to be close. I looked it up on Google Earth to get a sense of where I wanted to shoot. Even knowing this, I was still filled with self doubt. The rain turned into hail, then back into rain, then diminished to a drizzle. Clouds lifted and there, in front of me but off in the distance, was my prize.
In my favorite photographs, the shadow of Shiprock is to the west. This would be early morning light. It was now mid-afternoon, cloudy and there were not shadows. I would scout it out now and planned to return in earnest, in the morning. I really didn’t know what to expect. Would there be hordes of Japanese tourists with selfie sticks, giving their cameras peace signs or rowdy Americans making those forced perspective shots where they were pretending to squeeze Shiprock between their thumb and index finder or worse still, pretending to insert Shiprock in their asses. Would there be a Navajo Indian sweat lodge or dangerous, perhaps rabid, reservation dogs?
To my surprise, when I turned off Indian Service Route 13, there was just me and a long muddy road pointing to the formation.
I looked down at my Audi Q5 sports activity vehicle and we both scoffed at what we saw ahead. Neither of us informed our Michelin tires of our bravado as we drove on. The mud was tenacious and wrapped itself around the tire on every rotation. The car got higher and higher until it stopped. The tires were now so encased that they crowded the wheel well. Not 500’ in from Route 13 and I was kind of stuck. I wondered if I went in reverse if the mud would unwind from the tires? Silly thought, but I was out of other ideas.
Wasn’t there this hiker whose arm got stuck between two boulders for a week? They made a movie of his misadventures. He broke, cut, twisted and all but chewed his way to freedom, sans arm. Here I was, some hundreds of feet from a highway with a disappointing sports activity vehicle! Should I get out and shoot or give this some more thought?
I left the car and instantly gained more respect for the tires, as I slid and then fell on my knees. I was on level ground, but the laws of physics here seemed askew. I managed to stand and amble to the rear hatch as the mud accumulated with each step. In short order, I was about 4 inches taller and floundering like a teetering runway model in ultra-high heels. I retreated and managed to start the car, but with the clay and mud on my soles, felt like I was stepping in cow manure working the gas and brake pedals. With this delicate touch, I spun a 180 and now pointed at Highway 13. Buoyed by this meager success, I inched onward with mud-bound tires to the harsh sound of “hhhhrrrrrrrrrsssssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh”. I eventually made it back to firm ground.
The drizzle had stopped and the air smelled faintly of sage. I scraped my soles on a flat rock, next to the car and headed for the rear hatch. I had Shiprock to myself and wanted to get it in the air.
I neglected to say that was Tuesday, August 16th, 2016, at 1613 hours. The air temperature was 88 degrees F and the wind was coming from the east at 9 mph. Aside from sporadic thunderstorms, conditions were nominal. Propellers were attached and locked. Mini SD card was formatted and installed. Four green lights on Wizzy and 4 on the controller. iPhone attached, application updated and 11 satellites locked and ready to copilot.
I fired up the propellers and reminded myself that I’d already logged 37 minutes of flight time and felt confident, like when I got my driver’s license in New Jersey at age 17. This story is pretty much over, so indulge me last digression.
At 16 ½ years of age, I got my learner’s permit in Wayne, New Jersey. I studied the pamphlet and passed the written test. After this came the eye exam. Standing in front of a chipped faux wood laminate counter, I was asked to read the first line of the eye chart, pinned to the far wall. It went something like this:
Clerk: “OK, see that chart over there? Read me the top line”.
Me: “Uh…what chart?”
Clerk: “You’re supposed to be funny?”.
Me: “No…really…what chart?”.
Clerk: “The chart I’m pointing at!”. In all fairness, I’ve got to point out that her index finger was arthritic and crooked. On top of that, her fingernails were thick, long and curled, so my confusion might have been understandable. I eventually saw the chart and with what should have been a disqualifying squint, managed to squeak out a passing score. Hearing of this later, my mother had me in Dr. Bellet’s office by the week’s end. With corrective lenses inserted in the large, lever armed contraption, I saw the world as it was; loud, shiny and sharp edged. Evidently, for much of my young life, I was experiencing New Jersey as if painted by an impressionist, that is if an impressionist had chosen to paint Atlantic City, Secaucus, and the Willowbrook Mall.
Over the next six months, my father had taken me through the slalom, how to parallel park and how to drive a stick shift while perched on a steep incline. He yelled some but was uncharacteristically patient.
Monday, September 29th, 1974 (my 17th birthday), we fired up the 1967 Buick Riviera and he drove us to the DMV, where they perform a driving test on an off-road course. There were about 3 cars ahead of us, each with one parent and one child. Smiles and enthusiastic nods told me they all passed. When it was my turn, Donald, a standard issue guy of about 60, was my tester. He had a white short-sleeve oxford shirt, straining at his belly. His brown pants were of the never wrinkle brown polyester type. He had slightly yellowed white socks and worn black shoes. He had a pocket protector, with no less than 4 pens and it showed lots of wear. He was balding and groomed with Vitalis hair tonic. He had a dull gold wedding ring and hairy knuckles. He looked down at the clipboard and motioned for me to roll the window down. The car was off and the electric window switch wouldn’t work. My father was reading the Wall Street Journal and oblivious to this. Donald sharply tapped twice on the window with the top left of the clipboard and with his free right hand did a reverse winding motion. I tapped my father and found that he was asleep. He turned the ignition and I rolled down the window.
Don said: “Learner’s permit…”. Realize that this is 1974 and we wore our Lee Jeans quite tight and our belts very wide. For the life of me, I couldn’t get the wallet out of my front left pocket. I straightened my body, put the seat back, and with thumb and index finger couldn’t get a grip! I began to sweat and undid my buckle. Don bent his knees slightly and cocked his head to see what I was up to. Don is all business, wearing the type of glasses you’d see on a shop teacher. Eventually, I fished out the wallet and produced the ID card that comes with all wallets. Yes, I’m Steven Eilenberg. I live at 928 Alps Road, in Wayne, NJ. My date of birth was wrong, not because I am stupid, but because when I filled it out a few years earlier thinking this very official looking ID might get me into stores where I might score a 6 pack of Miller Beer for an evening with the lads.
Don pushed my hand and this card back into the car with his clipboard and barked “Learner’s permit!”. It’s then I remember that I put it in the glove box for easy access. I’ll mention here that this is the car my father uses for late night house calls and he keeps some medical supplies in the glove box. I push the chromed button and out fell three hypodermic syringes. One falls on my knee, one on the black mat and the third on my shoe. Don looks at the syringes, at me, and at my father. He says “Do you want to come back another time? I answer: “No…I mean no sir!..Um Dad? Tell ‘um. Tell ‘um those are yours.” David shrugs and says nothing.
A few minutes later, with only one orange cone wobbling, I have my provisional license and we are on our way. We almost up French Hill Road when I get up the nerve to ask him for the car. I had a date with Jill that evening and how cool would it be to pick her up in this stud mobile.
Me: “I’ve got a date tonight and I was thinking…”
David: “Stop! STOP!”
I jam the brakes on and stop in the middle of a three-way intersection, about 25 feet beyond the stop sign.
David: “Go! GO! What are you doing!”
David: “What’s wrong with you! You are in the middle of an intersection! Go!”
I put it in reverse.
David: “No, go-go-go! Just, just GO!”
I put it in drive. My face is glowing red and my hands are shaking.
David: “What’s wrong with you! Didn’t you see it? You haven’t been here a thousand times?”
David: “Sorry…you are sorry! I’m sorry!…What were you going to ask me?!”
David: “Good!”. Silence.
So, Wizzy is fired up. The four propellers are spinning at idle speed and I take one last look around. No planes, helicopters, birds, people or cars. I send it up and it hovers at 27’. Just then a message flashes across my control panel: “Caution: Nearby airstrip. The possibility of low flying crop duster planes. Do you have permission to fly?” There are two acknowledgment boxes to click before the message disappears. With my screen back, I see that the battery is already at 85% and I have nothing to show for all my training and driving.
The image of Shiprock fills my screen and I start shooting. 80%, still shooting. Random terrible shots akin to my skill at age 6 with that toy camera. There are so many things to keep in mind. Have I been spotted? A big rig is coming down Route 13. Surely, they can see me and my muddy Audi. Scofflaw that I am, probably some liberal douchebag, just mucking up their simple way of life! 62%; the truck passes without slowing. Now an old pickup truck approached from the opposite direction, clearly from the reservation…What reservation?…I went through a town…is that a reservation or a town? 50%. Truth be told, no one can see or hear the drone in this vast area. In fact, in a moment of distraction from the big rig, my finger sends it up and away. I can’t see it. Is it still flying? Did it meet its end on one of the volcanic radiating ribs? I push the left control arm forward and Wizzy climbs to 302’, now visible above the radiating arm. I have a much clearer view of the formation and take my first presentable image. The battery is now at 35% and about to alarm. Time to bring the troops home, I reverse course and bring it to under 50’. As it gets louder and closer, I decide to land it just behind the rear bumper, so its white body won’t be as visible to traffic, against the dark brown mud.
It was a textbook-perfect landing until it wasn’t. One of the blades caught a stalk of a nearby desert weed. In an instant, Wizzy jerked sideways, forcing two propellers into the mud. It wobbled, hopped, then lurched forward. It struck the Audi’s muddy bumper, fell again to ground and dragged itself along like the damaged Terminator (just prior to being crushed in the machine by Sarah Connor). It was mowing the underside of my gas tank and quickly making its way towards the gas line. The four rotors were at full throttle and it would not respond. Bits of white plastic were being violently thrown out from under the car, several striking my legs. In the heat of battle, I once again folded. My controller was now alarming five critical warnings, the most encouraging of which was the flagging battery! There was “apparently” an obstacle avoidance issue, no propellers detected, there were no satellites being tracked, and there might be a crop duster plane nearby.
I am now thinking that the car might just blow up. Gas line cut by the mad shredded propellers with dripping gas ignited by the explosive LiPo battery. Wouldn’t this be a great story! Drone? Destroyed! Audi? Destroyed! Reservation police? On their way! I wondered if this “you’re not going to believe this idiot” story might be newsworthy enough to make the New York Times, USA Today, etc. Might Marie read about her husband while breakfasting in Berlin? At least she would know that I did make it to Shiprock!