Baja helicopter adventures

Ron Chapple: Director of Aerial Photography

Geology and climates know no political boundaries. I have filmed extensively throughout the American Southwest, so the opportunity to follow the Sonoran Desert across the border into Baja region of Mexico was immediately intriguing. In America, the images of Baja are mostly about the gruelling off-road truck races that take their deathly toll on humans and machines at every event.

Working in extreme environments requires extensive planning. Helicopter flight routes need to be filed in advance, and logistics arranged for hotels and fuel. Helicopters gobble down Jet A fuel at the rate of 170 liters per hour.

The helicopter is at 100% power, blades spinning at full RPM, just waiting for the clock to tick past the official sunrise time so that we can lift.

San Diego is the start of our filming adventure where I rig the Cineflex to an Airbus AS350B2 helicopter. There are no local helicopters available in Baja, so we make a strategic decision to bring in a helicopter from the USA. The rig goes quickly as the Cineflex with a RED 6K Dragon camera is now mounted to the nose of the helicopter. All of our personal gear, terabytes of hard drives, and spares are loaded into the baggage compartments.

We clear USA Customs & Border Patrol easily just across the border from Tijuana, Mexico. As we lift out of the airport, I immediately see the massive border fence stretching for miles in either direction, and the huge Mexico flag dominating the Tijuana city landscape. From the air, the border fence is nothing more than a thin line with civilization pushed up to each side.

Early mornings and late afternoons are the normal routine for filming. We always seek the beautiful golden light of sunrise and sunset. However in Mexico, flight rules restrict flying before sunrise and mandate that we must be on the ground by sunset. We are up early. We jump in the helicopter, start up the jet turbine and Cineflex. All systems go. The helicopter is at 100% power, blades spinning at full RPM, just waiting for the clock to tick past the official sunrise time so that we can lift.

Our first scenes of the day will be along the Gulf of California towards the Bahia de Los Angeles (Bay of Los Angeles). The headwinds are unusually strong as we traverse the rugged western edge of the Gulf. Even though I have traveled extensively throughout North and South America, this is a fresh vista, and I am recording almost continuously. The sun glistens off the water and highlights the jagged geology of the coastal mountains. Each island of the archipelago in the Bahia de Los Angeles has a unique personality surrounded by every color of the blue spectrum. The winds are even stronger now so we head towards the airport at Guerrero Negro where, hopefully, the fuel truck will be waiting on us.

Finding amazing locations is a passion, and the canyons are beyond stunning. Palm trees punctuate the sharp red cliffs with oasis-like pools of blue water in the valleys.

As we land, I begin seeing the soldiers of the Mexico Army stationed at Guerrero Negro pour out of the barracks and hasten towards our helicopter. There must be a dozen, each with automatic weapons slung over their shoulder. Security is tight as any commercial aircraft taking on Jet A fuel is immediately suspect. The soldiers check the aircraft, inspect the pilot’s documents, review the fuel truck permits, and watch carefully as I change out RED media in the Cineflex system. The winds are hot, dusty and dry. We gulp down a bottle of water, eat one of those power bars disguised as flavored cardboard, and quickly lift off the hot tarmac.

Our next destination is a canyon area in the centre of the peninsula. Along the way, we find a forest of boojum trees (Fouquieria columnaris for the botanists among us) that only could have been previously envisioned in a Dr. Zeuss book. The afternoon backlight highlights the bright yellow blossoms as we drift across the tops of these strange yet magnificent plants.

Finding amazing locations is a passion, and the canyons are beyond stunning. Palm trees punctuate the sharp red cliffs with oasis-like pools of blue water in the valleys. The sky is perfectly blue and the palm tree foliage has a twinge of blue as well. I feel as if we have just discovered a new Shangri-La in the heart of Baja, Mexico. I need to remind myself that we are likely 100 miles away from the nearest human… should anything happen to the helicopter, our newly discovered paradise would quickly become our geographically isolated prison.

All is well though, and the strong jet turbine engine moves us quickly towards San Felipe. We now have a tailwind pushing us along. This is the winter, and we need to be on the ground one minute before sunset.