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Cut to the chase

For Boeing flight test photographers, a picture might be worth a thousand words -- but it's priceless for safety.

Boeing photographer Leo Dejillas


Leo Dejillas is a Boeing photographer who's qualified to observe and document airplane performance during flight tests.

There's a lot of pressure to get the right shot. Sometimes you only get one chance to capture the moment.

We aren't talking about a fashion magazine photo shoot but rather ensuring the safety of Boeing products -- and the air crews and passengers that fly in them -- through scientific photography that produces visual data to satisfy engineering requirements for airplane development programs. Their stunning photographs and dramatic video footage are often included in Boeing marketing brochures and videos.

A small, highly specialized team of scientific photographers and videographers ride along with Boeing Test & Evaluation flight crews to observe and document airplane performance during flight tests. Only a handful of them are qualified to perform this type of engineering photography. They are based in Seattle, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Mesa, Ariz. but are dispatched with flight crews all over the world, wherever the test conditions take them.

"The more you understand the operations and systems,
the better you are at your job."

During a flight test program, they can be found inside aircraft from the very fast T-38 to the low-speed Maule. They capture images of the control surfaces in action, riding in chase aircraft that get as close as 50 feet to the aircraft being tested and observed. These maneuvers require careful coordination with the flight crews, and the photographers are an important part of the preflight briefings. They can also be found on the ground near a runway, recording tests such as crosswind landings or minimum speed takeoffs.

"Various systems and flight control surfaces are tested, and the fact that we are in a chase plane to video tape it is mainly for safety and engineering purposes," said Leo Dejillas, a scientific photographer based in Seattle. "The main objective or goal is to document the flight characteristics of an aircraft under different scenarios or configurations; beautiful photos that are used in magazines are just a nice bonus."

In addition to being skilled photographers, Dejillas and his colleagues must be physically able to perform chase photography. They undergo additional training and medical tests, similar to those for pilots who fly the chase aircraft. It helps that they have technical knowledge about the flight test aircraft because they must have an eye for flight abnormalities.

"The more you understand the operations and systems, the better you are at your job," explained Deb Hanford, a lead photographer.

Think twice if you believe it's a glamorous life. Hanford said the job requires a lot of patience and flexibility.

"You have to have patience because it can be tiresome to wait around for the proper condition you are looking to photograph. You are also subjected to cramped spaces and odd test conditions," she said.

Dejillas said the best part of their job is seeing the entire team's work affect Boeing employees. "It's pretty cool to walk around the different sites and see photos in cubes and on walls that I took or I know my teammates took," Dejillas explained. "People love these aircraft and want to show them off whenever they can. Many of them have worked on these airplanes their whole career. I'm just the guy that's lucky to be behind the camera for them."