Two weeks ago I became the proud owner of the Phantom 3 Advanced quadcopter with the intention of using it for dramatic aerial filming of landscape and weather scenes. I managed to squeeze in a sufficient number of logged flights and filming training on good days however I was really waiting on something special to happen so I could put the Phantom 3 (P3) through it's paces and show what it was truly capable of achieving. One of the main reasons I wanted a quadcopter was to film snow scenes from the above, this has always been my dream so I was watching the forecast and studying the models looking for the slightest hope of a snowfall event, a hint of potential showed up on the latest GFS run for February 16th/17th when an Atlantic frontal system engaging with cold air was expected to produce sleet and snow over high ground so I expected to see something on the morning of the 17th when the front had cleared. That morning I woke up and looked outside and was largely disappointed as there wasn't even a hint of snow anywhere, even Glenshane Pass looked to be devoid of snow and when I walked out to the backyard and looked S I couldn't see Slieve Gallion, this mountain had always been part of my daily visual monitoring for snow and storms however thanks to an increasing number of houses being built in my area I could no longer see the mountain at all, just a rooftop in its place so I just assumed there was nothing to see.
I decided that I was going to film something with the P3 regardless however my heart really was with the snow so finding something else exciting to replace it would be difficult at short notice. Around midday I got a phone call from my Dad informing me about a good dusting of snow on the summit of Slieve Gallion in case I wanted to film there. That sounded very interesting indeed however could I justify the miles and diesel just for a dusting of snow?, on this day I decided it was and trusting my instincts and Dad's tip off I decided that I was going to give it a go so during the early afternoon I hit the road. My Mum wanted to join me too so the two of us brought warm clothes and supplies from the shop, then just as we drove over the hill on the Coleraine road facing S we glimpsed Slieve Gallion in the bright sunlight and in an instant I was smiling. The mountain had a gorgeous layer of snow on top, especially on the side facing Maghera, it looked like a dazzling white layer of sugar coating and looked absolutely stunning, as soon as I saw it I couldn't wait to get on top and I began putting more pressure on the accelerator in my bid to get there as soon as possible, we had timed the shoot to coincide with the last two hours before sunset so this way the light would be dramatic with high contrasts, longer shadows and eventually warmer colour casts as the sun lowered towards the horizon.
We took the back roads outside Tobermore then past Desetmartin then began our steep climb up Slieve Gallion and it wasn't long before we encountered snow. Mum was instantly in a panic, worried about getting stuck, or even worse sliding off the road, through the wire fence and down the mountain. I wasn't concerned at all because I love driving in snow and have had plenty of experience doing so and know my limitations and despite the few hairy moments I knew we would make it safely to the top. We got as far as the gate, made it across the cattle grid then had to stop on the mountain road because the snow covered everything beyond that point. I got out immediately and began taking a few 10mm stills with the DSLR, this is the view from the summit facing N toward the tower, the view was amazing, the sky was deep blue, the sun blazing and lighting up the snow and ice into sparkling diamonds with tuffs of marsh and wild grass lit into golden light by the low sun.
The ponds and puddles where frozen solid and the snow varied from a few cm's to a few inches and covered the mountain entirely, the overnight wind from the front must have been nasty on this mountain for the snow was streaked across the ground in interesting patterns indicative of strong gusts. It was absolutely freezing outside, between 0 and -1 C with a keen breeze which made the wind chill factor even more nasty and despite wearing layers of clothes I was already feeling the exposure and my hands were turning red. The light and landscape was like a winter wonderland and considerably better than what I had hoped for so I couldn't have been happier, now the suspense was killing me, I couldn't wait any longer, it was time to get airborne and see what the snow was like from above.
I set my aluminum carrying case outside on the snow and turned on the tablet, controller and aircraft, did my calibration dance and allowed the aircraft a few min's to warm up and I was ready to go, the entire process only took a few minutes. It's important to calibrate before you fly so the P3 can access GPS and know where it is because in the event of a fly away or the controller panics or loses visual sight of the craft (which they shouldn't do) then all you have to do is press 'return to home' and the P3 will return and land precisely to where it took off all by itself. I then took off, hovered over the snow, got the feel of the wind strength and direction and my orientation then began flying, I was so focused on what I was doing that I didn't even feel the cold at this point. The P3 gave me a choice of 1080p HD video with a wide F/2.8 lens (without lens curvature) at 50 frames/sec or 12mp stills with manual control over the camera so I decided that I would take a few images however my heart was with video footage, most of the images here are stills taken from the captured footage, like the one above showing a nice leaf pattern in the bushes below.
The view from above was absolutely jaw dropping, I have always wanted to do this and now it was happening, flying and filming with the P3 is an exhilarating experience, it's a combination of awe, excitement, adrenaline, that happy feel good factor yet at the same time you also feel anxiety and intense concentration because your mind is being asked to focus intently on many different tasks without a break, trying to fly safely and efficiently while trying to film in a cinematic or professional manner is a lot for the brain to take in so your emotions go through a lot during every second of flight. You are loving what you are doing, it's complete freedom for your creative expression and an entirely new experience yet at the same time you are worried you might crash into something or make a critical mistake which could result in the loss of the craft, you are constantly thinking of many things at once including the safety of others and the craft itself. I think it's this cocktail of factors which makes filming with a quadcopter so much fun, there really is no feeling like it, however add snow into this mix and you can imagine how exciting this experience was.
You can see my black van parked on the road precisely where the exposed road meets the snow, that should provide a good sense of scale. The top of Slieve Gallion is where I experienced my very first storm chase back in July 16th 2007 when Conor McDonald, his girlfriend and I core punched a storm and arrived at the summit car park (buried under snow here), we had to wait inside the car as c-g bolts struck the mountain at close range, then as the storm moved on we ran - out of breath - past the tower and out to the rock pile at the top and watched more bolts strike the countryside through curtains of hail stones while mammatus clouds cast in battleship grey sailed over our heads, it was a thrilling experience so it's only fitting that I filmed my first aerial snow footage from this very same location.
I was at the P3's maximum legal height range here, I could see exactly what the camera was seeing on the screen of the tablet attached to the controller, it felt like a dream come true, but your stomach also goes into knots because you almost feel like you are up there looking down, it was like one of those nightmares you get when you feel like you are going to fall from a great height, that sensation is not lost through the video when you are filming in real time, it really is thrilling and difficult to describe. I love the way you can see the snow line here with contrasting colours.
My low battery warning alert came on a little earlier than usual thanks to the cold so at 25% power I brought the P3 back and did a gentle landing into the snow. I slotted in a fresh battery and went airborne once more, my fingers were sore and red from the exposure however I was enjoying myself too much to care, I was in my element and loving it and wanted to enjoy every second of this magical moment. It was now golden hour, the last hour before sunset that photographers crave, the same rules apply to aerial filming, the shadows were long, the details well defined with great relief and the snow and mountain features were now being cast into gorgeous orange and gold colours. This was facing E and SE with Lough Neagh in the distance, I also panned up to film this pretty cumulus cloud slowly bubbling up against a clean blue sky, the February sun was now strong enough to heat the ground and agitate the clouds aloft, not only that but I could feel it's warmth against my face for the first time in months, it was a wonderful feeling and a good sign that the Spring storm chasing season isn't far away.
During the previous flight I filmed at extreme heights however during this flight I wanted to try some low filming for a different perspective. I flew at moderate to high speed across the snow fields all encrusted by ice into streaks, flying over these at speed close to the ground reminded me of some of the scenes from Airwolf, I was so low that the prop wash blew the grass below. I followed the road, made close passes past the van, skimmed over wire fences and even flew between an open gate.
I was having a fun time however time goes in fast when you are having fun and soon enough the low battery warning was flashing again. DJI state that each battery will give 23 min's of flight in ideal conditions, however in this cold and altitude I reckon I got a good 18 min's at best from each which was to be expected, however with both batteries that worked out to be almost 30 min's so that was more than enough to get decent footage. I then brought the P3 down and landed manually in the snow and powered down the craft. The lightbridge technology is amazing which connects the P3 to the controller, at one stage I was able to fly it from inside the van while showing Mum the live view of the snow from above, if I let go of the control sticks the craft would hover all by itself until I was ready to fly again.
I took a few more stills with the DSLR before sunset, the views across the mountain were wonderful, it looked more like the Arctic. My fingers were now in pain from the wind chill and the outside temperature was clearly dropping rapidly so I decided to pack away the gear and slowly make our way back down the mountain again across a beautiful winter landscape then back onto lower ground which was entirely devoid of any snow, what a difference, it was like night and day, a dream world versus normality all separated by just a matter of feet. I went home a very happy man indeed, the visuals were awesome, the fresh pristine air made me feel even more pure and healthy and the video I got of the snow from a bird's eve view left me buzzing for hours afterward.
The next day, February 18th I decided I would return to Slieve Gallion to film again, it was my birthday and I wanted to spend it snow chasing. That snow from yesterday would still be on Slieve Gallion although the morning sun would have began to thaw it however there would be enough left over for filming anyway. The forecast was for more wintry showers but temps would rise later in the afternoon. This time I took the back roads and spent a large amount of time driving along the beautiful flat countryside to the N side of the mountain, the view was amazing with green fields then a snow covered Gallion, I should have pulled over and flew the P3 cross country until it met the snow but I kept on driving as I wanted to get on the very top again. Even though it was just past the middle of the month it did feel very Spring like, the countryside was stirring to life and the sun was heating my face through the windows, furthermore there was nice convection about too in the marginally unstable cold sector airmass, I made a quick stop to shoot this cell to the S with a nice sloping rear end as it drifted across the countryside dropping curtains of hail stones and snow.
I did a complete circle around Slieve Gallion then eventually made it onto the summit once again. Some of the snow had melted however there was still enough on the ground for shooting. It was obvious though that I wouldn't get flying here today, the wind was raw and blowing and far beyond the maximum of 20m/sec stated by DJI so I opted for DSLR stills instead. The wind chill was even worse than the previous day, it was quite brutal to be outside for any length of time, however the snow shower clouds looked dramatic behind the tower, this was the view at 18mm.
I drove forward a little more with wheels spinning in the snow, I attached the 10mm Samyang F/2.8, put down the window and did some more shooting. Curtains of snow were falling behind the summit with great looking shower clouds slowly moving across the mountain from L to R with anvils getting sheared downrange with blue sky surrounding everything, the 4x4 on the right side of frame made for a nice sense of scale.
Waxing gibbous moon visible in the blue sky, I was outside for this one crunching through the snow and loving the bright sunshine, I really do love snow whether it be a few cm's or 6ft drifts, I hope to get another chance before the Spring arrives and I'm fairly confident I will as March and early April can produce some of our finest snow storms. I sat on the mountain and let the dark base of those showers pass over me, the sky turned incredibly dark, almost like a thunderstorm, so I waited and waited for it to clear but it never did, it seemed the mountain was generating the clouds so any chance of a clearance to fly or see rainbows wasn't going to happen. Nevertheless I was happy and got what I wanted, no better way to spend my birthday than out in the snow battling with the elements and doing my thing.
1080p HD footage of the snow on Slieve Gallion filmed from the air during the course of two flights. This is without question my best experience with the Phantom 3 to date and a dream come true, make sure to watch it all the way through to get the full experience and see both the high and low flights over this beautiful mountain. Thanks very much for watching.