"I knew that to get this ephemeral shot, I'd have to fly the plane as slow and as low as possible, which is a dangerous combination," Heisey recalls. "It's not that I'm going to get scratched by the plants down there, but what happens if something goes wrong? I glide down to get the shot, and what if I have engine failure when I need more power to come back up? There was no place to land in this canyon, so the only options would be to have a controlled crash or pull the parachute, which would not be very effective at that altitude."
Heisey did not crash. As usual, he strapped the control stick to his right leg, leaving his hands free to manipulate his Pentax 645N camera. Heisey managed to make enough passes to shoot two or three rolls of film, trying to be sure that at least one exposure would give him the image he wanted.
"That's one of the most memorable experiences I've had in a while," he says. "It represents the success drawn of diligence and skill and experience, and of the luck of being in that particular place at that moment."
The result, and 69 of Heisey's other remarkable aerial photographs, may be seen in Under the Sun: A Sonoran Desert Odyssey, issued last month by Rio Nuevo Publishers. Heisey's work is also on display at the Etherton Gallery downtown.
Heisey flies over the desert in his 450-pound, 66-horsepower Kolb Twinstar, a winged soapbox ideal for photography. He sits out in front, unenclosed, enjoying an unobstructed view; the engine and even the gages are mounted behind him.
This is how he makes his living. His photos of the Four Corners were a National Geographic cover story. He sells striking landscape photographs to magazines and private collectors, but Heisey most enjoys peering down and framing abstract patterns formed either by nature or by human development: the play of rock and shadow in the Eagletail Mountains, the rhythm of straight lines and curves at Coolidge Dam, the smoothly flowing textures of a dune in Sonora's Gran Desierto, the coppery spiral of an open-pit mine in San Manuel.
Heisey is obviously a visual sensualist, but the photos barely begin to convey the pilot-photographer's life in midair.
"The force of the wind on my skin is palpable," he says. Working over the desert, Heisey usually wears a tank top, shorts and sandals. "You can really feel the temperature of the air change as you move through it at the crack of dawn in early summer. Fifty feet or so up, the coolness of the night is left behind and I'm in the baked air that everybody on the ground will be feeling later in the day."
There's a more practical aspect of feeling the wind against his body: "It indicates my air speed, and whether I'm flying straight and true. But what I enjoy most is reducing the throttle to near idle, and coasting down in a gentle glide--I have the sensation of just soaring, not being pushed through the air by an engine."
The drone of that engine a couple of feet behind him keeps him connected to his machine more than to nature, but, unless he circles back into his own exhaust, the smell of nature can be intense.
"In the morning, the air is calm and relatively undisturbed from its night's rest, and anything on the ground, like a horse barn or water, has quite a presence in the atmosphere," he says.
"In the Piñacates, I sometimes fly over a playa that's normally dry and dusty. But when I visited it during El Niño a couple of years ago, I flew over probably 100 acres that were covered with six species of wildflowers. It was like three-dimensional fragrance."
Heisey works mostly at dawn and dusk, times of happy coincidence of good flight conditions and good light. At midday, the air is more turbulent and the harsh overhead light bleaches everything out. When the sun hovers at the horizon, though, there's more color in the light, and side illumination reveals more of the landscape's features.
Still, Heisey's job isn't merely a matter of going out at the right time to point and click. What Heisey usually sees from the air is a conflict of too-dark shadows and too-bright highlights. Once his film is processed, he manipulates it in his "digital darkroom," a scanner and a Macintosh computer, using technology to make the images seem more natural.
Heisey started flying when he was 15. He entered college with the intention of becoming an English teacher--"I was always quite taken with the power of literature," he says--but his passion for flying prevailed. He made his living as a pilot for 16 years, ultimately logging thousands of hours flying for the Navajo tribal government. The abstract images he saw flying again and again over the reservation's naked, bold geology finally drew him into aerial photography full-time.
Under the Sun capitalizes on all of Heisey's passions--flying, photography, even the English language. He accompanies his evocative photos with witty, moving, harrowing, poetic but not overblown essays about his experiences.
Still, what seems most important to Heisey is what he sees when he's perched 1,000 feet above the desert brush and sand. "I have this feeling," he says, "that there's a vast store of information written on the landscape."