How It’s Done

How It's Done

Glacier images are taken using handheld digital cameras from a 1949 Piper PA-11 Cub Special aircraft. The window is opened, camera is pointed out the window, and the pilot snaps a photograph. Thus far, this method has been used for the glaciers of the US Rockies (Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana), remaining cirques of the Pyrenees, and for roughly half of the glaciers in the Alps.


  • Fuel costs range from $20 to $50 per hour, depending on the country and current oil price. Total operating cost, including all maintenance, insurance & hangar, averages $120 per hour (much lower in the United States, somewhat higher in Europe).
  • Slow speed. At a cruising speed of 70 miles per hour, the airplane is slow enough to get close to mountains and glaciers, frame the shot, and take it. Fast airplanes leave little time to organize the photograph, require much larger turning radiuses in tight terrain, and have increased wind via an open window.
  • Airframe visibility. Not many airplanes make good aerial photography ships. The tire, propeller, wing, and lift strut on this model airplane conveniently are out of the picture for an 18mm APS-C or 28mm full frame photograph. The window is also conveniently placed to allow it to be opened to snap the shot, which is important as shooting through glass generally does not work.
  • High altitude. With only 100 horsepower, the airplane can still make it to 16,000 feet, which is enough to exceed the highest mountains in the Alps, Pyrenees, Continental United States, Canadian Rockies, lower Canadian Coastal Range, Iceland, Norway, and New Zealand.
  • Simplicity. A quick view at the instrument panel, under the cowling, and into airframe structural areas makes very clear that this is a simple airplane. With less complexity, there is less to break, which makes a robust and reliable aircraft. There is also less for the pilot to manage. Its engine is universally supported and still in production.

Comparison to Other Methods

  • Helicopters. Most renowned aerial photographers hire helicopters and their pilots to take images. Costs can be up to $3000 per hour, depending on the model and country, which is brutally expensive. To hover and frame the shot while someone else is flying is a convenient add-on, though not worth it in our opinion.
  • Drones. Drones are advantageous when the operator can physically get close enough to a glacier, ideally through driving. In any case, battery power is limited and glaciers are usually very high up, large, and far away, which means that a drone flight is often coupled with a very ambitious hike or trek. An airplane, on the other hand, can usually cover the same territory in a fraction of the time.
  • Satellites. Science uses satellites to produce comparative datasets to monitor glaciers, which is very useful for the scientific process. For the average person, these images are orthographically corrected, which means that they are two dimensional, which makes it very hard to relate to the size of the glacier and its beauty. The mission of the Initiative is to preserve images of glacial treasures in a relatable form, which means that beauty and an artistically motivating image are important to our outreach programs. It is our view that our work complements scientific pursuit instead of competing with it.
  • On the ground. Glaciers are basically publicly owned and either extremely high in elevation or very close to the poles. They are all very cold, generally windy, in poor terrain, and far away from civilization (all of which is why we like them!). Ground treks are an option for single glacier pursuits; however, the workload requires significant physical endurance and skill while exponentially greater than a flight in a small airplane. It simply would take immeasurably longer to hike to all of these glaciers versus flying to them.