• Owen Johnson

SVP Adventure: Chinook Choppers

I work at Student Video Productions in the media offices in the basement of the LSC. SVP produces a lot of content, but mostly it’s things like small promotional videos for small local businesses. The general idea is that as clearly labelled students, the expectation for our work is that it will be student work, but the clients can get cheap access to promotional content. This means every day we make something; we have the opportunity to blow expectations out of the water. When someone expects to see “Student” work and they get full blown professional content, it really makes an impact, and it’s thrilling to get to work towards that every day.

At SVP, shoot days can always be counted on to become full blown adventures. One time, my coworkers ben and Irl and I drove all over northern and central Colorado interviewing CSU alumni, putting over a hundred additional miles on ben’s car and a nice boost on our paycheck. Another time, we spent a few hours shooting video of a silver Lamborghini ripping up canyon roads by the Poudre. But the time that sticks out to me the most as some of the best fun I’ve ever had was the day of the chinook helicopters.


Owen on site at Christman Airfield
 

Just before spring of 2021, Ben and I had finally managed to schedule a shoot for one of our biggest contracts, a video for NOSH Noco, a local food delivery service, out to tackle the big names of independent food delivery like UberEats or Grubhub. It was scheduled for a Friday, when ben and I had a full day gap without classes. We spent a week planning the shoot and how the story would work and coordinating actors and schedules. I knew that it was going to be tight, with only a few hours between 10am and 12pm to shoot our scene inside of the restaurant, so I got up extra early on Friday to make it to the office and begin preparing gear for transport to the shoot location. I set off for the office at 6:45. As I approached the entrance to the LSC which leads under the building to the office, I heard someone call my name. I did a double take and my eyes landed on ben spence. He wasn’t scheduled to come in until nearly 9:30, yet here he was, pushing a massive cart loaded down with gear out of the other doors towards the parking lot.

“Hey!” Ben said. “I didn’t think you were coming this morning! You ready for the shoot?” I was massively confused.

“The what?” I shouted back across the courtyard. “What shoot? What are you doing with all the gear?”

“I’m going to the Christman airfield shoot! What are you here for?”

“I was going to organize the gear for the Noco shoot!”

Ben audibly sighed and pushed the cart all the way over to where I stood.

“Didn’t you see the email last night? There’s a military training operation happening a couple miles from here and we were invited to shoot some video of it.” Ben explained.

“Ben, buddy, I don’t check email after like six pm. That sounds awesome!”

“Okay, well Max is here, and we’re gonna struggle to get you in the car, didn’t plan on you being here but I’m glad you are. Did you bring the sony?”


The Sony: a mirrorless SLR camera; An A7iii to be exact, had been the result of saving bits of paycheck and lining up my birthday with my savings account. Until a week before this day I had been using a solid but basic Canon T6i, a DSLR id had since my sophomore year in high school. I had known an update to my camera tech had been imminent, and on march 15th, I had pulled the trigger on this absolute workhorse of a camera, and two lenses, all together valued at nearly four thousand dollars.


“Oh you think I would leave this thing at home?” I said back, sarcastically. Ben smiled.

“Good, good. It’s gonna be awesome to have that thing for this.” I actually had very little idea of what “this” was. Military? Airfield? I was just happy to be along for the ride. I followed Ben to his car, where my coworker Max sat, keeping lookout for the abominable Parking Services vehicle. I squished myself into the back with the rest of the gear and removed my camera from its bag to assemble and prepare it for the shoot.

I attached my prize lens, a Sigma 18-70mm zoom, to the front of the camera and removed the lens cap. I removed the microfiber cloth from the bag as well and gingerly lowered the fabric onto the clear, virgin glass of the most expensive tool I had ever purchased. The layers of lenses were visible, clutched by the concentric circles of the inner housing of the lens. In the dim light of dawn it reflected shards of blue and green refractions out beyond the sun visor. I gazed at its hypnotic design for a moment before replacing the lens cap with a gentle click. I stuck two freshly formatted SD cards into the double slots on the side, inserted the full battery and attached the run-and-gun bendy tripod I use for unpredictable shooting scenarios. It was good for everything. I set the camera in my lap and looked out the window.

Ben turned off the road and into a dirt lot with patches of dead grass and potholes filled with a few days’ old snowmelt. Ben announced our arrival to Christman airfield and pointed out that this is where he and the rest of the drone club practice their flying. He didn’t realize it was ever used for anything else.

We got out and wandered around, looking for any sign of anyone else. After a moment, a man appeared from behind a small service building and walked towards us. Ben approached him and explained that we were here for the training exercise and that we were Student Video Productions, here to shoot video and photos. The man nodded and signaled for us to follow him.

“You’re gonna wanna take that hat off, kid,” he said to me. I shrugged at ben and stuck it in my bag. We followed, being careful to evade any swampy potholes which would spell certain doom for our camera gear if we fell or dropped something.

Rounding the side of the building, we were surprised to see what appeared to be two or three platoons of fully camouflaged soldiers, strewn about the field, some chatting some just standing quietly, some organizing their gear in backpacks. It was clear that they’d been around for a while. Despite their casual demeanor, I instantly felt very small and intimidated. I also felt a rush of excitement. I hadn’t ever shot video or photos of this sort of thing. I concentrated for a moment. Taking a deep breath I focused on pushing my anxiety out of the way. This was an opportunity to make something really cool. I had no choice but to shoot it.

I quickly attached a simple shotgun microphone to my camera and hit record. It felt awkward to record these normal people just sitting around, but I repressed the part of my brain yelling at me to crawl into a hole and just pushed past the awkwardness. It felt good. I felt my creative eye start to open up a bit as I crafted interesting angles of this crowd of camo-clad ROTC members. I noticed that increasingly more of them kept looking into the sky off to the north.

“Alright everyone suit up cmon formation now, they’re almost here!” Said the voice of someone presumably in charge. Everyone in uniform began to coordinate and get into lines, throwing backpacks on and brushing dirt off their pants. Then I heard them.

Off in the distance to the north, I could make out the faint sound of helicopters. I ran between groups of lines of uniforms and pointed my camera towards the sound. I hit record and squatted low to get a few army guys in the angle. My intuition paid off. From the whiteness of the cloudy morning sky, suddenly protruded two absolutely massive double-bladed military chinook helicopters, right in frame of my shot. I was thrilled. Ben and I exchanged excited glances.



I actually tried to talk to this pilot a couple of times but the helmet is so sound proof i thought he had just ignored my questions but he just couldn't hear me.
Owen and the Pilot walk towards the landing strip


The man in charge yelled something as the helicopters grew closer and the lines of uniforms began moving in formation towards the center of the massive field. I realized that the shot I wanted was way out ahead of them all. Mashing the record button, I began sprinting along the lines of soldiers, hurrying to get ahead of them. My left foot thudded down into a puddle spraying my legs with muddy water. My camera was tucked into my palm, my left forearm supporting the tripod as I ran. I felt like a battlefield photographer in action. I passed the leader and spun around, planting my bendy tripod into the ground like a makeshift monopod and aimed it at the passing squads of stone faced soldiers. Nailed it; the angle I was hoping for was perfect. Behind me I could hear the helicopters getting close to landing.

Ben was ahead of me, he had found the angle he wanted and was just in time to get a clip of both choppers landing together on the tarmac. It was spectacular. The noise was deafening and the downdraft from the propellers felt like a hurricane.

We spent the next twenty minutes getting as many shots as we could of everyone loading onto the helicopters. At one point a man with a gigantic helmet on got out and waved for us to move further away. I was a little irritated because we were already so far back, what could he be afraid of? But we backed up and waited. The helicopters did a couple of pre-flight test take offs, but after another twenty minutes, it became clear that something had gone wrong. Everyone in the helicopter furthest from us got out and piled into the one nearest to us. The tailgate closed up and the it began to roll foreward along the tarmac, leaving the other one behind. I looked over at ben, who had his camera in hand like me, pointed at the moving chopper. He looked back at me and mouthed its taking off!



Suddenly I was hit with a wave of wind like a truck. The noise from the turbine engines screamed in my ears. I dropped to my knees in hope of regaining balance. The double blades on the chopper were producing so much downdraft that I couldn’t even point the camera steadily at it. I jammed my tripod into the muddy ground and dug my knee into the ground next to it. The helicopter lifted off. I see now why the man had told me to take my hat off.

My face stung. Something had whipped past my cheek. I looked up from my camera’s monitor. Flowing from under the chopper, I saw all too late a wave of rocks and sand hurtling towards us. I yanked my camera from the dirt and pointed it straight at the ground. The rocks and sand stung like wasps and the engines roared, battering my ear drums like a snare. After the wind passed, I recollected myself and pointed my camera at the sky again, as the helicopter floated off into the clouds.

Ben and I exchanged looks of genuine disbelief. I touched my face. It still hurt a bit.

“Any blood?” I asked.

“No. Me?” Ben responded.

“All good.” I said back.

“That was fucking insane.” Ben said. I agreed. I looked down at my new camera. I hit the red button to terminate the recording, then turned it around to look at my wonderful new lens. I sighed. Peppered across the surface of the beautiful glass were little white spots. The sand had beaten me to the punch. I did my best to wipe it with the cloth. No luck. Battle scars.


Owen points the lens straight at the ground in an attempt to save the glass as the chopper takes off.
 

A few weeks later was finals week. I had several projects due and very little remaining emotional and educational stamina. The shift of spring break had totally dislodged my ability to commit to projects; I was exhausted and burnt out. Upon checking my field production class schedule, I despaired. Hiding amongst the assignments and updates was yet another project I had completely overlooked. Upon further investigation, I concluded that without this assignment, I likely wouldn’t finish with a grade over a D. I got up and made some coffee. I didn’t want to go shoot anything else. I was tired, I didn’t even want to get up that morning, how was I going to shoot a news story? I pondered my quandary, standing in the living room in my underwear sipping my coffee from a white mug with the letters FBI plastered across it.

American flag leather jacket guy is a photographer from the collegian who joined us for the shoot.
Impromptu Interview with Technician and Pilot of Grounded Helicopter

Then it hit me. It took me only a few hours, but with some quick editing and a little voiceover I had quickly composed what I believed to be an excellent project. I praised my on-set intuition. After the first helicopter had left, I had conducted a couple of impromptu interviews with the pilot and the mechanic, and got some B-roll of the grounded helicopter. Miraculously, I received an A on the assignment. I’m really bummed about my lens, but it seems to work just fine despite the small scratches. Student Video Productions has provided me with so many incredible opportunities, and with each shoot another adventure is had.



Watch:

Event Story: Trouble at Christman Airfield






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