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Hawkes first got into the art of airborne-picture taking when he was 21. Fresh out of college—he studied photography at the University of Westminster in London—on a whim he and a friend went up in a microlight (a small lightweight aircraft), and he was instantly hooked. “You see such amazing things,” he says. “For a photographer, it’s just unbelievable.” He’s done aerial photography full-time ever since, capturing bird’s-eye views across the world in London, Libya and Honolulu. His snaps end up in photo books and on stock-image sites, though he’s often commissioned by commercial clients (Coca-Cola, American Airlines) who can afford the price of a lengthy flyover. On this particular trip, he was taking shots of the city for a U.K. designer.
At sunset on a warm, clear July evening, we took off from West 30th Street Heliport in a Eurocopter TwinStar, Hawkes strapped into a harness beside the wide-open side door; our pilot, Liberty Helicopters’ Beau Nicholson, at the controls; and me, a newb, riding shotgun and fidgeting with anticipation.
From 1,000 feet up, Manhattan looks like the idea of Manhattan—an elegantly arranged conglomeration of buildings, lit up like a Christmas tree and seemingly full of infinite promise. You can practically hear “Rhapsody in Blue” playing in the background, clarinet soaring over the thrum of propeller blades. As Hawkes dictated directions to the pilot through his headset, we flew up and down the island for an hour and a half, buzzing over Times Square, darting around One World Trade Center and hovering over filmgoers watching Argo in Hudson River Park. Our craft circled the Empire State Building as night fell, and I half-expected King Kong to bat us out of the sky. We were able to span the length of the island in a matter of minutes, cruising along at 70 miles per hour through the trafficless blue.
Hawkes takes about 1,000 shots per flight, occasionally with the helicopter on its side, aimed straight at the ground (which did not, alas, happen on my trip). And though he’s fearless in the cockpit, he admits to getting nasty vertigo when he isn’t airborne. “If I climbed on top of a skyscraper and sat on the edge, I would be terrified,” he says. “But sitting on the edge of a helicopter by a skyscraper, I couldn’t care less.”
In the course of his career, Hawkes has amassed a wealth of stories: a pair of Las Vegas aviators who kept semiautomatic rifles in the cockpit; a mayor in Spain who wouldn’t stop leaning out the door to take iPhone pics; and a pilot in Corsica who, to impress a female passenger, flew between two cliffs and straight up a waterfall. “I said to the gal afterwards, ‘Don’t ever bother getting in a helicopter again, because you’ll always think it’ll be that good, and it never will be again,’” recalls Hawkes.
Still, New York by night is hard to beat; and, for my money (and unfortunately, it does cost a good bit of money), chopper is the only way to travel.
SOAR WITH THE EAGLES Want to go up yourself? Liberty Helicopters offers tours of the city starting at $150/person for 12–15 minutes. Visit libertyhelicopter.com for details. Jason Hawkes’s photography can be seen at jasonhawkes.com.