Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Amazing New "Ministab" Aid for Helicopter Cinematography

Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Amazing New "Ministab" Aid for Helicopter Cinematography

Article excerpt

New "black-box" electronic gear, said to have been originally developed for military purposes, does an incredible job of rendering a helicopter "rock-steady" in bumpy air - a boon to filming under turbulent conditions

The scene: The Van Nuys Airport in California on a recent afternoon. It is an unusually windy day. The wind, blowing in strong gusts, has whisked the haze (smog?) from the atmosphere, so that the mountains stand out crystal-clear. Despite the seemingly ideal photographic conditions, it is the kind of day that would automatically be ruled out for helicopter cinematography because of excessive air turbulence. While there are several excellent vibrationless camera mounts available to dampen the "beat" and general vibration set up by the helicopter rotors, what's to prevent the helicopter itself from being tossed all over the sky by the violent wind?

American Cinematographer Editor Herb Lightman, who, whenever possible, personally tests out new motion picture equipment under consideration for a writeup in the journal, walks toward a Bell Jet Ranger Il helicopter which, rotors turning, stands on the pad ready for takeoff. He clambers onto the seat of the Continental Camera Systems Mark 10 helicopter mount, positions himself behind the Arriflex camera, fingers the zoom and focus controls in the handles of the mount, fastens the safety belt (the only thing between him and falling out the side of the aircraft), and, like some intrepid type in a B movie, tells the pilot over the intercom: "Okay, lift off!"

The helicopter rises into the sky. Almost immediately it is caught up in the turbulence. The helicopter, despite the very considerable skills of the expert pilot, bucks like a bronco all over the sky. The hapless would-be cameraman has all he can do to keep his eye in the viewfinder without getting it knocked out of his head. Zeroing in steadily on a photographic target is out of the question.

The pilot's voice comes over the intercom: "Okay, I'm gonna switch it on. One. . two .. . three. . ."

Instantly the helicopter, which has all but been doing cartwheels, "freezes" motionless in the sky. It hovers rocksteady, as if held in place by giant guy wires, despite the air turbulence that still rages about it. The startled cameraman racks the zoom lens out to the telephoto extreme, zeros in on a tiny ground target and holds it smack in the center of the crosshairs as the helicopter does an extremely smooth 360degree turn around it. A "print" take. "Okay," says Waldo Pepper at the controls, "I'm gonna switch it off."

The helicopter resumes its mad pogo-stick plunging about the sky. After a few more such on-off capers, with the helicopter alternately frenzied and rock-steady, they land. The Editor/cameraman, slightly green, but elated, exclaims: "You made a believer out of me."

He is referring to a unique new aid for helicopter cinematography called MINISTAB. The new system, said to have been adapted from a military device originally designed to stabilize gunships in the air is a mini-computer that takes up the space of an attaché case in the baggage compartment. Its main function is an aid to the pilot in controlling the helicopter in adverse conditions. Three identical computers with integral rate gyros are dedicated to the three axes of flight: roll, pitch, and yaw. Their output is sent to three separate actuators that work in series with the pilot's manual control linkage. The actuators provide approximately 10% of the aircraft control system authority. …

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