Aerial Photo Pilot Joel Zane Dies in Skydiving Accident

Post by blogger | December 22, 2004      

(Note, this blog post was written October 18, 2004, before WildSnow became a chronological publication. Thus, it is forward dated to December 22 even though written in October just after Joel’s accident.)

Longs Peak aerial photo taken while flying with Joel Zane.

One of the hundreds of 14er and ski hut shots that Joel flew for, this one of Colorado's Long's peak from the east. Click here to enlarge for a stunning rendition of medium format aerial photography. Notice the details in the enlarged version, especially the details within the shadows. I particularly like the reflections in Chasm Lake and Peacock Pool.

I was shocked and grieved this morning to hear about my friend Joel Zane getting killed skydiving this past weekend. Joel is well known in skydiving circles, but I thought it appropriate as tribute to publish a note here, as Joel is the guy who did most of the flying for the aerial photos in my 14er guides, and also for some fine-art shots I did of the 10th Mountain Eiseman hut a number of years ago.

I got to know Joel back in the early 1980s when he hired me as a carpenter on a restoration project in Snowmass, Colorado. I worked with him periodically after that, and we became friends, but what I remember Joel for was his help with my aerial photography.

Joel Zane notes from one of our 14er photography flights.

Joel Zane notes from one of our 14er photography flights. He liked to joke around about his jump plane, a stripped down Cesna with a side flap jump door. The only co-pilot seat was a milk crate. Click to enlarge.

Notes from Joel regarding flight patterns for aerial photos of fourteeners, written on the manifest form he used for skydiving jumps. We found that the trick to getting good guidebook shots was to orbit the peak at near the summit altitude, from a distance that allowed me the appropriate field of view. Since most fourteeners are surrounded by high peaks, this type of flying was not without risk. Joel had to keep watching the mountains in front of us as well as the altimeter.

Flying with Joel was always an adventure. He was super confident and very careful, but didn’t mess around when there was a job to do. We used his Cessna 182 jump plane, which was totally stripped for weight savings, and had this huge hatch on the side, which Joel called a “jump door.” I wore a climbing harness, and clipped into a d-ring on the floor with a tether. When it came time to shoot, Joel woud slow the plane down to just over 60mph, then I’d unlatch the door which would slam up in the slipstream. With roaring wind filling the cabin, I’d hang my feet out the door and let the harness tether hold me so I could lean out (read hang) and shoot more to the side without the plane getting in the way. Joel had a parachute, I didn’t, but I figured if I fell out he could jump out, dive to me, and save me (at least the thought occurred to me at the time, though I know it was fantasy since we were close to the ground most of the time).

While I hung my feet out the door, Joel would do a slow orbit of the peak, with me on the headphone/mic talking to him about how close or far we needed to be, and chattering about the angle. The trick with this type of photography is you want an oblique angle that will translate to people viewing the peak from the ground, but you need to stay high enough to be safe, and also get a shot that separates the peak from the mountains behind it.

During one flight, when we were headed back home, Joel got out of his seat and said “you want to drive?” I knew he loved to fly, and wanted to share it with me. Whoa — I’d never touched an airplane’s controls. I sat down in the pilot seat, and Joel patiently instructed me on how to fly an airplane! The catch was that the stripped plane didn’t have a right-hand seat, just a milk crate. So while I tried to keep it level, Joel just sat on that milk crate, not in the position of a co-pilot. To this day I don’t know if he had more confidence in me — or the little Cessna being able to endure my mistakes. Whatever the case, what a memory of Joel!

Joel leaves a great legacy. He was a primo wood worker, a no-nonsense person to talk about life with, and an incredible sky diver who took the sport to new levels in many ways. A small part of his legacy is here in my studio, in the form of hundreds of beautiful B&W negatives from our flights together. Thanks Joel, I’ll miss you.

Aspen Times obit for Joel.

Lou Dawson, October 18, 2004


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