“Buildings and cars may seem much smaller when I am looking down at Taiwan from 3,000 feet [914m], but the world, along with my mind and horizons, just becomes bigger,” said Huang Ching-fa (黃進發), 65, an aerial photographer who has soared high in the sky for the past three decades to capture some of the nation’s finest moments on film.
Huang entered the field of photography first as a shutterbug after he purchased his first camera, a preowned Pentax S2, for NT$2,000, money he made by working as a part-time newspaper delivery man when he was in junior-high school.
After he entered the workforce in the 1970s, Huang started working at a property firm as a photographer and an advertising account planner.
As the country was experiencing a real-estate boom at the time, the company Huang worked for was willing to spend NT$35,000 an hour renting a helicopter (a service that currently costs nearly NT$150,000) to lift Huang into the sky to take aerial photographs of the firm’s housing projects and their surroundings for marketing purposes.
Each of the flights lasted between one and two hours. Huang would normally start by photographing the landscapes needed for his work, before making good use of the remaining time to capture scenery of his own choosing.
Over the years, Huang has accumulated a collection of tens of thousands of remarkable aerial photos of the Greater Taipei area, which are currently on display at the Sindian (新店) District Office in New Taipei City (新北市).
Looking back, Huang said taking aerial pictures was a “politically sensitive” issue during the Martial Law era between 1947 and 1987.
“I could only get the go-ahead to take a helicopter ride after having my application stamped by more than 20 government agencies, including the Ministry of National Defense, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications and the [now defunct] Taiwan Garrison Command,” Huang said.
Aside from the time-consuming formalities, Huang could not fly on a chopper without being accompanied by a “surveillance officer” assigned by the defense ministry, which was also in charge of scanning Huang’s pictures and “filtering out” those showing strategic bridges, tunnels and military installations.
Huang said sometimes he also needed to risk life and limb to capture the most spectacular scenery, citing as an example a flight to Lalashan (拉拉山), Taoyuan County, that experienced powerful jolts due to severe turbulence.
“The helicopter was shaking so violently that the pilot had a deathly serious look on his face and the cabin was terrifyingly quiet,” Huang said.
Reminiscing about one of his most unforgettable experiences, Huang said when he came to take pictures of a 1998 high-profile plane crash in Taoyuan’s Dayuan Township (大園) from the air, he was stunned to discover that a temple nearby had been left undamaged by the plane’s wreckage strewn over a large area.
“It appeared as if the temple was saved because of some divine intervention,” Huang said.
If it had not been for his job at the property firm, Huang would not have had the opportunity or financial resources to pursue his passion for aerial photography, he said, adding that people also needed a just cause to apply for a flight permit even if they can afford to pay for the costly helicopter rides.
Aerial photographers cannot afford to be afraid of heights, Huang said, because in order to take good pictures they have to fly with the helicopter door removed and take photographs from at least 300m, though they are securely belted to the seat.