Fly and take photos for a living? It’s one of WSDOT’s coolest jobs…

Aero Commander aircraft used for aerial photography
Vern Potts takes photos from this Aero
Commander aircraft.
The camera is mounted on
the floor of the plane
to image the ground underneath.
Vern Potts, a former Air Force reconnaissance pilot, is WSDOT’s primary aerial photographer. He is often among the first to see the full extent of natural disasters that affect our state highways. His photography studio is a twin-engine Aero Commander aircraft that’s on contract and available 24/7. The aerial photography team can mobilize to fly and take photography in only one hour. When flood waters engulfed I-5 in December 2007, Vern surveyed the immediate damage from the air. Using WSDOT’s sophisticated aerial mapping camera mounted inside the aircraft, the resulting images detailed the extent of the flooding. No other technology provided engineers on the ground with this kind of big picture analysis. It’s this expansive view and the unique frame of reference that makes aerial photography such a valuable tool and gives Vern such a cool job.

WSDOT's aerial mapping camera
For pinpoint accuracy, WSDOT’s aerial
mapping camera is equipped with a
survey grade GPS receiver. The receiver
interfaces with the camera to take photos
at specific GPS coordinates.
All this flying and photography has produced an enormous archive of aerial images dating back to the 1930s. These photos have established historical truths and resolved disputes in more than a few courtrooms. The public most often uses aerial photographs during the construction permitting process. Sometimes, aerial images are used in unexpected ways. A number of years ago, family members came to the aerial photography office when they were unable to locate their parents’ grave sites after a recent visit to a local cemetery. They searched the aerial image archive. After locating images of their parents’ missing grave sites, and comparing those to more recent images of the same area, it was clear that the cemetery had paved a parking lot on top of their parents’ plots. From natural disasters to corporate catastrophes, aerial photography provides an irrefutable record.

Aerial photograph of flood waters over I-5
Aerial photograph of flood waters over I-5 in Lewis County.
Jim Walker, Program Manager, explains that it is an operation supported with revenues generated from the products produced and services provided. Because it is a cost-recovery only operation, there is no profit motive or additional price markup to the customer.

Explore WSDOT’s Aerial Photography Web site where you can see the most requested aerial images produced by Vern and the team. To purchase a print, to search the archives, or to arrange for a flight, contact the aerial photography office at 360-596-8950.