Veteran WW2 Spitfire pilot flies helicopter spraying bracken and miraculously walks away after crash

If you’re serious about getting that ‘shot,’ under pressure or difficult circumstances, the one that will make you stand out from the rest, read on.

My professional photographic and photojournalist career did not start with the usual degree course and membership of the National Union of Journalists. Nor did I have the latest professional equipment. Just a budget amateur Canon EOS 10 with EF 35-70 F3.5-4.5 lens, and a Cobra 700 AF flash with hand-grip, which I taught myself to use.

Sometimes you need to be fitter, more agile, faster moving, and more intelligent than the chasing clique of photographers, using all your senses and survival instincts. And be in the right place at the right time, whether by judicious planning, or just plain luck.

My first published press photo came about by accident, when I was driving my parents on a summer’s day outing to Ulverston in the Lake District. We were passing the Wytcham Valley, when two fire engines on a call-out overtook us. About 10 minutes down the road they had parked up. I got out of the car with my camera bag (which I always kept with me), and asked a senior fireman what had happened. Apparently, there been a helicopter crash. The pilot had miraculously survived, and been taken away by ambulance for a check up, but I could take pictures of the helicopter if I wanted. Presumably he though I was a press photographer. Well, I did not let on that I was not!

Now this is where fitness comes in: hiking a quarter of a mile over rough terrain to where the helicopter had crashed in a small v-shaped gully. Firefighters had a portable pump they were using to make sure the smoldering wreckage did not start a grass fire. I had to climb down into the gully to get access. Apparently I was only the second photographer to have arrived, so I had to work quickly. After a few thankful words to the fire fighters, I left. My brain was buzzing. My heart pounding and pumping adrenaline. Did I have a scoop?

I got back to the car and excitedly told my parents that we had to find a phone box. Yes, I did not have a mobile. Then they were about the size of a brick and beyond my budget. I decided to call the Cumberland News, rather than the local North West Evening Mail, because its circulation was wider. I was, to my surprise, put through to the editor. He asked if I had taken colour photographs, as the freelance they sent only had black and white. I said that I had, and he asked me to drop the film at their offices in Carlisle straight away, so they could make the evening edition.

Worth the 60 odd miles drive to Carlisle? Well, yes. I had landed a scoop: it turned out that the helicopter survivor was a veteran Battle of Britain Spitfire pilot. Lucky for him. And me. My first press photo published with a credit, and the same reproduced in the Cumbrian Monitor, Cumbria County Fire Service Magazine. My professional career was about to start.

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