Blue Skies Consulting
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23 FEBRUARY 2004
Blue Skies Consulting Photographs Country From Above
Article by Donna Redman
BELEN— Despite the dramatic market penetration of digital photography, film remains alive and well.
Just ask Mike Racine, co-owner of an aerial photography firm called Blue Skies Consulting, LLC.
"Film still offers the best resolution," Racine told the Journal in an interview. "Film gives an accurate snapshot of reality, whereas digital images can be manipulated."
Thus film images are considered more reliable in instances where accuracy is critical, he said.
Last year Blue Skies Consulting was the largest purchaser of Kodak large-format film in New Mexico, Racine added.
Blue Skies does use other means of collecting data, as well.
"We do both aerial photography and remote sensing," said Tami Wiggins, the firm's other owner. She explained that they also use digital photography and lidar, a contraction of the words li(ght) and (ra)dar, which uses laser for imaging.
"Remote sensing is just a broader term that takes in other ways of collecting data aerially," Wiggins said. "We have a regular aerial camera mounted in our airplane, but if a client has their own sensor equipment we can mount that in our plane, too."
Their aerial camera is about 24 inches on a side and weighs about 300 pounds. It fits over a port cut in the belly of the airplane.
Wiggins said Blue Skies was recently put on a Forest Service stand-by list to use airborne thermal imaging systems to monitor wildfires, if needed. The Forest Service has the thermal imaging equipment but would use it in Blue Skies planes if needed.
The bulk of Blue Skies' work is for federal agencies through the Aerial Photography Field Office, or APFO, based in Salt Lake City, Wiggins said. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Web site, the APFO is the primary source of aerial imagery for the USDA.
Through the APFO, Blue Skies has done work throughout the Southwest, primarily for the Natural Resources Inventory, a program designated as the federal government's principal source of information on the status, condition and trends of soil, water and related resources in the United States.
Blue Skies has also done work for the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service. These, too, were contracted through he APFO.
Last year Blue Skies worked in Arizona, Nevada and California taking photos in every county in each state, a total of 3,010 photos.
Started in early 1999, the business was based in Albuquerque until about six months ago, according to Wiggins. The business office was at the Sunport while the plane was hangared at the Mid Valley Air Park in Los Lunas.
"We could see that having the separation of office and hangar wasn't going to work," Wiggins said, so they started looking for a place where they could put everything in one place.
When they investigated Belen's Alexander Municipal Airport, they were given a warm reception, Wiggins said.
Then airport manager Dave Husbands and Airport Commission chairman Bob Cullins helped smooth the way for their move, she said. Husbands also spoke on their behalf to the Airport Commission and Cullins, in turn, spoke on their behalf to the Belen City Council.
"It was wonderful to get that kind of reception," Wiggins said. "We felt this was the place for us."
They moved their plane to a rented hangar in Belen by late November 2000, and six months ago they moved their office into space at the Wells Fargo Bank building in Belen.
As soon as final inspections are complete, they should be moving into the large new blue hangar that was built for them at the Belen Alexander Municipal Airport.
The hangar is large enough to house their business office as well as several small planes, the large biplane they affectionately call Olav, and space to do airplane maintenance and repairs.
Olav is a recent acquisition. Racine described it as a big, ugly workhorse of a plane, a 1985 model of Russian design built in Poland. It can fly as slowly as 50 miles per hour and up to 180 miles per hour.
Wiggins owns 51 percent of the business and Racine owns 49 percent. Wiggins said she takes care of the administrative end of the business while Racine takes care of the planes, piloting and cameras.
Wiggins said, "Mike got involved in this through his aviation background, and I came to it through my geography background. A lot of the photography we do is used for mapping."
Racine "has many, many hours (of flight time) and certifications and licenses, and he's an FAA-certified airframe and power plant mechanic, which is a big deal," she said.
Wiggins said she took some classes at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos to investigate "the whole geography and mapping and surveying thing and ended up getting a Master of Science degree in geography."
Blue Skies has two permanent, sometimes part-time employees, a pilot and an office assistant. During their busy season, usually from March through September, they hire contract photographers, pilots and sometimes mechanics.
"During the height of our season," Wiggins said, "it's not unusual for us to work 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, so during the slower season we try to regroup and catch up."
© 2004 Albuquerque Journal
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