Lufthansa Pilot Ulrich Beinert is a passionate photographer. His impressive aerial shots of cities and landscapes are taken from the cockpit at a height of at least 10 000 feet.
Ulrich Beinert can remember exactly what it was like in 1997 when the Hale-Bopp comet passed by the earth. For several weeks, this incredibly bright object shone up in the sky, visible all around the globe. This was young Ulrich’s very own big bang, the start of his enduring fascination with everything in the sky: the stars, the constellations, the whole universe. His deepest wish was to understand, to make obscured objects visible and capture their essence.
When he was 15 he was given a proper telescope through which he photographed the sun, the moon and planets with his battered viewfinder camera, bringing them in close enough to touch. Later, with the advent of digital cameras, he took pictures of stars, glowing gas nebulas and space dust pierced by rays of light. “All the things that are difficult to put into words,” says Beinart, who studied aviation systems technology at Bremen University. For his final thesis he sent a research balloon with a camera up into the middle stratosphere, taking pictures far above the clouds. “It was the closest I’d ever been to space.”
Beinert is now 34 and a Lufthansa pilot and his is possibly the best vantage point from which to view the world. He takes many of his pictures from the cockpit during flight: pictures of sunsets, Alpine glaciers, Brussels by night with a crescent moon, or the Northern Lights dancing on the horizon. But wait, shouldn’t he be navigating the plane rather than snapping pictures? Beinert laughs, it isn’t the first time he’s been asked this. “At cruising altitude when the autopilot is on and a copilot is at the controls to keep an eye on things, I have time to look out the window for things to take a picture of.”
I can’t photograph most motifs, I can only store them in my mind
Otherwise, Lufthansa has an ironclad rule for captains and first officers: below an altitude of 10 000 feet, the focus is solely and exclusively on flying. “I can’t photograph most motifs,” says Beinert, “I can only store them in my mind.” Is there any one picture he is particularly proud of? “My favorite shot is of a vintage Airbus, standing on the runway in a storm, framed by lightning in the distance. You can’t plan pictures like these; they’re real snapshots – simply magical.”
And ever since colleagues described having seen it, he has dreamed of also spotting the Soyuz capsule over the Caspian Sea as it returns to to earth from the ISS station. “I would gladly sign up for an extra shift just to see that spectacular arc of fire trailing across the night sky,” he says.