An El Al pilot pictures the world seven miles below

Magic from the sky

By GEORGE MEDOVOY
July 28, 2019 16:02
An El Al pilot pictures the world seven miles below

THE EXACT moment lightning explodes as seen from the cockpit of a B777. (photo credit: TOMER ZADOK)

Tomer Zadok sees the world from a commanding position that most other people can only dream of.

The 56-year-old EL AL pilot flies the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner from Tel Aviv to destinations around the world, using his camera to capture stunning photographs of the world around and below him from an altitude of about 36,000 feet.

He shoots most of his photos from the pilot’s seat when the aircraft is in its cruising level and autopilot is activated. Some photos are also taken from the additional seat in the cockpit behind the two pilots who are in control of the aircraft at that time.

EL AL PILOT Tomer Zadok sits in a B777, an airliner he flew for 11 years

As Zadok likes to say, “Everyone holding a camera sees different things in his lens frame,” but for the imaginative pilot, it’s principally the “shapes and patterns” that mostly appeal to him.

His wonderful images on Instagram (@ tomerz9) illustrate his special relationship with a reality that is generally hidden from ordinary view: images of sunset and sunrise, storms and streaks of lightning, birds in magical flight, objects on the ground transformed into abstract art forms – all memorable moments in time.

And then there are the colors: “I am fascinated by colors,” he says. “The combination of colors fascinates me.”

Tomer Zadok has become a well-known name on Instagram, and he receives many touching messages from users “about how they are excited to see things they didn’t believe existed, about views they would never be able to see.”

Illustrating this point, Zadok refers to one of his photographs titled “Good Morning,” of a sunrise in which two contrasting bands of yellow and orange are astonishing for what they reveal about nature’s magic.

“To get such a photo,” Zadok says, “you just need to be lucky and patient... because you can sit for many, many hours and days and you won’t catch such a thing. It’s a matter of the exact moment you push the camera and the exact angle.

“If two people would have been there with the same camera, at the same place and time, the same second... I’m not so sure they could have achieved the same photo. How did I get it? I was patient enough because of the conditions, because of the angle, because of the speed.”

The thoughtful pilot then delves into the technicalities of photographing a sunrise or a sunset. “You know,” he says, “when you photograph a sunrise, it’s much more difficult because it happens much faster than when you photograph a sunset.

“This is the result of the direction the Earth is turning. When you fly east, actually you are flying against the direction the Earth is turning, and the relative ground speed is much faster. If you are flying west, actually you are flying with the direction of how the Earth is turning.”

Thus it takes more time to photograph a sunset – sometimes as much as 10-20 minutes – “until the sun can get below the horizon and vanishes.”

Sun penetrating the clouds above the mountains near Chengdu, China. "It looks like Genesis to me," says Tomer (Credit: Tomer Zadok)

ON THE subject of color, Zadok has photographed what he terms “an amazing photo of the aurora. It’s very rare to see even when we fly,” he says. “We see it from time to time.” But what usually shows up is an almost unnoticeable green color. Sometimes, however, you get lucky and “you get an amazing full green sky.”

Then there are the storm clouds, unseen from the ground, which he describes as sometimes resembling “an atomic bomb.”

I met Zadok almost by accident while attending a reception for EL AL’s inaugural flight from Tel Aviv to San Francisco.

Mingling with guests in San Francisco, I chanced to meet several EL AL crew members, including Zadok, and our conversation soon turned to his Instagram photos, which he shared with me on his cell phone.

Speaking later by telephone, he explained that his interest in photography stems from “two directions,” a love of cameras dating to his childhood and his experience as a Cobra helicopter pilot in the Israel Air Force.

Reflecting on his air force days flying a helicopter, he called it a “totally different experience... of flight because you fly very low, very near to the ground. It’s like walking on foot on the Earth.” From a helicopter, the view is very special. “The colors, the flowers, the animals, it’s a very big excitement, and it’s a totally different experience.

It’s the most beautiful kind of flying.”

Mustard fields of Dijon (Credit: Tomer Zadok)

Zadok has also had first-hand experience flying fixed-wing aircraft from before he flew helicopters, flying fixed-wing jets in the Israeli Air Force Academy. Helicopter pilots, he notes, “have a very big advantage” when flying for an airline because in the air force they are “always flying together in a crew, which is one of the crucial demands for operating an airplane.”

When he first started shooting photos, Zadok used a small pocket camera and sometimes even a simple cellphone before the advent of smartphones. Today, he uses a Canon SLR camera, which is useful for producing high-resolution enlargements.

The veteran EL AL pilot earned an MBA after his air force service and worked successfully in corporate marketing before joining EL AL in 2005. He is “always in a kind of search for patterns, for shapes and colors, which makes some of the pictures kind of abstract.”

One of his favorite photos, dating from his earliest days of cockpit photography, is a low-resolution image of Dijon mustard fields in France – an abstract view he managed to capture with a cellphone camera.

He has since shot the fields again, but with a high-resolution camera, and he believes that the newer image looks “totally different.”

Zadok has participated in art exhibitions in Israel and Europe, given the fact that many of his abstract photographs, like the Dijon mustard fields, resemble actual paintings. In fact, he is looking forward to “new adventures and opportunities” for exhibitions exactly like any other artist who is interested in sharing his work.

OF COURSE, shooting photographs that take on an abstract quality is very different from shooting a standing monument like the London Bridge, for example. Seeking the abstract is “something that you create in your imagination. You take the frame and you point the camera the way you want the photo to look.”

One of the areas the pilot enjoys photographing is the coast of Long Island, New York. “It is very, very interesting and full of nature,” he says. Usually, EL AL’s day flight approaches New York around three in the afternoon, with the sunset in front of the aircraft. “This makes a colorful and beautiful photo.”

Among his photographs are reminders that his point of reference is the cockpit of an airplane, where he can share “the beauty of flight.”

One of the nicest illustrations of this fact is his nighttime view of Santa Monica, California, as seen through the cockpit window while approaching Los Angeles International Airport from the north. With so many urban lights glistening in the night sky, it “can give the audience a chance to see on a clear day what a big city looks like from above.”

Another beautiful city shot is a majestic daytime view of Hong Kong Harbor, where the pilot somehow managed to capture an utterly pristine clarity topped by a few misty clouds. With the wind blowing in an easterly direction and the EL AL Dreamliner taking off from the east, “after three minutes you are opposite the harbor and you can take such a picture.”

 Sunrise over Greenland (Credit: Tomer Zadok)

Of course, the photos would not be complete if Zadok hadn’t included dramatic aerial views of Tel Aviv, the 24-hour city he lovingly calls his hometown. “There are very few cities that go around the clock, and Tel Aviv is one of them,” he says, adding that among international air crews, Tel Aviv is a very popular destination.

He lists the city’s attractions, including its weather, sea, boardwalk, markets and museums, and of course, the food. “It’s a mixture of many, many attractive subjects, and the people are nice. That’s the most important thing.” Among his photographs are images that he has shot during helicopter outings with friends in California, something he calls “private flying.”

“Private flying is a social hobby,” he explains, as distinguished from professional work flying giant “mega-planes” like the Boeing 787.

When flying as a hobby with friends one can “share the views and see how beautiful it is to fly, especially in helicopters, where you are very close to the ground and can see many, many views.”

Flying in helicopters out of Camarillo Airport north of Los Angeles, Zadok and his friends have enjoyed the area’s rich agricultural landscape, enabling the pilot to photograph farm workers, tractors and rows of crops in abstract forms seen only from the air. Then, too, he has photographed the amazing golden “carpet” of the California Poppy Reserve in California’s Antelope Valley following the spring rains.

But no matter what his subject or whether he is flying a Dreamliner or a helicopter, Tomer Zadok’s photography reflects his deep appreciation for the world around him as he shares “the beauty of flight, which only a pilot’s eyes can see.”


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