Flying for the Big Screen

We talked to New Zealander Alfie Speight, one of the world's most experienced aerial filming helicopter pilots.

Flying for the Big Screen

By Stefan Roesch

His credits on IMDb are impressive: The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, Vertical Limit, The Chronicles of Narnia, Wolverine, King Kong, The Light Between Oceans, Pete's Dragon. Alfie Speight's aerial filming career spans more than two decades. But ask him about his past jobs, and you get a pretty good idea of the man: "I've done a few. Lord of the Rings and things like that."

Alfie (top left) and the Hobbit crew.

Alfie (top left) and the Hobbit crew.

Born in 1959 in the New Zealand district of Southland, Alfie grew up on a farm near Te Anau, these days the gateway to the country's prime attraction - Milford Sound. Arguably, the man responsible for instilling a passion for flying in little Alfie was his uncle David, who owned a light plane. Instead of pursuing a university career, Alfie decided to become a pilot instead.

While he was training at the Fiordland Aero Club "helicopters would be coming and going, catching deer. That's how I got into helicopters." This was in the late 1970s, when helicopter hunting for wild deer was paramount to reduce overall numbers and their impact on the environment.

A good friend of mine was a helicopter pilot in the German Army and during his training, I still remember him complaining about how unbelievably impossible it was to get the coordination right to even keep the machine in a steady hovering position. But when I asked Alfie what special skills you need to become a professional helicopter pilot, he just laughed: "It's like driving a car. You just start up with something small."

Really? I had to probe him on that - so basically, what you're saying is that anyone can fly a helicopter?  Alfie's reply: "Well, some are better than others, put it that way. It's like driving, I suppose."

And action!

And action!

In 1985, Alfie moved to Queenstown, situated in the heart of the Southern Alps. Given the lack of pilots in the area at the time, he quickly got a foothold in aerial filming, starting with a job on a TV movie called The Grasscutter in 1990. From there, it was only a matter of time until the first big movie job came about: aerial shoots for the blockbuster Vertical Limit. That's how the film industry works, right? Do a good job and keep quiet and people will start knocking on your door. People like, let's say, Peter Jackson.

Alfie doesn't like to talk about the details of his filming jobs, nor does he like to reveal any particular stories about some of his well-known passengers. But when prompted about the technical side of aerial filming, he opens up quite a bit: "Years ago, we would have one of the doors open and a side-mounted camera. Nowadays, we have those nose-mounted cameras, which are a lot more user-friendly. It's also easier for the pilot." The film crew on board normally consists of the camera operator, possibly a camera assistant and the director, which suits Alfie well: "The less the better, because there is less talk."

Alfie's office: Airbus AS350 B2 Squirrel with a mounted K1 casing from Shotover Camera Systems

Alfie's office: Airbus AS350 B2 Squirrel with a mounted K1 casing from Shotover Camera Systems

Is he concerned about the rise of drones in aerial filming? Alfie reflects: "Drones are probably taking a little bit of work off us." Still, he remains adamant that they cannot replace the superior quality of helicopter shots. They certainly have their advantages when it comes to work near to the ground and in tight places, such as amongst trees or in-between buildings, and as Alfie finally admits: "Drones are getting better and better".

Flying is Alfie's passion - a gene that runs in the family. One of his two sons flies helicopters, and the other is into planes.

Flying is Alfie's passion - a gene that runs in the family. One of his two sons flies helicopters, and the other is into planes.

Regardless of the challenges of aerial filming, Alfie loves flying in the Southern Alps. "Between Milford and Mount Cook and the areas in-between, it's a nice little section", says the man about what must be one of the most stunning landscapes in the world. About 80% of his flying time is spent on film shoots, but Alfie also takes on flightseeing jobs, introducing visitors from all over the world to some pretty stunning places, such as...

...Milford Sound, location for the latest Alien instalment.

...Milford Sound, location for the latest Alien instalment.

...the Humboldt Ranges...

...the Humboldt Ranges...

...or Clarke Glacier.

...or Clarke Glacier.

I'm not afraid of flying but still, I know which pilot I would choose if I were to book a tour with his company Glacier Southern Lakes Helicopters: Alfie has clocked up over 15,000 hours in the air, which equals around 3.75 million kilometres.

That is almost the distance from the Earth to the Moon.

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