Photographers capture Yosemite’s firefall from an airplane

Yosemite National Park’s Firefall—an annual event in which rays of the setting sun make Horsetail Fall glow like fire—is spectacular to view from inside the park. But this year, three photographers took things to the next level.

As the sun set on February 23, they flew over Yosemite in a six-seat Cessna 210, pointing their lenses through a broken rear window. Although they were focused on getting the right position to shoot Firefall, in the minutes leading up to the main event, something equally amazing started to happen.

Fresh powder from the previous night’s storm broke off the mountains, forming misty halos illuminated by golden light. It looked like Half Dome was breathing in the freezing winter air, the photographer says Michael Castaneda.

For adventure pilot Ney Grant, the flight was unlike anything he had experienced in his 2,500 hours in the cockpit. “I’ve flown over Yosemite several times — you don’t need clearance as long as you stay 2,000 feet above ground at all times — but this flight was different,” he says.

Distant mountains photographed from an airplane over Yosemite National Park.

Michael Castaneda, Courtesy of Michael Castaneda

Making this happen (and documenting the event from the air, no less) was not without its challenges.

A week before, Grant had come up with the idea of ​​seeing firefalls from the air and had reason to believe he could pull it off.


Inasmuch as adventure pilot, he’s flown doctors to Mexico, counted wild horses in Nevada, and hauled hand-washing stations to Navajo reservations during the pandemic. He also has a book coming out in September – “Fifty Classic Adventures in and Around California’s National Parks.”

But when Grant went solo to Yosemite in mid-February, he quickly realized he was unable to focus on piloting the plane, getting into the right position, and documenting the event all at the same time. time. “I just couldn’t do it myself,” he says. “There was too much going on.”

Firefall wasn't the only thing glowing orange in Yosemite National Park last month.

Firefall wasn’t the only thing glowing orange in Yosemite National Park last month.

Michael Castaneda, Courtesy of Michael Castaneda

He invited the photographers Castaneda and Ranz Navarro for a second attempt, and both immediately agreed to participate. Seeing the fire drops from an airplane was definitely preferable to battling “the millions of visitors on Northside Drive,” Navarro said.

When the men met Feb. 23 at the Mariposa-Yosemite airport, a snowstorm had recently blown in and the temperature was 4 degrees below zero. After bundled up and selected their gear, the group excitedly boarded the plane. “My main vision for the flight was to get a solid, wide composition showing the setting sun casting its last light down the valley and over El Capitan and Horsetail Fall,” Castaneda explains.

The wind blew snow from Half Dome just as the sun was setting, creating a halo of fire.

The wind blew snow from Half Dome just as the sun was setting, creating a halo of fire.

Michael Castaneda, Courtesy of Michael Castaneda

The Cessna 210 is great for photography, Grant says, because it’s a high-wing aircraft with no struts, and the landing gear retracts into the belly. So when the window is open, nothing gets in the way of a shot. The downside is that this plane doesn’t like to go slow, he adds, and a 125 mph wind blows through with the window open.

“A bottle of water froze during the flight,” he says.

Taking pictures from an airplane can be tricky, but adventure pilot Ney Grant (left) and photographer Michael Castenada (right) have found ways to make it happen.

Taking photos from an airplane can be tricky, but adventure pilot Ney Grant (left) and photographer Michael Castenada (right) have found ways to make it happen.

Courtesy of Ranz Navarro

Even more problematic was the fact that there was really only room for one photographer to shoot through the open window at the front of the plane. To solve the problem, the group considered removing the door and securing themselves to the ground with harnesses. But Grant had another plan. He cut a porthole in the rear window, which ended up smashing into pieces.

“Really crazy, I had to fly in from my home base of Placerville and come back with the rear window broken,” Grant says. “Anything for a good picture, I guess.”

Once the plane took off, Grant flew the men around the park and then out to the High Sierra and Mono Lake. The views were breathtaking, and on the way back, as the sun started to drop below the horizon and the wind started to pick up, the snow started to come off the rocky features.

The sun's rays shine orange on blowing snow on top of a mountain in Yosemite National Park.

The sun’s rays shine orange on blowing snow on top of a mountain in Yosemite National Park.

Michael Castaneda, Courtesy of Michael Castaneda

“Half Dome decided El Capitan wouldn’t get all the glory that day and put on his own show,” Castaneda said.

“Seeing these monuments from a different perspective was such a dream,” adds Navarro.

For the main event, the pilot had to time the approach exactly to catch the short window of time where the rays of the setting sun would illuminate the waterfall. They had already scouted the angles, and Castaneda was kneeling in the front seat, enduring motion sickness and shooting through the open window, while Navarro pointed his camera at the broken “photography” window in the back.

Yosemite Falls of Fire, seen from an airplane above the park.

Yosemite Falls of Fire, seen from an airplane above the park.

Michael Castaneda, Courtesy of Michael Castaneda

Grant flew the plane directly into position at the right moment, and the photographers started shooting. The excitement in Grant’s voice came through the headphones loud and clear, Castaneda said, energizing his passengers as they photographed the stunning, fiery illusion from a bird’s eye view.

“We all knew we had experienced something special that went way beyond just falling on fire,” Castaneda says. “We had created a memory that would stay with all of us forever.”