Cameras in the Cockpit: Another Mounting Option

Tackform_1511

The Tackform GoPro Headrest Mount

My YouTube channel, BruceAirFlying, includes many aviation videos shot from inside the cockpit of a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza, an Extra 300L, and other aircraft. I’ve tried several types of mounts to provide a stable platform and a good overview of the cockpit.

You can read about some of these setups and my tips for making videos here and here.

Although the GoPro Jaws: Flex Mount has served me well, it hasn’t proven as stable as I’d like, and it sometimes gets bumped out of kilter, resulting in videos that aren’t properly aligned.

A search for other options suggested headrest mounts used by car enthusiasts to capture driving video. I decided to try one in my Bonanza to capture forward-facing views that show both the instrument panel and the outside scene.


The following video of a short hop from KPWT to KBFI on a rainy day shows how both the Tackform GoPro headrest mount and the Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 performed in the A36. For more details about the headrest mount, read below.


I settled on the GoPro Headrest Mount (TF00-0R05) from Tackform. At about $70, it’s not the cheapest option, but customer reviews at Amazon.com suggest it’s a high-quality, sturdy metal mount, and with various adapters, it works with action cameras from other manufacturers, such as the Garmin VIRB series.

Tackform_1515

As you can see from the photos, the arm can be adjusted at four points through a range of angles, and it locks in place. All of the main components, including the ball joints, are made of metal, not plastic, but the mount doesn’t feel heavy, just substantial.

At one end, the mount clamps onto a vertical headrest support. It should fit a range of standard headrest posts. You need the supplied Allen wrench or a suitable driver head to remove and tighten the screws that hold the clamp in place. Otherwise, no tools are needed to secure and adjust the arm and camera.

Ball joints at each end allow you to rotate the arm and the camera to any position.

Tackform_1518

Tackform_1543.jpg

You can remove the arm when you don’t want to shoot video, leaving just the headrest post mount in place. Note, however, that with the clamp attached, you won’t be able to lower the headrest flush with the top of the seat. I chose to attach the arm to the pilot’s seat on the left, where I normally sit. But you could just as easily attach the arm to the copilot seat or any other seat that has headrest posts, and you can buy additional headrest clamps and other components separately from Tackform.

Interlocking teeth ensure a firm grip at each pivot on the arm itself.

Tackform_1525.jpg

The mount includes a GoPro-standard clamp and tripod-style scew adapter on a ball joint at the end of the arm.

Tackform_1560.jpg

Tackform_1552

You can find a wide variety of action-camera attachments and adapters online at Amazon and other sources.

My new Garmin VIRB Ultra 30 includes a frame-style camera holder with a GoPro standard connector, and it was easy to secure it to the arm.

Tackform_1556

I also attached my older Garmin VIRB Elite with its unique cradle. I had to dig around in the big bag of connectors and adapters to find a Garmin-to-GroPro clamp, but it secured easily.

Tackform_1563.jpg

The arrangement seems tight and stable on the ground. Just in case, I slid a cloth beneath the headset post clamp and the seat cover to prevent chafing the expensive leather.

 

Aviation Video Tips

I often get questions about the equipment and editing tools that I use to make the in-cockpit videos on my YouTube channel, BruceAirFlying.

Here are some answers.

Cameras

I typically use three cameras for the aerobatic videos:

  • GoPro Hero3 Black Edition; price recently reduced to $329
  • GoPro Hero2 (apparently discontinued, but still available from many sources)
  • Contour (my first action camera; the company recently restarted under new ownership).

Garmin recently introduced a line of action cameras, the VIRB. I haven’t tried one yet.

Audio

To record cockpit audio, both the intercom and air traffic control communications, I connect the GoPro Hero3 with this patch cord available from Aircraft Spruce, Amazon, and other sources. Pilot USA makes similar cords for several models of the GoPro. You can also find patch cords and adapters at The Squawk Shoppe. Nflightcam also makes a range of mounts and accessories for GoPro cameras, including audio cables and filters.

The other two cameras record ambient engine and cockpit sounds.

Camera Mounts

I use several camera mounts. To record the pilot’s-eye view from the rear seat of the Extra 300L, I wear the GoPro Hero3 using the company’s head strap mount. I install the camera in the skeleton housing accessory (it has slots and isn’t waterproof) so that I can easily connect the audio cable.

I also mount a camera pointed at the left wing. It’s attached to the top of the rear-cockpit instrument panel with a standard GoPro sticky-mount and adapters.

The front “hero” camera in my videos is the ContourHD. I use RAM mounts to hold it securely in place on one of the cockpit braces.

If you fly a typical light aircraft and want to capture in-cockpit video, try the Fat Gecko Co-Pilot.

I have also been experimenting with the GoPro Jaws: Flex Mount. For more information, see Another Go-Pro Camera Mounting Option here at my blog.

I used a Fat Gecko to capture this video of a flight in the Bonanza.

Exterior Mounts

Many pilots are posting videos shot with cameras mounted outside the airplane. Much debate ensues when pilots discuss what’s legal (and wise), and that subject is too complicated to go into here. A good summary of the issues is “Pilot’s-Eye View,” an article in the February 2013 issue of EAA Sport Aviation Magazine. Suffice it to say that sticking a camera on or near a control surface, such as a rudder (as in this video), is a bad idea.

You can find more information about mounting cameras externally in “Lights Camera, Action!” in the January/February 2014 issue of FAA Safety Briefing. I also posted details about that article here.

FAA also published a memorandum on March 13, 2014 to clarify its stance on externally mounted cameras. Here’s a PDF version of that FAA-camera-memo.

Lens Filters

Digital cameras use a rolling shutter that scans images onto the sensor (a CCD). The rolling shutter causes scimitar-like distortion of the propeller and other effects that can mar aviation videos.

You can dramatically reduce the propeller distortions by attaching a neutral-density filter to your camera. I use the Slim Frame Neutral Density Glass Filter made by Polar Pro.

It snaps onto either the waterproof or skeleton housing for the GoPro Hero3. Polar Pro makes a range of filters for different GoPro models. They’re available direct from the company and from sources like Amazon.

Nflight Technology also makes filters for the GoPro series, including the GoPro Hero3 Propeller Filter and the GoPro 55mm Variable ND with Adapter.

Editing

If you use only one camera, you can edit videos with basic, free tools such as Windows Movie Maker or iMovie—even GoPro Studio. These tools support cutting and merging scenes, fading video in and out, adding transitions, and other basic effects.

To work with video shot with more than one camera—which adds visual interest—you need a tool that can handle multiple tracks. I use Adobe Premier Elements, but you can choose from among many applications.

Synchronizing tracks can be tricky, but you can use simple techniques to “slate” the cameras and provide reference points. For example, hold your hand in view of all the cameras and count down three fingers. Or use a key point such as closing the cockpit door or canopy as a reference. You can edit that extraneous video after you line up the tracks.

For more information about the basics of video editing, see these sources:

General Tips

Audio Volume: I recommend using your camera’s settings to reduce the recording volume. I set the GoPro input volume to 70%, even for the camera that records cockpit audio. When I edit the video, I adjust the gain (volume) of the tracks that contain ambient sound. I typically reduce those audio tracks by 12 to 22 dB. That level still provides background engine sounds, but it keeps the engine and airstream noise from overwhelming conversation and other sounds.

Trimming Video: The last, and most important, of the late Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing is, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” The same advice applies to video. Now, when I make video for my students and aerobatic-ride customers, I generally include enough video to tell a story that they can share. And I often include geeky details such as the ATIS broadcast, to add an aviation ambiance. How much of the preflight, engine start, taxi, and general cruising around you include is, of course, up to you. But for sightseeing, “look-at-my-airplane flying along” videos, long tracking shots are best left to professionals.

Point of View: Even if you have only one camera, consider moving it during a flight or making several flights with the camera in different positions. Then edit the scenes into a story that’s far more compelling than a video recorded from just one perspective.

Music

Finally, please don’t make another aviation video dubbed with “Sail”! It’s become as trite as “Danger Zone.”

Many video editing tools include automated music tracks that you can add to your videos. Of course, if you want to press your luck with copyright, you can include favorite songs, but picking the right soundtrack is an art. Choose wisely.