As producer/editor for CBS News' "48 Hours", I hit the jackpot of assignments. It was a perfect landing, right on my desk: the story of Colton Harris-Moore, aka the Barefoot Bandit.
For some time, "48 Hours" producers had been following the incredible story of a teenage kid from Camano Island, Wash., who allegedly stole airplanes, crash landed them and survived; a total of five planes and not one hour logged as a student pilot. Each plane theft was more daring than the next.
"48 Hours": Chasing the Barefoot Bandit
Our investigation found he had a tough childhood and came from an abusive home. For more than two years, he is suspected of robbing homes and local businesses to survive, taking cash and food. He often did this while barefoot and left drawings of bare feet, earning the moniker, the Barefoot Bandit.
"48 Hours" discovered Colton loved high-performance, single-engine planes. From an early age, he drew stunning replicas of them. Authorities soon learned he also loved the chase. Those two passions would catch up to one another in the Bahamas.
In July, he flew a Cessna 400 over 1,200 miles to the Bahamas, where he crashed landed on Abaco Island. Colton was found days later and after a dramatic boat chase that included police shooting the engine, he was finally captured.
My assignment was to find a Cessna 400 and shoot aerial scenes to help illustrate this incredible story; not the easiest task. Locating a Cessna 400 would be a bit more challenging than finding a Cessna 172. This high-performance beauty also comes with a high price tag. But the bigger challenge, after locating one, is to find a pilot who has the skills and desire to fly tight formation for the shoot. Not many general aviation pilots have those skills.
My first step was to call Mark Smith. Mark is an instrument rated pilot who sometimes refers to his 231 Mooney as the "ice cream truck." The paint scheme says it all. Mark is also a brilliant cameraman and has shot for "48 Hours" for some 20 years. As director of photography, Mark listened to my vision and made a list of what was needed. He and I have worked together before on other aerial shoots; I knew I was in good hands. Mark is a pro and went to work.
Mark then teamed up with CFI Liz DeStaffany; they both fly out of Santa Monica. Days later, I get a call from Mark: "We found your plane." That was great news. Then I was told it was at Mojave airport, a short flight from Santa Monica. That was more good news. Mark saved the best for last, "You'll never guess who owns the plane... Dick Rutan." Dick Rutan! This was simply unbelievable. This is like sending someone out to find any guitarist playing a Fender and bumping into Eric Clapton.
For those who are not familiar with Dick Rutan, you can look at his world famous, record breaking airplane the Voyager, suspended from the ceiling of the Smithsonian right next to Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. In 1986, Dick commanded the Voyager flight with fellow pilot Jeana Yeager into the pages of history. It was a flight that took them nonstop around the globe without refueling. Their trip took just minutes over nine days. They received the Presidential Citizens Medal of Honor from President Reagan just days after they landed.
It was another award for this decorated former Air Force pilot. While serving in Vietnam, Dick flew some 325 combat missions in a F-100F, and earned a Silver Star, five distinguished Flying Crosses, 16 Air Medals and a Purple Heart. Do I think he can handle a tight formation photo flight? I think we got our man and I was one happy man in my New York office.
I headed west and met up with Mark and Liz. We discussed what shots we needed and where to place the cameras in the aircraft. Liz took us through the charts and made her suggestions where to shoot while staying out of congested areas.
Since our time with Dick was limited, just five hours, I suggested we roll many cameras at once. I would shoot the pilot's point of view with Dick flying. Mark rigged a lipstick camera to the walk-up step of Dick's plane. In the air, Liz would fly lead in a Cessna 172 RG. In the plane with Liz was Mark on camera 1 and assistant Brian Wilkinson would roll camera 2.
The other set up, was the takeoff shot. That shot was all about getting access to an active runway while rolling two cameras as Dick took off; a high-speed chase with low odds of being granted permission.
Being a pilot, I knew this would be a tough sell to the airport operations team. But it was a shot I really needed. That moment of breaking free of the earth and headed for sky is a magical moment for every pilot. And I could imagine the adrenaline rush it was for Colton Harris-Moore.