Most of us know the horror of the white-knuckle red-eye: that dread as the plane is tossed about in nocturnal turbulence. But while passengers clutch the seat and pray, Ecuadorian long-haul pilot Santiago Borja sits in his cockpit trying to focus – not on the altimeter but through the viewfinder of his camera.
‘I take pictures only while I’m not at the controls,’ he explains. ‘So there is time to shoot. Turbulence usually makes the camera shake too much so it’s better to wait until you’re clear of it.’
A new collection of Borja’s aerial photographs, Pictures by #TheStormPilot, proves he is at his happiest snapping at 40,000ft as the weather gets wild.
Borja was born and raised in Quito, and since 2012 has been first officer on a Boeing 767-300ER for an international airline, though he won’t say which. His constant companion is a 35mm Nikon DSLR.
‘My first successful picture from the cockpit was flying along the coast of Venezuela,’ he recalls. ‘I was sitting in the observer’s seat looking at this great storm.’
During his years as a commercial pilot, Borja has photographed a huge array of natural and man-made wonders: ‘towering piles of clouds, storms and lightning, breathtaking colours in the morning and the evening, spectacularly starry skies, and the lights of cities snaking out across the dark earth at night’.
In the book, his images are put in meteorological context by German weather forecaster Michaela Koschak. She explains what a halo is, where space begins and how hurricanes happen.
We also learn that the beautiful storm clouds – or cumulonimbi – in the photographs behave like towering vertical pressure cookers (and can carry up to one million tons of water).
Following in a long tradition of cloud-focused artists – traced from John Constable to Gerhard Richter – Borja’s work brings its own omniscient quality.
‘These landscapes describe the way I enjoy our planet,’ he says, ‘the way I learn about nature and its beauty in places where humans have not yet left their footprint.’ His palette is one of violets, indigos, pinks and the electric whites of lightning strikes.
Has he seen anything he can’t explain on his flights? ‘I’ve seen many unusual phenomena,’ says Borja. ‘I don’t like to assume they are UFOs but instead some strange effects of the atmosphere or light.
‘I believe all phenomena have some cool science behind them even if we don’t understand it.’