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Airline Pilot Likens Planespotting Photographer to a “Terrorist”

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Rene’s Points For Better Travel, a division of Chatterbox Entertainment, Inc. has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Rene’s Points For Better Travel and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

A fun video shot on Saint Maarten’s famous Maho Beach drew the ire of an airline pilot — who compared the planespotter to a “terrorist.”

The video of a plane landing at Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) in Saint Maarten was taken with a camera that has a 360-degree lens.

Pretty cool, right?

Airline pilot Stefano Rota doesn’t seem to think so.

Bizarre, right?

I hope Mr. Rota was being darkly sarcastic. But something tells me he wasn’t. (According to his LinkedIn page, Mr. Rota is an A320 first officer for Avianca — as well as an “Aviation Photographer and Journalist.”)

I think what set him off was a message he retweeted from @aviatordam, who said “A drone, on the approach, when an aircraft is landing? I call that [redacted] idiotic and irresponsible. Always one doing it for the [Instagram].” (The tweet was edited for language but you can see the NSFW original here.)

Here’s the thing: that wasn’t a drone.

I showed the video to Joshua Applegate, a photographer friend of mine.

“Everyone on the beach is just as close as the [person] filming,” he said. “You can see the shadow of the [selfe] stick used to mount the 360 camera, and I’m guessing it to be about 4-5 feet in a stationary position.  Although the 360 camera seems to fly up and nearly touch the plane, it is clear that the camera is stationary with plenty of clearance.”

Jerod Harris, a photographer with drone experience, told me, “A selfie stick with a 360 camera poses very little harm to commercial aircraft as long as the selfie stick isn’t sticking up into the flight path of the aircraft. Luckily, most selfie sticks I’ve seen are between 2-4 feet, so [there’s] very little danger, even at St. Maarten.” But he added, “Selfie sticks and helicopters make me nervous.” 🙂

So what makes this stranger is that Mr. Rota is himself a photographer (with an impressive Flikr portfolio, I must say) — so one would think he’d be familiar with lenses and how they can manipulate a scene.

How About Some Perspective?

René and several readers visited SXM about three years ago. They experienced the planespotting nirvana that is Maho Beach.

How close do arriving planes get to beachgoers? Well, about as low as most people come (outside) to an aircraft performing an inflight operation.

That said, it’s not like you can reach up and touch tin. The below video René shot gives some perspective.

Final Approach

Is the selfie-stick itself a danger to incoming aircraft? Perhaps if it’s thrown in a plane’s engine at the perfect time, I guess. That would be a pretty tough feat to accomplish, so I’m not terribly worried. I’m sure pilots who read the blog can let us know their thoughts.

— Chris

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Rene’s Points For Better Travel, a division of Chatterbox Entertainment, Inc. has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Rene’s Points For Better Travel and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Responses are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.


  1. Not a fan of selfie-sticks, but definitely a pretty cool perspective.

    Reminds me of the ‘jet flyover on approach to HNL’ scene from Hawaii Five-0 (original series, not the [opinions redacted for polite company] remake) opening credits. Hmm, I wonder if any CBS producers got accused of using a drone to film it after that footage aired on CBS’s ‘social media’ network back in 1968? 😉

  2. It sure looks to me like it was taken with a drone. Yes, I did see the shadow that one might interpret as a selfie stick. But look at how we look down on the tops of the heads of the people on the beach from high above. And we see their shadows cast on the beach from high above, too. To see that angle, the camera would have had to be positioned high above them. It looks to me that it was either taken with a drone or with a 20 foot high selfie stick!

    • I looked at the video again and now I think there is no question that it was shot from a drone.

      I’m going to guess it was about 30 feet in the air at the highest point.

      Freeze the last frame and see how the camera is looking straight down at the top of the heads of the people.

      I’m a professional photographer, but that doesn’t mean I’m never wrong. However, you couldn’t get these shots from a camera that wasn’t shooting from high above the people on the beach.

      • See, I think with the combination of an extra-long selfie stick and the 360 lens’ properties, that it could certainly give the illusion the people are farther off than they really are. I’m also looking at about the 0:06 second mark — the person holding the selfie stick is directly under the lens and appears to looking directly into it. Now, we can’t see the stick itself because the lens is atop the stick. But we see the shadow the gentleman and selfie stick cast.

        That’s a pretty great picture of the lightning strike you have on your homepage!

        • I see your point about that shadow at the 0:06 mark. That could be a shadow from an extra long selfie stick. It is also possible that is not actually the shadow of the person who shot the video. But you’ve definitely shown some evidence that it could have been shot from a selfie stick.

          But there is also still evidence that points to the camera being on a drone! I’m not sure you could get enough height to get that shot even with long selfie sticks, which are usually no more than 10 feet long.
          I’m looking at not only fact that we look straight down on the people, but also on the way we look down on that expanse of sea.

          Also, the fact that the video starts on the ground, which would seem to be purposeless for selfie stick footage, but typical for drone video footage. And look how smooth the rise is from the ground to the highest shot. If it is indeed a selfie stick, then it is surprisingly smooth. And the longer the selfie stick, the shakier that move would look.

          Have we entered territory reminiscent of analyzing the Zapruder footage from the JFK assassination yet?!

  3. I just did what I should have done in the first place. I did a search for images take with long selfie sticks.

    And from what I saw, I now think that you are probably right about it being taken with a long selfie stick!

    Sorry for taking up all this space in your comment section!

    And thanks for your comment on my photo.

  4. Stefano Rota Reply

    Dear Chris,

    This is actually Stefano Rota, the pilot. LOL. Out of a coincidence I have found this article mentioning me, with no intention or knowledge about it what so ever. (Who would out of the blue randomly type their name in google at 1AM Local time, and find this 3 days later of its publication, LOL). Any way. I do applaud the objectivity of the article, with no controversy or necessary attack. I also appreciate your readers who seem very reasonable with their replies.

    Never the less, I do take this space and opportunity to mention that you are totally right about me being “set off” by “Aviatordam’s” tweet. I must add, that even after being an aviation photographer for over 18 years and counting, I have not had the chance to experience with 360 cams, lenses nor with drones (Expensive for my country)…. so this did come as a surprise and quite a shock.

    Just on a side note, as a “founder” of aviation photography and spotting in Ecuador along with my brother, we have promoted and developed a ton of activities that have costed us a ton to get in this field, as well as support from our local authorities. We have been lecturing people as to the dangers of drone use/photography in the vicinity of airports and airplanes in our community and their consequences. There have been incidents in our country because of this, near airports, in crop dusting fields, with ultralights, helicopters, etc, which have caused certain problems for our spotting community (As they relate this to plane spotting), which include bans, limitations and much more due to this.

    On a side note, we are aware of how dangerous drones near planes can be and what they have already caused. It’s just a matter of googling this, and seeing evidence of aircrafts being seriously compromised when hit by one in flight. Specifically speaking of the engines equipped on the Airbus I fly, the inlet danger area (suction area) forward of the engine, is mentioned in the manual, to be approximately 6.5 m/21.4 ft wide in a semi circular shape ahead of the engine with power on. This meaning ahead in all directions (forward, above, and below), so 6.5 m/21.4 ft could mean a drone/selfie pole COULD be in the “inlet suction zone” of an A320 engine depending on the circumstances as to: How high was it thrown, how low the plane was, what part of the approach/landing/takeoff this was done, and much more.

    Any way, as I said… I guess I was “Set off” by that post asserting it was taken by a drone, making me think without confirmed evidence, that it was perhaps a professional racing drone (those that can do 360 flips etc), taking that footage. It scared me and did set a red flag. Plus, SXM is my favorite place in the world (Been there twice and dream to live there), and do not wish things like “drone use” in the approach area to cause SXM to implement new rules that could affect the spotting community, or spotting life of SXM and MAHO BEACH… Hence, my reaction.

    Any way, I am not erasing the comment on twitter as it would show I am perhaps hiding something, but I do accept the confusion and explain the reason how and why this all happened. Thanks again, and good job on the articles. If you do wish to reach personally, let me know via twitter or my instagram @fanorota

    Stefano Rota

  5. That’s definitely a 360-camera on a selfie stick. GoPro makes a 360-camera capable of everything shown in that video.

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