Ruby
 

Tom Dalton: Pilot and photographer

By: Dave Gunner

October 30, 2019

Tom Dalton is a first officer on our Airbus fleet. He’s also an extraordinary photographer. Combine the two passions and you get the astonishing images we see below. But which came first, the pilot or the photos?

Tom always knew he wanted to fly planes, but like many before him his first application was unsuccessful. That’s just how it goes. Disappointed, he took a year off to become a snowboard instructor in New Zealand (as you do) which is where the photography bug first took hold.

After returning from New Zealand he successfully applied for our cadet scheme and now takes his camera to work, capturing some incredible views from the flight deck window (though he’s keen to point out he only ever takes the photos in cruise or when operating as third pilot and never when he’s actually flying).

According to Tom, one of the great things about being a pilot is that away from the aircraft, for the most part, time is very much his own. “The nature of the job can be very procedural,” he says. “It has to be like that in order to maintain our very high safety standards. I therefore really enjoy being able to add some creativity back into my free time, perhaps editing some of the photos I’ve managed to take while exploring one of our destinations on the previous trip.”

“During the cruise, where our workload is much lower, there’s a great opportunity to admire the panoramic views from the flight deck and I enjoy being able to capture some of these. By sharing my images I hope to inspire others to think seriously about a career path to the flight deck, as well as giving people a rare view of some of the world’s natural wonders from seven miles high. It really is a job like no other.”

Seasons. ©Tom Dalton

Flying the A330 often takes me to the east coast of the USA and I’ve become accustomed to recognising various landmarks on our routing. I find it really impressive to see how quickly the change in season can affect things. One great example is captured in this image approaching the coast of Newfoundland towards the end of last winter. As the temperatures start to warm, these huge plates of ice (bigger than some entire towns and cities) break up and create this fractal looking seascape. If you look closely you can see a large proportion of the ice already starting to sink below the surface, with the rest soon to follow. Come spring, this would have all disappeared with just a few snowy white caps of land sticking around until the summer months.

Saharan Wadi  ©Tom Dalton

This dramatic landscape is the northern Sahara at night during a full moon. These dry riverbeds (also known as wadi) are caused by a lack of continual water supply, creating these braided stream patterns, some of which stretch hundreds of miles. The colours of the Sahara can be unique and when combined with these interesting geological features make for some spectacular views. I would always recommend a window seat on our African routes for this very reason.

An unusual glow ©Tom Dalton

For the routes we tend to operate on the A330, it’s rare to get a view like this. One particular night flight, as we routinely dimmed the flight deck lights to get a better view of any possible weather on the horizon, we found ourselves with front row seats to one of the best natural light shows in the world: the Aurora Borealis or, as it’s more commonly known, the Northern Lights. This rather strange phenomenon is caused by electrically charged particles (from the sun) colliding with one another as they enter our atmosphere around the magnetic poles. It’s the one and only time I’ve seen the Northern Lights, and it was an impressive show.

Cities ©Tom Dalton

Away from the earth’s natural landscapes, there’s nothing like getting to see a huge city from the air and for me nowhere beats an aerial view of London. For some of our longer flights such as Miami we operate with a third pilot which allows the two operating pilots to take a break from the flight deck and catch some rest to maximise our alertness levels. On this particular flight, since I was the third pilot and away from the controls, I was able to enjoy these stunning panoramic views of central London before we turned onto our final approach for landing at Heathrow.

Crossing Traffic ©Tom Dalton

Depending on our route, we may find ourselves many hundreds of miles away from land, particularly on our transatlantic flights. That means crossing the Atlantic Ocean can put us out of range of typical air traffic control radar and surveillance systems, leading to some rather different procedures in this type of airspace. This has led to an organised track system where aircraft tend to fly on one of several ‘tracks’ (essentially like a road in the sky), the position of which varies on a daily basis depending on a number of factors.

On these tracks, aircraft may be vertically separated by just 1,000ft, meaning it’s not uncommon to pass traffic directly above or below us. Flying in this type of airspace requires extremely accurate aircraft equipment and special systems to ensure minimum vertical and lateral separation is kept at all times. In the image pictured here, we had been following this aircraft for our entire Atlantic crossing, slowly catching up as we flew 1,000ft above. As we left the track system at sunrise, the other aircraft took a turn to the right to head south and we went our separate ways. This high level cloud formed of ice crystals created a colourful band of light sandwiched between the much lower cloud layer below. It’s one of my favourite air-to-air images to date.

Stars ©Tom Dalton

Night flying puts a totally different perspective on things, flying between the earth below and the billions of stars above. From meteor showers to active storm clouds, there’s often something unique to be seen. On this particularly clear night sky overhead the Sahara Desert flying south to Lagos, my eyes adjusted to the view ahead and I could see the recognisable band of the Milky Way spreading right across the entire night sky. Once home I loaded up the photo and couldn’t believe the detail it captured.

Weather ©Tom Dalton

A large part of our job involves dealing with weather, be it on the ground or in the air. Some of the largest storm clouds (also known as cumulonimbus or CB’s) may stretch way up into the atmosphere which can pose a potential threat to any aircraft. For that reason, our flight planning team does an excellent job of using the latest forecast tools to route our flights safely around any weather systems wherever possible.

That said, there is always some unpredictability when it comes to weather systems and it’s not uncommon during the summer months to find ourselves having to amend our routing mid-flight to avoid any large clouds. Pictured here is an enormous weather system just 220km west of the UK, heading for Cornwall following a heat wave earlier this summer. The two images depict the exact same weather system as we see it both out of the window and on our weather radar system. This huge band of storm clouds stretched some 370km wide and reached over 10km into the earth’s atmosphere (a little below our altitude). We decided to take a significant detour as well as increase our altitude in order to keep the aircraft safely clear of these huge clouds.


Tom uses a Sony A7RII for photography, Sony FS5II for video and edits photos using Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Photoshop for more technical edits.

To see more of Tom’s amazing photography you join his other 20,000 Instagram followers at @tom.dalt. He also has prints and a wider portfolio available on his website

Avatar

Dave Gunner

Dave is the co-editor of Ruby, the Virgin Atlantic Blog. He has worked at Virgin Atlantic for over two decades. In that time he has amassed some truly epic memories but never lost his fascination with the airline world. Dave's on a mission to bring you some great insights into our people, planes and planet.

Categories: Our People