Photo: Garrett Fisher

Garrett Fisher’s day job is executive director of the Institute for Economic Innovation, a think tank he founded, but he spends nearly as many hours on his passion project: flying his blue and yellow Piper PA-11 Cub Special plane over mountains, glaciers, and grasslands, cracking open the pilot-side window, reaching his arm out with Canon EOS Rebel SL1 in hand, and snapping some of the most beautiful aerial landscape shots we’ve seen. The plane is nearly 70 years old, has no heating system, and flies slowly, all of which make for an uncomfortable ride in varied terrain and bad weather. “I usually go alone,” Fisher says. “People always end up puking.”

Fisher, who’s been flying since he was 16, scouts locations by exploring random points of interest on Google Earth or a U.S. Geological Survey map. Then he’ll spend up to 13 hours a day in the air (with fuel stops every three hours), focusing on capturing photos that serve as art and resource. His photos can serve as message (he’s shot receding glaciers at Glacier National Park, among others) or reference (he’ll overlay a composite image of every single 14er in Colorado with a map, for example, which is useful as a “mountaintop-perspective” guide for hikers). “I’m looking for an interesting integration of ground to horizon to sky,” he says. In February, he moved from Alpine, Wyoming, to Germany (“maybe for good”) and will put his energy into capturing Europe from the air. We asked for the stories behind some of his favorite—or most hard-won—images so far.

Photo: Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone
“For hot spring imagery, the angle of photography completely changes. Instead of trying to tie sky, texture, and land into a subject, I am trying to peer into the heart of the hot spring, cutting through steam and reflections on the water, isolating everything else out of the image. It is a dance requiring a zoom lens and about six passes over the area to achieve a suitable focus and angle.”

Photo: Garrett Fisher

Absaroka Range, Teton Wilderness, Wyoming

“I call it ‘Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride:’ Where winds come over a mountain range and descend on the east side into sizable plains or desert areas, the turbulence increases massively. The Bighorn Basin is in the upper right of the image, a veritable vacuum sucking the winds over these peaks and giving me one crazy ride. Here’s what I have to do when I hit a rotating column of horizontal air like this: one minute, I’m ascending with no choice, idle the plane in response, and go up like an elevator. Things quiet down, I add power, and then bam! I hit the descending air and at full power, I am descending. Rinse and repeat until I can find a way out of it.”
Photo: Garrett Fisher

Northern Foothills of San Juan Mountains, Colorado

“This was the only time that I have been unable to outclimb downdrafts [air currents] and had to abort for safety reasons. In the hurried escape to safer areas, I encountered the most severe turbulence of my flying career at 11,000 feet in these foothills. Take your worst turbulence experience in an airliner and make it three to five times worse. As sudden harsh bodies of air slammed against the airplane, I wondered if I’d stay in one piece. I later learned that some of the worst turbulence can be found 10 to 30 miles from the terrain that causes it.”
Photo: Garrett Fisher

Central Nebraska

“Concluding the third day of a flight across the country in 2014, I encountered one of many lines of thunderstorms that cropped up over the central plains of Nebraska. I was attempting to land just ahead of the storm at Kearney, Nebraska, for the night, and realized that the storm was beating me to the airfield. I turned around, landed in Lexington, Nebraska, instead, and hurriedly tied the airplane down before the storm arrived.”
Photo: Garrett Fisher

Great Salt Lake

“Google Earth is one of my most valuable tools—I spend hours switching between satellite imagery and terrain mapping, looking for unusual features. These particular salt flats west of Ogden caught my eye. They’re a relatively small feature compared to the Salt Lake itself, which spans about 74 miles in length.”
Photo: Garrett Fisher

Star Valley, Wyoming

“I consider my home to be sailing above an overcast layer, detached entirely from the ground, floating above a sea of clouds. One of the problems with that idea is severe carburetor icing upon descending back to earth. If the right combination of moisture and temperature line up in the plane’s air intake system, it ices over and the engine quits. This is the closest I came to that happening—as I passed through the moisture layer in a hole in the clouds, the engine coughed and sputtered, but I was able to save the situation.”
Photo: Garrett Fisher

Pyramid Peak, Colorado (14,018')

“Winds three miles from here were just fine. But crossing over Maroon Peak (14,156’), a sudden downdraft appeared. The safest option was to fly directly toward the peak and skim the ridge to the right to get back to safer territory. My guess was that the winds on the left area of this image were blowing straight down, while on the righthand ridge they would be turbulent, mixed up, and blowing upward at the lip of the ridge. The scary reality was that I could only confirm by flying right into it.”
Photo: Garrett Fisher

Farm Field with Irrigation Canals, Eastern Arkansas

“Agriculture is nothing short of amazing when viewed from above, as farmers follow the curve and texture of land and water flow to maximize growth, painting a picture only viewable from the sky. I have cataloged fields all over the US for over five years, with a never-ending diversity of color and texture.”
Photo: Garrett Fisher

Grand Teton (13,770')

“After a stupendous flight around the Tetons shrouded in clouds, I saw a massive thunderstorm had developed in Idaho, and my airplane was on a collision course with it, due to intersect by the time I got to my intended destination of Alpine, Wyoming. The storm was moving slightly faster than me. Using my fuel reserve, I diverted back to Jackson, Wyoming, landed, tied the airplane down, and waited two hours for the storm to blow over.”
Photo: Garrett Fisher

Sand Hills, Nebraska

“These sand hills feature in the Keystone Pipeline discussion since they’re an area of ecological fragility in central Nebraska, one of the states the pipeline would run through. While crossing the country in 2014, I came upon this area and found it to be incredibly sparsely populated, which is a risk in the event of engine troubles. In some places, homes are ten miles apart from each other. Luckily, nothing happened on this trip.”
Photo: Garrett Fisher

Grand Teton (13,770 feet) and Middle Teton (12,805 feet), Wyoming

“I flew for 35 minutes above the clouds at 13,000 feet, with no heat, to reach Grand Teton peeking above the clouds. Winds were strong from the northwest, so I angled my plane to face northwest and opened the pilot-side door in minus-20-degree weather to capture these photographs. This is as close to heaven as it gets.”
Photo: Garrett Fisher

Yellowstone National Park

“As winds funnel along the Snake River Plain of Idaho into Yellowstone and down the other side into Montana, they can do unpredictable things. I had to land in sagebrush due to sudden severe crosswinds when I made a fuel stop in Big Timber, Montana. Ninety minutes later, while flying over Yellowstone, I had to abort to West Yellowstone because winds in the area had unexpectedly doubled to a strength that would have exhausted my fuel stores before I arrived at my intended destination, Jackson, Wyoming.”
Photo: Garrett Fisher

Wind River Range, Wyoming

“Home to some of the largest glaciers in the U.S. Rockies, this is the most severe terrain that I have located in the Continental 48. After the dry winter of 2014 to 2015, glacial retreat was especially evident as centuries of snowfall layers were made visible due to snowmelt. I continuously find myself attracted to glaciers when flying. I’m in a race against time to capture them before they shrink or disappear.”
Photo: Garrett Fisher

Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado

“Sometimes I am extremely surprised by what I find. As part of a project to photograph the ‘other half of the Colorado River,’ or Green River, I was flying south to north along this section of Green River and stumbled across this incredible scenery.”
Photo: Garrett Fisher

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

“Sandwiched between encounters with thunderstorms as I flew around western South Dakota, I had some time to kill waiting for a storm to move and decided to wander over the Badlands. Texture was a bit challenging to capture, as the even colors of the formations counter the effect of increasing the field of view. The Badlands are also significantly larger than what can be seen on the popular access road. It’s hard to contain the South Dakota sky into an image.”

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