It’s no wonder Glenn Beltz became a mechanical engineer specializing in the mechanics of structures and the strength of materials. He has been captivated by airplanes since he was a kid. Growing up near a municipal airport, he marveled at the gigantic machines that flew despite gravity.
Once he arrived at UC Santa Barbara, where he is now a professor and the associate dean of undergraduate studies, Beltz took to the air himself by becoming a pilot.
The simpler mechanics of a 35mm film camera have also bewitched Beltz from an early age. What started with him taking to his dad’s 35mm Argus C3 developed into a lifelong avocation in photography and a full-fledged collection of 35mm cameras dating back to the 1960s.
Still, while Beltz has photographed many things in his life, there is nothing he has photographed more of, or for longer, than the airplane.
Like flies in amber, film cameras will work after decades of dormancy as if a day hasn’t passed. Beltz still has his dad’s 1950s Argus, and it still works. He has his first very-own camera too. It’s a Canon AT-1, a gift he begged his parents to get him one Christmas.
“Film cameras were made to last forever,” he says. “When they sold one to someone, the expectation was that it would last a lifetime.” This is part of what Beltz appreciates most about them:
They’ll outlive him.
It wasn’t long before Beltz’s love of film found its life partner in his fondness for flying. Beltz calls it “parallel interests.” As a kid, he was getting into cameras and photography at the same time he was getting into aviation.
“I was one of those kids who would jump on a bike with my camera and drive out to the local municipal airport in Latrobe, outside Pittsburgh, and take pictures of any and all airplanes that I saw,” Beltz says. He was shooting tiny single-engine aircraft, private planes and big regional airliners. “If it flew, I was interested in it,” he says.
Fortunately for Beltz, the ’70s were a special time for an intrepid kid with a camera and a zeal for planes. “You wouldn’t see this today at an airport with airline service, but back then, you could just walk out to the ramp. Anyone could, just as a member of the general public,” he recalls. “There was no fence, and if there was, it had a gate you could walk through. And no one would stop you; they didn’t care.”
Many years on, Beltz’s boyhood pastime has developed into a coherent body of work, defined by the geometry of cities, the curves of open spaces and the shape of the soaring aircraft.
Today, shooting in digital as much as film, Beltz is a regular at Santa Barbara (SBA) and Los Angeles International (LAX) airports and he occasionally visits John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. LAX is famously attractive to aviation photographers, he says, because the runways are all parallel to each other, and the wind always blows in the same direction — off the ocean — making the flight paths of aircraft predictable.
At LAX, he’s found a community of fellow aviation photographers and enthusiasts, many of whom connect via nycaviation.com and attend the organization’s annual meetup at LAX. Through his pursuit of pictures, he’s made friends with like-minded photographers, aircraft admirers and pilots, an aspect he says keeps him coming back.
One friend and American Airlines pilot, Keith Bracker ’83, has been particularly helpful by tipping off Beltz when he’ll be arriving at SBA, giving Beltz a head start on getting in the right position at the right time.
Nowadays, Beltz has added rockets to his subject matter, driving up to Vandenburg Space Force Base to catch NASA and SpaceX launches.
As many challenges as he faces with catching airplanes in flight, he faces more with rocket launches, which are often canceled a split second before launch.
“I’ve been there where they count down 5-4-3-2-1-CANCELED,” says Beltz, who has learned to enjoy playing the long game, “but when you get a launch, it’s so worth it.”
Luckily, despite only capturing a launch about every 10th time he travels to Vandenberg, Beltz has no intention to stop trying. There are more photographs to come from him, celebrating the spectacular feats of engineering and imagination that get airplanes, rockets and beyond up in the air.