Ryan Patterson, B.A, ’22, M.S. ’23, has a secret: He’s afraid of heights.
That’s not unusual for many people—even for Patterson, a former organizational sciences major and champion swimmer at the George Washington University who is now an intern with Delta Airlines.
But it’s his side gig that’s surprising: Patterson is one of the aviation industry’s most celebrated photographers. His top-down shots of airplanes snapped seconds after takeoff have sold for thousands of dollars, attracted 238,000 Instagram followers and appeared in media outlets from USA Today to Good Morning America.
And to capture that unique aerial perspective, the acrophobic Patterson takes his photography to hair-raising heights. He hovers above the planes—hanging out of helicopters at 2,000 feet above the ground.
“Believe it or not, it doesn’t feel that high up,” Patterson laughed. “Airplanes are beautiful. Being close enough to photograph them in flight is an unbelievable thrill.”
Patterson had his fair share of exciting moments at GW—many of them in the swimming pool. In his 5-year career, the star backstroke swimmer led the GW Men’s Swim Team to conference titles including the 2023 Atlantic 10 Championship. He also competed in the 2021 Olympic trials. Meanwhile, his photography contracts for airlines like Delta, American and United took him to destinations from Sydney to New York.
In the classroom, Patterson focused on management skills—he never took a photojournalism course—and tailored his studies toward preparing for a career on the business side of the airline industry.
“Ryan, like many students from our Organizational Sciences Program, is both capitalizing on his own drive, motivation and raw talent—as well as pulling from foundational work within our program,” said Assistant Professor of Organizational Sciences Nils Olsen. “We take pride in the way our organizational sciences students can flex to a variety of professional and intellectual opportunities.”
Photography and planes have been Patterson’s dual passions since he was a child in the Bay Area. He spent Sunday afternoons with his father at Bayfront Park, watching 747s soar over San Francisco Airport. “Probably every aviation industry professional has a similar story,” he said. “It’s a scene that sticks with you for your entire life.”
Patterson picked up his first camera—his grandmother’s one megapixel point-and-shoot—when he was just 6 years old. Almost immediately, he began shooting airport scenes, filling frames with family vacation pictures of planes at boarding gates. Soon, he honed his lens on his own model airplanes—his Instagram name is still @diecastryan—and studied aerial photos on social media.
In 2016, Patterson found a way to combine his two loves. He and his father chartered a helicopter in Los Angeles to fly over LAX. As planes took off below them, Patterson leaned outside the helicopter door and snapped photos at a rarely seen angle—from above. “It’s a unique shot,” he said. “We aren’t used to looking at planes like that.”
Before the helicopter touched down, Patterson was already planning his next flight. Saving his babysitting and swim lessons earnings, he soon chartered another helicopter and took more top-down photos. His work caught the eyes of major airlines, which began contracting him for promotional shoots. At just 18, United Airlines used his photographs to celebrate the retirement of the 747—the same plane he’d grown up watching over Bayfront Park. “That was a special opportunity for me,” he said. “The 747 was my favorite airplane. I have great memories of them and the time I spent with my dad.”
Grounded by COVID
By his sophomore year at GW, Patterson was one of the biggest names in aviation photography. But in 2020, COVID-19 hit, grounding much of the industry. Patterson continued to work with airlines, often donating his photos in place of lost marketing services. “For me this has never been about making money,” he said. “I looked at it as a goodwill gesture. The people in the aviation industry have a special place in my heart.”
Patterson started taking photos from a new angle—images of empty planes lined up in storage across runways. The eerie shots were sometimes hard to look at, he admitted. But he knew he was documenting a chapter in history. He initially refrained from posting them out of respect for his airline colleagues. But today, Patterson said they are among his most popular—and powerful—photos.
“People have an appreciation for them as a record of a once-in-a-lifetime event,” he said. “They think, ‘Where was I not going during the pandemic? What trip did I have to cancel? What did I miss?’”
Airplanes aren’t Patterson’s only subject. His commercial photography has taken him to shoots in locales like Dubai and the Maldives. And he helped Nikon develop a camera with special modes for filming airplanes.
Meanwhile, his own plane pics continue to take off with commercial and private buyers alike. He often corrects misimpressions that they are taken with drones. And he emphasized that each runway session takes weeks of preparation and involves collecting permits and coordinating with air traffic controllers and pilots. “I am never in the way of the actual airline operations,” he noted. “I’m kind of a fly on the wall—or in the air.”
Currently a member of Delta’s customer service improvement team in Atlanta, Patterson has hung up both his swim goggles and his camera—for now. He still hopes to one day check London’s Heathrow Airport off his photoshoot wish list. But he’s focusing his flight plan on the industry’s executive career path. “I absolutely love my job and I would not trade it for any other in the world,” he said. “Photography will always be my passion. It got me in the door. But there are a lot of roles in this industry, and there are a lot of opportunities for me to explore.”