Up in the Air Over Washington

By Jack Limpert

Back before 9/11 closed the skies above the Nation’s Capital, I had the chance to look down on it and shoot pictures from a helicopter and also to cruise in the Goodyear blimp over the city.

At The Washingtonian, one of our most popular photo features was “Map of the Stars,” an idea we stole from Hollywood. Every couple of years we’d pick 15 or so interesting local names and then, without their knowledge, take pictures of their homes. We’d publish the pictures, write about who owned the home, and then tell readers how much each house was worth and what it was assessed for. It was close to real estate porn but we thought there was some public service in showing who was getting property tax breaks. To avoid legal trouble, the photographer had to take the pictures from the street, staying on public property. We told readers what neighborhood the house was in but not the street address.

Not many of the big names were happy to see their homes in the magazine. At one lunch at the legendary Duke Zeibert’s restaurant, columnist Art Buchwald walked over to my table and said, “You son of a bitch, my house got burglarized.”

With some houses, we couldn’t get a good picture from the street—too much greenery, the house set too far back. So one year we rented a helicopter and shot from the air—expensive but worth it. What was striking about cruising over the city in a helicopter was the master of the universe feeling—you could swoop down over a house, take a picture, and then swoop away.

Aside from the DC pictures,  we also did some shooting in the nearby Hunt Country of Virginia and one name on our list was the novelist Herman Wouk. As we went down toward his house, he came out on his deck and shook his fist at us for maybe 20 seconds. Given his age and literary reputation, we began to feel more like peeping toms than masters of the universe. When the issue with his house appeared, he didn’t complain, though plenty of others over the years did.

A few year later the Goodyear blimp came to town to cover a Washington Redskins game and Goodyear invited several editors to take a ride. The helicopter trip had been so interesting that several of us took them up on it.

From the ground, a blimp looks like it’s sitting peacefully in the sky. We thought the ride would give us another interesting view of Washington and another master of the universe feeling. Surprise—a blimp doesn’t peacefully float along. It has a propeller that moves it through the air and the feeling you get is like being on a boat going through heavy seas, up and down, up and down. After a half hour of this, the other editor, John Sansing, and I looked at each other, both thinking, I hope I don’t get sick, I hope this  ride ends soon.

So like a lot of things in life, we learned that what may look peaceful from afar may not be if you get too close.

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