30 Years On: The Story of Just Planes (+Interview)

Photo: Just Planes

LONDON – Just Planes are not just well known, it is one of the biggest names with the company collecting more than 500 million views on their state of the art and unique access to the cockpit has given people a looking glass into aviation that many have never experienced before.

From the logistical challenges to the quality of filming, Just Planes is truly a revolutionary company when it comes to video’s in-flight.

I was lucky enough to have an interview with Michel Moskal who launched JustPlanes back in 1991, we talked about everything from the logistical challenges the company facing making each video, and the milestones that it has reached in the last 30 years.

JustPlanes is the biggest aviation video producer in the globe, with 2020 seeing its video reach over 500 million views the company has celebrated its 30th year with yet more growth, and with such a successful history and with the number of partner airlines the company has, it seems like the future for the company is going to be additional growth.

TH: So I guess the best question to ask is how did just planes come to be? Was this something that was dreamt up or was it something that had been planned for years and then was launched and has just continued to grow for the last 30 years?

MM: Well I had been working in aviation for probably 10 years and also very interested in aviation besides just working in it. And then one day I decided to pick up a cheap camera and start filming at the airport. I asked other people, whether they were interested in participating and nobody really thought that it had any future or was interesting.

So I started it on my own and, and I was based in Boston back at the time. And so I started filming airplanes, taking off and landing at the airport in Boston.

And when I got to two hours of video, I just transposed it to a video and, and started selling it. And I sold a few copies and started my second video and sold some more. And one thing led to another and now it’s been 30 years and it’s still going.

TH: What a journey that must have been. Going off that was there ever a time then during those early years that you felt like, oh, I’m, I’m not entirely sure if this has really got the legs to go for the, you know, to go the distance or did you, or was it something that at the time you were quite happy to keep this as a sideline hobby or did you always want to make it into something that it’s turned into us big us today?

MM: At the beginning, I really wasn’t thinking about the future. What I was thinking was, well, I like to watch our plans and I figured as must be people out there who like to watch airplanes as well. And I had the access, to film them near the runway and get some wild back then decent footage.

So I figured if I put something together that I enjoy other aviation fans and will enjoy it as well. And, you know, it slowly got busier and busier and at the beginning, I was doing it when I wasn’t working. And it reached a point where I really couldn’t do both anymore.

I needed to dedicate my full time to just planes and that’s when I left my job at the airport and started doing it full time at which point we had also started filming in cockpits which were pretty demanding because of the work that needed to be done as far as the preparations, actual filming, the post-production, and everything.

So yeah, at that point I was doing it full time and had some people with me who were filming. Now I did the filming only in the very beginning when it was just me, but once I saw that it was growing, I needed to hire a bunch of photographers and, and later on other people that did other things in the production to get things going.

TH: Yeah, absolutely. So just to continue on that, would you say that when you made the decision then to switch to it as, as a full-time thing, was that the point where you realized, oh, this has got the legs like this is going to go the distance?

MM: No, I really didn’t think too far in advance and I was also at a point financially where I wasn’t a hundred percent sure that I could sustain it without a steady income from my job.

But I said, well, you know, I felt like I had to do it, let’s put it that way. And you know, it slowly grew and grew and it provided me with the income that was necessary, and then I didn’t think that it would fail. I really thought, you know, every month is better than the last month. Why would anything change all of a sudden?

TH: So there was never a moment that that would have come in or anything like that, and you thought, oh, no, I’ve made a really bad mistake here. I probably shouldn’t have committed to this. Or was it more of a, yeah this is going well I am going to just keep committed to this and then just kept growing and you were just like, yeah, I’m going to ride this wave and see where it goes?

MM: Not once actually did I ever think that it wouldn’t be a success and, and continue. You know, I was looking back at the first couple of years and, and the results, and it just kept on going in one direction and never really went down.

And even now I would say with COVID, I mean, it’s been extremely difficult to film around the world mostly because of the travel restrictions.

But we’ve had a fantastic year in 2020 which is kind of tough to say because a lot of people aren’t doing that well, but it’s you know, you think that at some point it might go down, but it doesn’t, it just really has kept on going up and up and up. In fact, last year was our biggest year ever. We went over 500 million views on social media. Who would ever think that you know?

TH: Yeah, it’s truly phenomenal numbers, but you know, in my opinion, at least numbers that are very well justified for the quality of the content that’s produced, for me personally, what makes Just Planes Videos so good is the fact that I feel like I am apart of that crew in the cockpit during that flight, it is not just amazing to watch but also feels very educational and enjoyable. Obviously, there’s pleasure involved in that level of work because of the sheer amount of work this involves you must love it, but what I would like to ask is what is it that drives you and draws you into this?

MM: I would say the overall product and the overall company give me a lot of pleasure. Looking back at what we’ve accomplished. The day-to-day work is I would say no, no fun at all because it’s really dealing with daily problems.

I think that people don’t realize what goes into each filming, but really if I had to pick one word, it would be a nightmare. You know, the problems that arise every time we start a project unbelievable.

And even after 30 years, we come across things that have never happened before, and we have to find a solution every time or the project won’t happen. So the day-to-day work is no fun at all.

As far as I’m concerned, because I’m working in the office, of course, the guys that are on the road and flying and sitting on the beach in Egypt as was the case two weeks ago, or on the beach in Greece one week ago, you know, there’s some enjoyment to them, but when you’re in the cockpit with 10 cameras dealing with equipment that doesn’t always cooperate dealing with pilots who also have to run you know, their flight and be on time and deal with everything they have to deal with yet, be available to us to give us what we need to make a program.

I would say there aren’t many people who would be able to put up with the pressure of doing that. So between those pressures and all the daily problems it’s, it’s tough.

It’s really tough. But you know, I mean, you don’t have a choice, you have to do it and you have to get through it. And you know, it’s I think people really don’t realise and I just said this, but I have to repeat it, people don’t realize what we go through on a daily basis to get each program complete completed.

TH: As JustPlanes become more advanced have the challenges that go into making this video become more difficult? I cannot imagine that as planes become more technically advanced that it is a simple task to create smooth images and record the ATC communications.

MM: Actually a good point. No, it’s become harder because as the airplanes get newer, they come up with new technology and the equipment we have doesn’t work with the technology, for example, the lighting on the new Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 is completely different.

And it interferes with the video equipment. You know, I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the videos that are, that are shown on those planes on YouTube, but you’ll see some sort of like up and down and the lights flashing and the same with the audio.

I mean this is another thing the, like when we use the audio and plug into the to the ATC and all of that, we’re using what the pilots don’t use and what the pilots don’t use, doesn’t get maintained as well.

So we’re always dealing with the issues as far as that goes. And I was in fact, just talking to my producer, who actually is based in London. And I was talking about some audio issues that we had on the last two films and it’s things that most of the time we can do nothing about, we have to just live with it and try to bring it to the best possible level.

Sometimes we’re lucky sometimes we’re not, but sometimes as you just mentioned you get bigger problems with the newer airplanes, which doesn’t really make sense.

TH: I just want to lead onto an earlier question. I asked as well about, you know, the question about what was driving you to but the one thing that I’m sure a lot of people want to know is for me, In particular, is not just so much from a pilot perspective or an aviation perspective, but also from a business perspective, you’d like to see these unique things that happen or milestones in your company that really matter and mean a great deal to you. What would be for you the big milestone that was really memorable? Obviously, besides reaching 500 many views, which is just mindblowing, even just saying it, just sorts of fries my brain, but has there ever been something that you’ve captured in the cockpit, that’s just, it stuck with you forever and you’ve just thought, wow, like, yeah, that’s a real highlight of this entire project for me.

MM: Well, the first thing I would think of is when I started filming the cockpits, my idea was, well, let’s see if we can get 20 airlines to agree, to be featured in a cockpit series.

And at the time when you’re starting and you finally get your first airline, 20 airlines look like, oh my God, you know, am I going to be able to do that?

And right now we’ll be releasing our newest corporate film and it will be Ukraine International Airlines, and they will become the 292nd airline that we filmed.

So I think that is probably the biggest, nice milestone, you know, very close to reaching 300 airlines. I mean, that’s, I really have no words for that, never ever in a million years, would I have thought we could reach 50 or even a hundred airlines? And now we’re about to reach just under 300.

TH: Would you say then that over the years, you found it easier to deal with new airlines from your experiences, because from my understanding, there’s a lot of different regulations that go into film. And it’s the fact that I know in certain parts of China, you’re not allowed to film in certain parts of airports, and in certain parts of Japan you are not allowed to film certain things inside the cockpit. You know, just, just from chatting to pilots, generally that that’s what I’ve been told. I don’t know how true that is. But do you find it’s hard to, deal with airlines, or is it harder for airlines to guide you on the permissions of what you’re allowed to do and what you’re not allowed to do when you’re making these films?

MM: Every aspect of what you mentioned is hard, because yes, there are restrictions in, in many places. For example, in the UK, you’re not allowed to film in a cockpit over UK airspace.

So for example, when we filmed Air Canada into Heathrow, we were allowed in the cockpit until we reached the coast of England.

So our guy was in the cockpit until then filming everything and then we had to set up the GoPros in a way that they would capture the approach and the landing while he would be in the cabin filming what he could from the window there.

And we would have to put it together that way. The same thing on takeoff from London, we wouldn’t be allowed until we had left the coast of England and yeah, same thing in many different places.

There are many restrictions and then airlines have many restrictions of their own, you know, this airline will say, well, you can do this, but you can’t do that. Or you can walk through with the crew to the airplane and they sail on, you can do you have to go as a passenger?

So it’s dealing with a lot almost every time we have a project.

If I can, if I can not the best thing that plays in our favor is experience, you know, having been doing it for 30 years, we sorta kind of know how to deal with most of these problems.

But as I said, you have new problems every time. And then now with COVID, you have additional problems, restrictions you need to follow. You know, COVID tests, for example. We just filmed in Greece for a week and we filmed some domestic flights and some international flights.

And sometimes you get surprised that this country like Greece, for example, you need to have done it by the night before at midnight, or you can’t enter, whereas most other countries, you can do it on the day itself or on arrival.

So if you haven’t gone through all the rules and regulations ahead of time, and there’s a lot of them, then you’re in for a lot of surprises, but again, it’s an experience having doing it for 30 years. You kind of know most of what to expect and how to prepare for all that.

Video: JustPlanes
TH: When it comes to organizing trips and video shoots which regions and airlines generally are the easier to deal with?

MM: I would say in general airlines in Europe are very good for the most part. You know, most countries are really good. I’m originally actually from Belgium. And I will say that it so happens that Belgium is one of the easiest countries to deal with.

I’ve filmed just about every airline in Belgium and every airline has been an absolute pleasure to deal with. And there are some other countries in Europe as well. If you take North America, I would say Canada has been absolutely fantastic.

We have filmed almost every airline in Canada, every airline has been great and every buy-to-let in every airline has been great same in Mexico. We filmed a lot of airlines in South America and others which is a nice place to film. Asia is difficult. Australia is difficult. Africa has been good.

We’ve done a lot with most airlines in Africa. So you know, you could basically divide the world up and say in two-thirds airlines are good. And one-third is no good. As far as filming goes.

TH: Would you say that the restrictions on Filing U.S airlines is something new or has this been something that happened because of 911, and did you think that when those tragic events happened that this would be the end of the road for JustPlanes?

MM: You know, when 9/11 happened, we thought, oh, God, you know, this is over and a little bit like COVID now when COVID happened and everybody started to close their borders, we thought, oh boy, what now? And when we look back at both events, it actually kind of helped us because if you take 9/11, right after it nothing was going on. So that was a bit, of a stay on the ground time.

But afterward, airlines started trusting us rather than letting anybody in their cockpit. They would let somebody like JustPlanes in the cockpit because we had already been around for 10 years and filmed a number of airlines.

So it actually became easier in a way of speaking in the non-U.S airlines and other areas of the world. And yeah, I mean, that’s pretty much it, I think other people who may able to get a ride in a cockpit before 9/11 thought that was finished, the door was closed, but for us somehow the door was still open.

TH: Have you ever seen anything you thought that was just truly breathtaking, whether it be, you know, like views of the Himalayas or views of the Alps and anything thing that, what moment really captured in your mind for you in the last 30 years?

MM: As far as scenery goes, I would say Nepal and the likes of Lukla were amazing.. But if I would think of a moment that I would never forget not that I was in the cockpit, but I’ve seen the video, I would say probably the go-round in the cockpit of a 747 of Atlas Air arriving at Miami Airport the night where he was close behind a Mexicana Airbus.

And at first, he tried to deviate a little bit from the runway to try to lose a little bit of time. And then, in the end, he ended up being too close anyway and had to go around on really short, final.

So it’s, it’s pretty spectacular. And then the comments between ATC and the pilots afterwards were just beyond hilarious. But I would say that that’s probably one of the moments I’ll never forget off the top of my head anyway, but there are many you know, the scenery that we see, for example, last week we filmed the flight from Geneva to Athens and capturing the Mon Blom, being close to the moon, you know, and things like that.

But there are so many nice places around the world. We have been to 1000 airports. I think we reached a thousand airports recently, and sometimes some of the smallest airports in the most remote areas of the world that most people have probably never heard of, the scenery there is so different from any other part of the world.

It’s really cool. And how many people get to go to Mongolia, but we captured some nice domestic airports in and around Mongolia. And you know, I could go to many islands, like in the Maldives, we went there twice. You get some breathtaking approaches landing in the water. And then recently we captured some clips where we had GoPros on the outside and you’ll feel the water on the camera. I think it’s pretty amazing.

TH: I want to sort of finish by just asking you about why you feel JustPlanes does so well compared to the other competitor channels out there. The one that comes to my mind is Pilotseye.TV which I would say is the closest for what you do and how you film, but what is it that makes JustPlanes stand out?

MM: I think we differ from most others, in the way we do the filming. We want to make it look good. In other words, we want to show you some really nice scenery, some nice approaches some nice views and so on, but we also want you to learn something from it. We want the pilots to explain whatever they can, and we want to try to bring in different and new things all the time and, and focus on different aspects of things.

Because, you know, when you’ve made 150 films on the 737 by then I think people know what the 737 cockpit looks like, but if you can, you know, find a pilot who might have some different knowledge and be able to tell some different stories and present some different things, you keep it interesting.

Pilotseye TV does a great job and they’re more into the visuals, I think. And then to the drama dissertation of a flight where we are more into explaining things and getting you to learn something out of it, besides the fact that, you know, we’ll show you the approaches and the scenery and everything else.

So, you know, it’s good to have a bunch of people out there doing things because it keeps you on your toes. It keeps you wanting to continuously improve. As a matter of fact, as a person, I’m never happy with the work as I have always criticized what I produce.

I always say, how can we improve this? I always look for new equipment. We can buy to make the views better and more interesting. We buy equipment every single month. I don’t know of a month that we haven’t bought equipment.

So if this never ends, it will never end. And so all in all, it’s a good thing. You know, if we were the only ones there we might say, oh, you know, we’re just doing what we do and we’re happy with it, but the fact that others are out there and trying their best to do a good job it keeps us on our toes, it motivates us to do better every day.

TH: Michel thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview, it has been a pleasure talking to you today.

In partnership with this interview JustPlanes have given us $240 worth of Gift Vouchers to Giveaway. Be sure to head over to our Twitter and enter before it’s too late!

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