February 05, 1990 12:00 PM

You’re in your backyard when a helicopter thwack-thwacks into your consciousness, then hovers overhead. (A wayward weatherman? A lost traffic reporter?) The chopper quickly starts maneuvering, apparently searching for a clear shot through your trees. (A clear shot?) Suddenly it turns, revealing an open side door with a man leaning out. He’s holding something in front of him, aiming it downward, aiming it…at you! A gun?! A bomb?! Nope. A camera.

Say hello to Jerry Larsen, founder of Air Photo, Inc. Or better yet, wait a few days until he drops by to sell you the photograph he has just taken. The 11-by 14-inch color print of your family homestead can be yours, he says, for only $69.50—oak frame included. Why would you want an aerial photo of your home, you ask? Perhaps for insurance purposes, says Jerry, 49. Or maybe to help a real estate sale. But mostly for reasons sentimental. “People spend more money on their houses than they do on anything else,” he says. “They put out a lot of work on their property, and they get excited about what they see in the photo, their little gardens or whatever.”

Jerry was a Seattle real estate broker five years ago when he took his first bird’s-eye photograph during a sightseeing plane ride with his wife, Toni. As the couple flew over their own two-story home, Jerry fired off a few quick snapshots with surprisingly good results. A few days later he rented a better camera and a helicopter and went aloft to try some pictures over Washington’s high-rent Whidbey Island. Then, armed with a hand-drawn map, he went in search of the homeowners below. “I thought I’d sell 25 or 30 percent of the pictures,” he says. “I sold 40.”

Encouraged, he called his two sisters, fellow real estate agents Dori Pinkston and Sandi O’Neil, and his brother, Leon, a carpenter. The children of working-class parents, they had banded together before in a storm-window business and again in a short-lived wall-plaque company. Though doubtful when Jerry proposed his latest get-rich scheme, “I said I’d give it a try,” says Dori, 48. “Then after the first day, I figured I’d be doubling my income. I quit my other job.”

Now Air Photo employs 65 salespeople, three photographers, and operates in a dozen states, plus Canada. The Seattle partners (who make about $70,000 apiece annually) have moved their headquarters out of sister Sandi’s living room and into an office building in suburban Mountlake Terrace. Jerry presides over the partnership, Dori runs the sales department, Sandi is office manager, while Leon heads the Canada operation.

Focusing on larger, upscale homes and waterfront property, Jerry and his cohort have taken more than a quarter-million photographs in the past five years, and they have sold about 62,500 of them. Company business keeps Jerry on the road one week each month, and by 1993, he estimates, Air Photo should be buzzing rooftops in all 50 states.

Although their house-to-house picture-taking keeps customer prices relatively low (doing a single photo on request might cost $400 just for helicopter rental, Jerry notes), the reaction of would-be clients is sometimes tough to gauge. Country singer Merle Haggard was so pleased with the shot of his California ranch that he sent the siblings an autographed picture of himself to show his thanks. Others sometimes decline a photo if it shows that their lawn is brown, and people who live near golf courses are a notoriously tough sell. (“They’re usually executives,” says sales chief Dori. “They move around a lot and don’t get attached to their homes.”) And then there are those who are too attached—like the San Diego resident who aimed a rifle at the Air Photo chopper as it hovered 500 feet above him. “Obviously, our crew left there fast,” says Jerry.

Air Photo has never been sued for invasion of privacy, but it is a sensitive issue. During the processing of one photograph, Jerry remembers discovering two sun-bathers on the back deck of a home. “We looked at it a little closer and asked ourselves, ‘Do these people have clothes on?’ ” he recalls. Uh, no, apparently they didn’t. “We tore that one up without bringing it to the house.”

—Dan Chu, Joni H. Blackman in Seattle

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