TVRPhotography – If it moves, Shoot It!
Air-to-air Photography with the new Avenger UAV
It started with a phone call one could only dream of receiving. “We need you to shoot a UAV. Can’t tell you what kind or where, but we need it done by the end of the week. Are you in?” Next thing I knew I was on flight to Southern California.
After picking up the rental car it was a quick hop over the San Bernadino Mountain Range to Apple Valley Airport. There I met UAV pilot and aerobatic competitor Tim Just along with legendary air show performer Wayne Handley. Just prior to dinner our roundhouse briefing enabled me to meet other members of the team like Mark Sutherlin, and Scott Berry of General Atomics.
The next morning, Just, Handley and I flew a modified Cessna 210 to a little known airport in the Antelope Valley, the same basin where aviation history had been made at Edwards Air Force Base and Palmdale’s Skunk Works.
With operations beginning in 1942, Grey Butte Airfield was established as a satellite airport for Victorville AAF and was used to train more than 30,000 pilots, eventually becoming a bombardier school. Marine crews based at MCAS Mojave would later use Grey Butte #4, as it was referred to on the Los Angeles sectionals of that time period, for carrier landing practice from 1944-45. By 1950, the airfield was abandoned by the military and briefly utilized as a civilian airfield. At some point between 1950 and 1960, the Los Angeles sectional charts finally acknowledged the airport as abandoned.
At some point in the early 1960’s two pilots, Al Adolph and Harry Bernier along with a mechanic operated a Borate air tanker operation from Grey Butte flying a converted TBM. Bored during the downtime, they devised a means of waterskiing along a nearby man-made reservoir using a station wagon. By 1964 Grey Butte was once again marked as being an active airfield with three runways, the longest being 3,740’.
Around 1968, McDonnel Douglas Aircraft Company chose Grey Butte as an aircraft radar cross-section testing range. Working with the Rosamond Dry Lake outdoor radar test range operated by the USAF, Douglas chose to move its Microwave Lab operations to Grey Butte, which would be under 100% Douglas control.
By 1971, the USAF Tactical Pilotage Chart listed the airfield as “Abandoned” despite continued RCS use. In 1975 it was reportedly used to test the cross-section of a full-scale model of the Lockheed F-117 Stealth Fighter. The RCS range was closed in the 1990’s and turned over to General Atomics in 2001 for unmanned aerial vehicle flight-testing.
It was this little bit of history that gave me a subtle hint as to what was in store. Upon landing at Grey Butte, the folks at General Atomics were already hard at work on various Predator A and B platforms lined up on the taxiway. I kept thinking how cool this was gonna be. Do I get to shoot the slightly larger turbine model or what has become the icon of the UAV world, the original Predator, better known as the MQ-1?
We were escorted over to a remote part of the airfield where under a cloak of secrecy lie the most incredible sight, the new Predator ‘C’, unofficially dubbed the ‘Avenger’. Almost twice as large as the turbine-powered Predator B, technically known as the MQ-9 ‘Reaper’, the new Avenger boasted an internal weapons bay, retractable landing gear and a more stealthy design. Simply put, this thing was cooler than anything Hollywood could dream of, as was attempted in the 2007 blockbuster, “Transformers” where an MQ-9 was given the jet-powered treatment.
With temperatures in the low-50’s, brought lower by the high-desert wind chill, we hovered around the unmanned aircraft as crews worked on a mechanical anomaly. Unfortunately flying was not in the cards. The next day I boarded a plane departing Ontario and returned home.
A couple days later I received word the photo mission was back on. In the early morning hours I met Wayne Handley in King City where we would fly back down to Grey Butte in his yellow Cessna 180. The flying banana we called it, an airframe I had many hours in prior to this trip. Upon landing at Grey Butte, we were immediately approached and questioned by security. Note to the wise, heed the big words written along the various runways at Grey Butte: “No Trespassing – Unsafe For Landing”. Fortunately, we had been cleared, though the memo hadn’t reached everyone quite yet.
Handley and I were escorted to the briefing room where we met with key members of the entire Predator C team, about twenty or so individuals. It was at this point I began feeling the pressure. This was kind of a big deal. We were handed a paper detailing the various points of view to be photographed, all of it relatively straight forward, but the views needed to be precise, yet more pressure. And of course this was a UAV, no pilot to look at and give hand signals to. Pressure gave way to queasiness.
With our checklist completed, I climbed into the back of the 210, sans-baggage door, with Wayne Handley at the helm and Jason McDermott in the copilot’s seat. At the time I was so busy fidgeting with camera gear and safety equipment I hadn’t even noticed we were now airborne. Looking down onto the airfield, I could see the Avenger taxiing into position at the end of RWY37, a truly freaky site knowing the pilot, Tim Just, was located in the confines of a distant trailer.
For an aircraft intended to fly relatively straight, it reached altitude and position in no time. With a flight envelope designed around a 160kt cruising speed and the 210 having a 160kt max speed, formation flying and positioning proved quite interesting. To make positioning and visibility easier, both Handley and I made sure to be on the same side of the aircraft, as opposed to using the ‘Banana’. This is where the baggage door of the 210 came into play.
Positioning was similar to that of a manned aircraft calling for a variable turn to the left or the right keeping in mind usable airspace around the airfield. Following a requested angle of bank, Handley would position the 210 high or low, forward or back based on the pre-briefed angle to be photographed. Little had I known, Handley’s experience in flying with UAV’s was quite vast and between him and Tim Just piloting the Avenger, I found myself amongst rock stars of the UAV world.
Obtaining a precise head-on profile followed by an exacting rear profile proved to be the most challenging. With Tim banking the Avenger to either the left or the right, Handley would lead the UAV and bank sharply in the opposite direction. While hanging out the baggage door, I had only a split second to capture the profile before overshooting to the left or right. It had to be done with minimal attempts, as repositioning at the same airspeed was a very time-consuming option. Shooting the aft portion of the Avenger was even more challenging as Handley needed to put 210 in a high-speed slip forcing the aircraft to shutter violently and placing me in direct line of 100+mph winds.
Despite the rush of adrenaline and intense concentration, there were moments of restful awe as the sound of the 4,800-lb. thrust Pratt & Whitney Canada’s PW545B engine overpowered our own wind and engine noise. Just taking a moment to comprehend there were no eyes staring back at us completely changed how I’d come to learn aviation photography. As much as I live my life staring through a small square in a camera, I was sure to take a moment and enjoy the view of the this new technology flying only feet away with my own two unaided eyes.
Back on the ground in the standing-room only briefing room, a quick download of images enabled an impromptu slideshow followed by applause. The incredible flying skills of Wayne Handley and Tim Just allowed for some wonderful points of view designers, technicians and engineers could look forward to dissecting.
Before day’s end, I was flown to Van Nuys where I would join Clay Lacy and his video crew along with photographer Chad Slattery early the next morning. Knowing what views needed to be accomplished, I was to play the role of art director in the back of Lacy’s Lear. Unlike the 210, we would join up on the Avenger at a much higher altitude enjoying the slightly warmer confines of the small jet.
Seeing the Avenger piloted by Justin McDermott alongside us in the Lear was like déjà vu. Lacy’s crew displayed their amazement with oohs and ahhs while switching back and forth from video to still imagery. The confines of the Lear along with the ‘poetry in motion’ of all aboard drew the same kind of oohs and ahhs from me.
Throughout the rest of the day the desert winds howled through the Valley reaching speeds of nearly 50mph. The Avenger was safely tucked away in hopes of bringing her out for some nighttime static photography. As the evening hours approached, the wind showed no hopes of dying down with the temperature plummeting fast.
Hoping for the best, we returned to Grey Butte Airfield around 7pm and waited. Around 10pm, the winds began to subside enough to safely bring the UAV out of hiding though the prevailing winds would still prove a worthy obstacle for the purposes of photography. Regardless, we began putting everything in place from the tow vehicles to the mechanical lift. Despite the near freezing temperatures, the shoot was wrapped up around 1am.
It took about a dozen General Atomics employees to pull off the night shots and many more to coordinate the aerials. Many thanks to Tim Just and Julie Mangold for bringing me into this project along with Wayne Handley for making it easy. Additional thanks to Scott Berry, Mark Sutherlin, and Jason McDermott along with all the other General Atomics workers for their generous assistance during the intense week-long effort. Thanks also to Clay Lacy and his crew for allowing me aboard the Lear enabling me a behind the scenes look at how much of the aerial footage seen today was created.
More images of the Predator-C can be found here.