TVRPhotography – If it moves, Shoot It!
How’d You Get That Shot? – Silver Stealth
“Ok guys, here’s what I want; let’s get five Night Hawks…no wait, fifteen…aw heck, twenty-five F-117’s in formation on a heading of 162 degrees so they align perfectly with the flag pole at the base’s static museum. Sound doable?”
So, that discussion didn’t actually happen, but the results couldn’t have been planned any better.
On October 27, 2006, Holloman Air Force Base helped celebrate the F-117 Night Hawk’s 25th Anniversary of active duty service. For many it seemed like the F-117 was still a relatively new aircraft, but for those who knew America’s best kept secret, the aircraft had already served combat in other countries.
Having first flown on June 18, 1981, the F-117 was the world’s first real stealth fighter. Designed with faceted surfaces, radar waves would bounce off the surface of the aircraft at angles preventing the waves from returning to the point of origin. In addition, the aircraft could also absorb radar waves by use of a special radar absorbent material (RAM). In all, 64 F-117’s were built including five experimental airframes.
The 25th Anniversary of the F-117, or Silver Stealth, as it came to be known, was a not a highly publicized media event. With such few individuals present, the Public Affairs Office could be a bit more accommodating with unusual requests.
First on the shot list was a pair of Night Hawks set at a 45-degree angle facing toward one another on a vacant ramp. Since the F-117 possessed features that were still top secret, aircraft on public display were always accompanied by armed guards and two rows of stanchions. But on this day, things were different. No ropes, no military police, no snipers, just two of the most guarded aircraft at our disposal – unguarded.
As the sun set over the New Mexico desert we continued making the most of the light. So relaxed and trusting were the escorts, I had the opportunity to refine a relatively new technique for photographing an aircraft at night with very little gear. This required me to crawl around and under the aircraft placing lights in strategic areas necessary to illuminate a black aircraft against a night sky. With an exposure of about two minutes, strobes assisting for back-lighting and the night sky glowing with the faint remnants of the earlier day’s light, those escorting us allowed for continued photography based on the immediate results from my Canon 10D.
The following morning Rich Cooper and Kevin Jackson of Combat Aircraft Magazine finally made it in from the UK. Tommy Fuller from Public Affairs met us at the gate and brought us to Brig. Gen. David Goldfein’s office, the base commander. Following a warm and generous greeting, we were off to check out some sheltered Night Hawks.
The maintainers from the F-117 Demo Team had already been hard at work preparing the aircraft when pilot, Lt. Col. Chris ‘Hans’ Knehans arrived to inspect his plane. Once more we were allowed unfettered access to the stealth bomber as well as the routine each pilot goes through prior to flight. Following his pre-flight, he patiently posed as we snapped a few portraits.
In an adjacent hangar, Captain Christina Szasz, one of the few female pilots to fly the F-117 was also completing her pre-flight. To top off the hangar tour would be one final aircraft hidden away.
For the mass flyover, the plan was to have five aircraft in ‘Vic’ formation with a total of five groups in-trail totaling 25 aircraft. An additional five aircraft would be airborne as mechanical in-air replacements with yet another 5 aircraft ready for launch as redundant backup. The discussion amongst photographers was where to be for the launch and flyover.
With limited support, photographers couldn’t be randomly dispersed across the base so the choices were limited to the tarmac for taxi shots, the point of rotation along the runway or the ceremonial grounds where the base commander and special guests would be conducting speeches. Following a discussion amongst photographers, most chose the congested grouping along the taxiway.
As the aircraft all lined up, it was apparent the tarmac wouldn’t be long enough for all 25 aircraft to be positioned side-by-side, but the sight was still staggering. One by one they taxied forward and headed toward our position in two long rows. Upon reaching the runway, the aircraft were put on hold as they were a few minutes early. This gave us time to convince public affairs to rush to a new position, the ceremonial grounds.
Once on the grounds, the photographers spread out to cover the various speakers, attendees and static aircraft as we all awaited the mass-flyover. Of the speakers, base commander, Brig. Gen Goldfein became the last ‘Bandit’ trained to fly the F-117 and spoke alongside Gen. Lloyd “Fig” Newton, the first F-117 Wing Commander of the 49th Fighter Wing. Meanwhile, I was doing my best to find a suitable foreground for the impending flyover. Though the formation itself will no doubt be impressive, aircraft laid against a solid blue sky tends to be somewhat less impressive than an image with depth.
With a pause in the presentations, everyone began looking around for the black cloud of aircraft soon to approach. With no hope of a decent foreground, I spotted the triple mast flagpole valiantly waving our country’s pride along with the state flag of New Mexico. Right on time from the North, 25 arrow-tipped stealth fighters approached. The last minute choice of a foreground ended up representing a location, emotion and precision as the pilots threaded the proverbial needle in perfect formation.
As quickly as they approached, they disappeared, a massive clump of flying metal. The formation definitely looked better coming from the other direction.
Another last minute decision offered by Mr. Fuller was to catch the remaining F-117’s as they touched down. We jumped into the van and raced across base to the far end of the runway. We caught the last formation of five making the overhead break and the eventual touchdown.
It was a remarkable couple of days, one that could not have been recorded without the assistance of all those aforementioned in this piece. Of note, 2006 was certainly the year of mass formations. A few months earlier, the final deployment of the F-14 came to an end with an incredible formation of 22 Tomcats over NAS Oceana.
To view more images from the Silver Stealth celebration, click here.