TVRPhotography – If it moves, Shoot It!
Category Archives: Aviation
It was our first shoot of the week for the Mid America Flight Museum. Departing Mt. Pleasant Airport almost one year to the day, the sun could not rise soon enough to cut through the chill of the Texas air.
Matt Bongers was at the control of the O-1 Bird Dog we were using as a photo ship when Scott Glover and Kelly Mahon joined up on our wing in the 1929 Curtiss-Wright Robin and a 1928 Curtiss-Wright Travel Air 4000 respectively. We did a few solo shoots first before having them join up together. The biggest challenge being the incredible amount of snot one can produce in the freezing air. Pretty sure no one will ever buy my camera now.
But I digress; Scott, Kelly and Matt quickly acclimated to the formation positioning, changes and lingo putting me at ease knowing the rest of the week will go smoothly. Once the sun began to peek over the light fog, steam also began to rise over Lake Bob Sandlin. Through the camera, it looked great, but my focus was on the two aircraft and how to get them to line up.
You see, my Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD) seems to be getting worse as I age. Two different aircraft types typically result in two different angles of attack (AOA). An angle of attack refers to the perceived pitch of the aircraft. Some aircraft types have a perceived higher or lower AOA due to the placement of the wing, fuselage design, center of balance, etc. When formating two completely different aircraft, it’s not uncommon for the AOA to be different between the two. And that’s where my OCD comes in.
When it came to editing the resulting images, the solo shots were great! Everyone did a spectacular job. But when it came to selecting two-ship images to edit, nothing was calling to me. My OCD was kicking in big time due to the difference in AOA and what appeared to be an awkward formation.
Kelly Mahon wasn’t having any of that. He wanted to see formation shots so I compromised. I found an image that seemed surreal and majestic even though to me it was imperfect. The wings didn’t line up, it looks as though the aircraft are headed in slightly different directions, it just didn’t speak to me. Regardless, my issues shouldn’t get in the way of pilots and aircraft owners taking joy in their accomplishments. And let’s face it, flying these 80+ year-old aircraft in formation on a freezing morning is no easy task. They deserve every ounce of recognition for what they do!
So, I put my OCD aside and tried to approach it from another perspective. As someone who loves history and even going so far as to recreate historic moments, that was what I saw. The more I finessed the image, the more respect I had for our early aviators. This became a brief glimpse into the early days of aviation when pilots arose before dawn and began their cross-country journeys low over the countryside. They didn’t always fly in perfect formation, as a matter of fact, they hardly ever flew perfect formation. It was about getting from point A to point B and enjoying the smaller points in between.
To me, this image became more about drawing an end to the birth of aviation and ushering in the 1930’s with air racing, endurance and speed, improving commercial travel and making this world a little smaller. I didn’t feel it at first, but this has become my tribute to the pioneers of aviation; a good compromise!
Thank you to Scott Glover, Kelly Mahon and Matt Bongers from the Mid America Flight Museum for allowing me to document their collection. And thank you to Aviation Week Space Technology for awarding me 2016 Best of Show for this image.
About thirty feet away, a freshly restored P-51 Mustang was coming to life after a four-year restoration by Airmotive Specialties in Salinas, CA. The Mustang, a former air racer once owned by Lefty Gardner, was having her legs stretched by Eliot Cross as an historic resemblance to WWII Ace, Charles E. ‘Chuck’ Weaver’s aircraft. Knowing both Lefty’s and Weaver’s history, standing alongside this aircraft was simply magical.
It was about that time my phone rang; how I heard it over the roar of the Mustang’s Rolls Royce engine, I’ll never know. On the other end was good friend, Scott Glover of the Mid America Flight Museum in Mt. Pleasant, TX.
“Wanna Photograph Air Force One?” He asked.
Only a few weeks earlier I had heard about the purchase and intent to restore the first Air Force One, a Lockheed Constellation named Columbine II that had become President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s personal transport. Needless to say, I was beyond excited to have been asked to document such an historic moment.
The aircraft was purchased as part of a lot of five Lockheed Constellations which were to eventually be heavily modified for low-level, high-acrage crop spraying. Three of the acquired Constellations were converted, one was used for parts and the fifth aircraft was denied certification by the FAA due to incorrect landing gear. Apparently the military chose to replace Columbine II’s stock landing gear with that of the more robust L-1049 variant and the FAA didn’t like that. Due to the cost of replacing the landing gear, the aircraft sat in the Arizona desert.
Fast-forward to March 18, 2016, nearly a year after that initial phone call, when the diligent work of Dynamic Aviation, with the assistance of the Mid America Flight Museum, came to fruition and Columbine II took to the skies once more.
For the rest of us, that was our cue to head to Marana, AZ, and begin the next phase. She was to embark on a cross-country trip to Bridgewater, VA, where she would undergo a thorough restoration and become a flying museum piece.
When I arrived in Marana, I was able to see first-hand the amount of work the two teams had put into getting the nearly 70-year old aircraft flying. Structurally, the aircraft is like new, but the years still took its toll on the aging aircraft and like most things her age, everything needed to proceed slowly and with extra caution.
The crew moved all of the aircraft closer to the runway the night before departure. On the apron sat Karl Stoltzfus’ King Air chase aircraft as well as his new pride and joy, Columbine II, in addition to Mid America Flight Museum’s immaculate B-25 ‘God and Country’, which would become the platform from which the flight would be documented.
The key word used throughout our briefing process and conversation was, ‘document’. Sure, I had high hopes of in-your-face dramatic formation positioning, precise lighting, stunning prop blur and every other image a photographer strives for when going on a photo mission. But, this was not that…it was not a photoshoot.
Typically, when flying with another aircraft being photographed, I’ll position them by asking for minute movements in relation to the photo platform; 5 feet forward…10 feet down…10 feet back, etc. The challenge lies with the subject aircraft’s pilot making fine adjustments to the throttle and yoke in order to accomplish those positions. Doing these types of maneuvers in a partially restored aircraft which still needs the input of a flight engineer in addition to the pilot and co-pilot, would put unnecessary strain on the already aging mechanics of this special aircraft.
Sitting in the back of the B-25, the Connie approached slowly and cautiously over the course of nearly an hour. As pilot, Lockie Christler; co-pilot, Scott McDonald and Flight Engineers, Tom Woodward and Tim Coons inched the aircraft closer to the B-25, I was able to provide some basic suggestions like, more to left, more to the right, stack high, stack low and scissor. Precise positioning was out of the question as was a change in our heading. Basically, what you see is what you get, and I was perfectly happy with that!
One of the biggest technical challenges was the focal length of the lens vs. the shutter speed required to get motion in the propellors. Most of the air-to-air work was shot with a Nikon D810 and 70-200 f/2.8, mainly used at the long end. Rule of thumb, (prop-blur aside) is that the shutter speed should be equivalent to the focal length being used, so at 200mm my shutter speed should have been no slower than 1/200 sec. to insure sharp images.
That simply wasn’t going to happen. The RPM of Columbine II’s radial engines were significantly slower than that of a P-51 or aerobatic Extra 300. In order to get full rotation of the three-bladed assembly, a shutter speed of 1/40 was needed. In the freezing cold tail of windy B-25, the Kenyon Labs gyro saved the day. Had it not been for the improved stabilization of the gyro, many of the images would have been unusable.
Over the course of the 4.5hr flight to Mt. Pleasant, TX, I was able to get in some Yoga courtesy of crawling over the bomb bay and under the flight deck to get to the nose. Although it had probably been some ten years since I’ve had to do that, it was a stunning reminder of what these 20-something year olds were faced with on a daily basis flying B-25’s into combat zones during WWII. The big difference, we didn’t have anyone shooting at us and the temperature at 9500ft was far more bearable than their high-altitude missions.
With Scott Glover at the controls of the B-25 and Matt Bongers sitting right seat, they managed to position the twin-engine bomber to reveal the Constellation’s beautiful lines from the rear-quarter view. Add the sprawling American countryside to the equation and you have your photoshoot-esque images of an American icon coming back to life.
The complete restoration is estimated to take 3-4 years and will take place in Bridgeport, VA. Once finished, Columbine II will be the only civilian-owned Air Force One and will travel across the country educating people on the history of presidential aircraft as well as how Columbine II changed the course of history regarding all aircraft that would eventually transport the President of the United States.
Special thanks to Karl Stoltzfus and his incredible crew at Dynamic Aviation for making the impossible possible along with his aircrew, Lockie Christler, Scott McDonald, Tom Woodward and Tim Coons. Without the incredible friendship and enthusiasm of Scott Glover and his crew at Mid America Flight Museum; Matt Bongers, Gregg Williams, Erik Johnston, Frank Glover, Jr., Linda Cortelyou and many others, I wouldn’t have anything to write about. Thank you for this incredible opportunity!
I don’t often share my Apple Store experiences with anyone outside Apple even though I regularly have some pretty amazing interactions with customers. Quite frankly, with Apple’s intense secrecy I’m not sure I’m allowed to, but it would be a shame not tell this story.
Although this may seem like another Apple Feel-good saga, and in a way it is, if you’re reading this blog for photography related material, you’re still in the right place. Hang in there, it will all come together.
Wandering through a sea of aluminum computers and solid wood tables, an elderly couple attempted to interact with these relatively alien devices. The husband appeared a little more lost than his wife, but that was only because she was the one who had an interest in a new computer. He couldn’t care less.
She and I talked for a bit while her frail husband continued to meander around the store. Another staff member brought out the desktop computer she wanted along with all of her fun accessories. We unpacked the computer together and with the help of another Apple associate, began the process of setting up the basics and making the computer her own.
Her husband sat down at the same table but at a distance and alone, still appearing lost as he curiously watched other people in the store. I moved a bit closer to him and began a completely unrelated conversation so as to occupy a bit of his time and not make him feel ignored. We got onto the topic of how computer savvy younger kids are today and how quickly they pick up on technology. He asked if working at Apple was all I did. I told him my primary job was that of a photographer and I mainly photograph airplanes. He laughed a little.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “A plane is a plane, a car is a car and a cow is a cow. How can you make a living taking photos of these ordinary things?” To relay my best customer service, I agreed and told him that’s a very good question. “If the photos I create look just like the objects I photograph, I would no doubt have a very difficult time making a living,” I told him. “The challenge is to make every aircraft look unique but familiar and bring out the strongest feature of that plane.”
I could tell he was a very objective man and doubtful that a simple photograph could make an ordinary object look extraordinary.
On the table was a 15” MacBook Pro laptop. I navigated the web browser to my gallery of Reminisce black and white photographs and proceeded to show him some of my photography. What happened next was nothing short heartwarming.
The fragile older gentleman’s eyes began to water as he watched image after image flash before him. I asked if he was ok. He glanced over at his wife, then back to the screen followed by a simple nod. After a few more seconds and without provocation, he started to tell me a very powerful story. “I was at Normandy and remember seeing these planes. They didn’t look like this,” he said. “I have few words to describe what I saw and what I experienced. Come to think of it, it’s been nearly 30 years since I’ve even talked about Normandy.” Another lengthy pause followed as he watched the slideshow intently. “These are beautiful,” he said. “You’re right, a photograph of an airplane can look a lot different than just an airplane.”
I was speechless. Not only did I suddenly have a better understanding of his objectivity, to him at the time these aircraft were simply tools of war, but I had so many questions and was poised to listen intently to his stories if only he were willing to share them. At that moment however, I could sense the sight of these aircraft seemed a bit overwhelming. The fact that he was willing to open up to me and share a piece of his past that he hadn’t shared with anyone in three decades almost brought a tear to my eye.
He continued to surprise me as he named off the individual aircraft. “I jumped from quite a few of those C-47’s,” he recalled. “I also remember seeing those white stripes on the wings for the first time [referring to the D-Day invasion stripes applied to all allied aircraft]. They painted hundreds of them that way.” He went on to describe the actions of P-38’s and P-51’s in the European Theater. For someone who managed to distance himself for so long from such intense experiences, his memory was flawless.
Soon his wife was all set and her computer was back in the box. He and I both thanked each other for the shared stories and shook hands. I watched as they walked hand in hand toward of the front of the store and then out of sight. What really caught my attention was how his once frail shuffling steps turned into a more confident stride. Moments like these remind me of why I do what I do, both at Apple and as a photographer.
To some, winning a contest defines a good photo. To others, selling a print defines a good photo. To me, nothing could define a good photograph more than a single tear.
Be different, think different, make your mark.
Let me first start by saying, I have never witnessed harder working aircrews than those who toil over air racers. Months before the Reno Air Races, air racing crews are diligently working on their aircraft tweaking and modifying every square inch for that one extra mile per hour. And as race day nears, they become sleepless masters of aeronautics and duct tape. It was this very essence of commitment I was tasked with capturing for Air & Space Smithsonian Magazine.
Arriving at Stead Field in mid-July is fairly anticlimactic if you’ve ever been to Reno during the height of the air races. The hot ramp is void of horsepower, the spectators are nowhere to be found and the track is deafeningly silent. However, hidden in a nearby hangar a ferocious racer is being prepped for race day only three short months away.
It had been twenty years since I first saw this aircraft rounding the pylons at Stead Field. My first time attending the races in 1991, Lyle Shelton pushed the radial engine hard beating out the inlines, Skip Holm in Tsunami and Bill DeStefani in Strega, for the win. I was in love. Forever more this would be the aircraft for which I would push to win.
When I came upon the ‘Bear Cave’, chief mechanics, Keith Gary and Rob Grovesnor were deep in concentration running through a rather long checklist. Team Lead, Alby Redick, was tending to other tasks in preparation for Crew Chief, Dave Cornell’s short visit. For a brief moment, they all stopped for a quick greeting and introduction, then it was right back to work.
I was grateful for the brief moment of attention, but even more grateful for their ability to focus on their duties despite my presence. There is nothing more annoying than posed photos. These guys had no doubt been in this situation before; a photographer sticking a camera in their face while they do their best to troubleshoot a problem that if not addressed, could jeopardize the life of a pilot, at the very least. However, as a photographer, knowing the circumstances and the main purpose of why they are doing what they are doing, remains a fundamental responsibility that every photographer must embrace.
With that mutual understanding, the team quickly came to trust me…at least I think they did.
When Cornell arrived, the tools were put down and the list came out. I have no experience as an aerodynamicist, none whatsoever in aviation circuitry, nada when it comes to high-pressure and low-pressure airflow, zip with composites, fuel flow, ventilation, compression, not even paint. Everything these guys talked about was complete Greek to me, with the exception of the word airframe. I know what an airframe is and I know I heard that word a couple times, so I must still be in the right place.
I followed the guys around during their checklist tour and relevant minor tweaks. I never butted in, only captured what light was available to me as they made their rounds and did my best to capture expressions and juxtapositions as they occurred. As quickly as Cornell arrived, he was gone. And back to work went the team.
It was already known this was to be a cover story and we needed to get a cover shot. A short time earlier I had completed a shoot with the General Atomics Predator C ‘Avenger’ in Southern California. I figured I’d apply what I learned from the late night photoshoot to capture the vibrancy of Rare Bear under controlled lighting conditions.
When nightfall came, the crew pulled Rare Bear out of the hangar and headed toward the run-up area at the end of RWY26. Although it took about an hour, we managed to get the old scissor lift next to the hangar out to the run-up area as well. This enabled me to get the camera onto a raised platform for a much better overview of the historic racer.
One of the initial factors on this night was that there was a near full moon. At any other time, this would have been great. A timed exposure with a full moon present will bathe the subject in ambient light at a fairly controllable rate. Unfortunately, due to the direction we needed to shoot, the moon threatened to cast a huge complex shadow of the scissor lift over the tarmac and eventually the aircraft. When we initially set up the shot, this wasn’t going to be an issue, but as the moon moved across the sky, we came to the realization there was a time frame we needed to work within. If we took too long, the scissor lift’s shadow would ruin the image.
The image had already been preconceived on a pad of paper. Space needed to be provided for the magazine cover’s masthead, contents and bar code. Angling the aircraft in such a way, and providing plenty of background would do the trick. Once the Bear was positioned, I went up in the lift to compose the shot, mount the camera to the scissor lift’s railing and attach all the necessary cables in order to remotely operate the camera from the ground. The lift was lowered, I exited and sent the lift back up with just the camera. Connected to my laptop, I could now see what the camera was seeing and began working on lighting the aircraft.
Once the images had been captured, I made some minor tweaks and sent it off to the magazine. The next morning I got a call from Caroline Sheen critiquing the image. Although we were on the right track, it just wasn’t cover-worthy material, and I agreed. The image itself was strong and technically perfect, but it lacked the human element. It was just a plane.
Caroline asked for what I thought was the impossible however, I didn’t realize the level of efficiency and dedication air racing teams posses. She asked, “How difficult would it be to make the aircraft appear as it should on race day?” There were no control surfaces, no canopy, no prop, missing panels, missing fairings, no spinner and a host of other things an aircraft must have in order to fly. I laughed a little, the team did not. They simply responded, “No problem, we’ll get right on that!”
They spent the day putting the aircraft back together. This would be the most complete Rare Bear had been since concluding last year’s races. While I did my best to stay out of the way and document their progress, I continuously racked my brain on how we were going to utilize the same lighting method, but with people. I hadn’t done that before with a long exposure lighting technique.
Once nightfall came, everyone jumped into action repeating exactly as we had done the night before. Since we hadn’t planned on a remake, there were no markers or place cards denoting where everything should go. We had to do our best to compare the existing photo with where everything had to be. And of course there was the moon. That constant nagging reminder that we had to remain on our toes and not waste any time.
With everything in place, we briefed the shot once more. Since the guys had all been there the night prior, they were all familiar with the lighting technique and understood the fundamentals of what needed to be accomplished. Essentially, they needed to assume a comfortable pose and maintain that exact position for two to three minutes. If you’re wondering why the long exposure instead of a quick pop of portable strobes, certain elements such as the dimly lit taxi lights, distant mountain range and its separation from the sky, could only be accomplished with a long exposure using the moon’s ambient light.
With the conclusion of each exposure, a giddiness looms over as the guys leave their respective positions and head for the computer to see what progress has been made. It reminds me of why I do what I do. Here are a group of guys I would trade anything for to experience a mere fraction of what they have, and yet a simple picture is enough to ignite a sense of genuine excitement.
Just before 1am on July 9th, it was a wrap! The moon had moved westward making the scissor lift’s shadow too dominant to continue. Not to mention we were all working to the point of exhaustion and still had to move everything back to the hangar.
Each member of the crew took responsibility for hauling a vehicle back to the hangar leaving me all alone on the ramp with one last machine, Rare Bear. With only the moonlight and a flashlight, I set out for one last shot. Knowing the guys would be back in a few minutes, I rested the camera on my camera bag angling it upward at the sleeping beast.
Back lit by the moon, I lit the aircraft with the flashlight for a near 3-minute exposure. The lights in the immediate background are those of the Lemmon Valley residents with the horizon being lit by the nearby Reno cityscape.
After nearly 20 years of watching and cheering on the Bear, I’ll never forget the surreal feeling of being on the ramp at Stead all alone with this magnificent aircraft.
Special thanks to the Rare Bear team for their passion and dedication not only for their assistance with this shoot, but for all the years of work they’ve poured into the Bear to keep her in the skies. Rare Bear Team Lead, Alby Redick; Crew Chief, Dave Cornell; Lead Mechanics, Keith Geary and Rob Grosvenor; Public Relations, Lisa Snow and aircraft owner, Rod Lewis. Of course the shoot would not have been possible without those at Air & Space Smithsonian Magazine, Linda Shiner and Caroline Sheen.
For more images from this shoot, follow the link here.
Camera: Canon 5D
Lens: 17-35mm f/2.8 @ 17mm
Exposure: 228 seconds – Manual
Image Created: 7/8/09 @ 11:08pm pst
At the risk of sounding cliche, it all started with a phone call. Make that two cliches. John Cudahy, President of the International Council of Airshows (ICAS), asked if I would have any interest in joining and assisting a news crew on various photoshoots during the weekend of the California International Airshow in Salinas. It didn’t take long to provide an answer.
It was Fall of 2009 and home foreclosures were at an all time high. The market had already crashed and the unemployment rate was not about to decline anytime soon. Due to the popularity of airshows during an otherwise miserable economic downturn, CBS contacted ICAS to find out the secret behind these entertaining venues. Because of time constraints and accessibility, Salinas would be chosen to host the news crew for their national story.
For 2009, Salinas had a stellar line up. Military demonstration teams included the A-10 Thunderbolt, USAF Heritage Flight, US Army Golden Knights and the USN Blue Angels. On the civilian roster was Michael Goulian, Ed Hamill, Bob Carlton, Gene Soucey and Teresa Stokes, John Collver and the ever popular Robosaurus and the Wall of Fire.
The first photoshoot involved Michael Goulian with CBS news correspondent Bill Whitaker as his passenger. Flying Wayne Handley’s yellow and blue Extra, Goulian teamed up with Ed Hamill in his patriotic Pitts biplane. Assisting the news crew and the airshow throughout the weekend was the 143rd Airlift Wing of the Rhode Island Air National Guard (RIANG) with their extended body C-130J Hercules.
Once Goulian and Hamill completed their formation fun behind the C-130, it was time for Major Paul “Harb” Brown in the A-10 and Steve Hinton in his P-51D “Wee Willy II” to join the fun. Harb expertly approached the six o’clock position of the C-130 swaying from side to side providing the news crew with various bank angles followed by cautiously placing the business end of the A-10 within mere feet of the extended ramp. After a few brief minutes, Hinton joined Harb demonstrating the dissimilar formation of the USAF Heritage Flight. A quick glance at the CBS videographer revealed a grin from ear to ear. The news crew was no doubt getting what they wanted.
As with just about every exhilarating air to air shoot, it was all over too soon. The ramp of the C-130 slowly closed until the last sliver of light glistening off the maze of pipes along the internal fuselage walls disappeared. A small bump a few minutes later indicated we were back on the ground.
Throughout the weekend the excitement of one of the country’s most successful civilian airshows drew oohs and ahhs from the crowd. The news crew could be found hard at work at every corner of the airfield capturing these magical moments. All the while, Commander Greg McWhirter lead the precision Blue Angles demonstration team through three flawless performances giving us a hint of what was to come at the conclusion of the show.
Early Monday morning, absent of crowds, aircraft were being closely inspected by their aircrews in preparation of heading home. Vendors were disassembling booths and temporary stanchions were being collected. The airport was still however, far from looking like an airport.
Proudly sitting on the flightline were the six primary Blue Angel aircraft, their canopies freshly cleared of morning dew. Looking on was the RIANG C-130J complete with aircrew and passengers, but without one major entity…CBS. Unfortunately the news crew was on deadline and was forced to head back to New York in order to prepare the piece.
Just as we had done before the airshow started, we received our brief, buckled in and watched from the rear of the aircraft as we taxied toward the runway. Slowly the ramp began to close and we were airborne.
As soon as we were ‘feet wet’ over the Monterey Bay, the cargo door came down revealing the thick marine layer covering the Central Coast. In the distance a dot could be seen, followed by another dot, and yet another two dots…pretty soon seven random dots could be seen closing in on our aircraft. In no time at all those seven dots became a tightly knit formation of gold and blue F-18’s with the seventh aircraft, F-18B #7 hanging just outside the formation.
By this time we were about five miles off the coast of Pebble Beach, California rounding to the south to follow the Big Sur coastline. The surrealistic view of six F/A-18A Hornets being flown by perhaps the best pilots in the world warranted a few moments of contemplation without a camera in front of my face. Fortunately that didn’t last long and I got back to shooting.
Clearly this wasn’t the first time the Blue Angels had pulled up behind a C-130 full of camera-wielding photographers. The six pilots were as one as they swayed from side to side, smoke on then smoke off.
Not that any ‘impact’ needed to be added to illustrate the sheer power and agility of of today’s front line fighter, let alone six, but I did attempt various angles and isolating individual aircraft. A tilt to the left or a tilt to the right managed to fill the frame and add a sense of dynamics. Zooming in on individual aircraft revealed unique views and perspectives, especially with multiple aircraft and multiple angles from which to choose.
During the entire eighty-mile flight down the Big Sur coastline, the marine layer was ever prevalent with no sign of revealing the breathtaking cliffs. But as all hope seemed lost, a break in the clouds appeared just as we approached the Point Sur Lighthouse, made famous by the USS Macon (ZRS-5) which crashed just off shore. A small trough of warm air carved an angular wedge out of the persistent coastal gloom revealing a beachhead and a hint of the lighthouse. Seconds later the six-ship plus one departed in search of an awaiting KC-135. Once topped off, they would be on their way home to Pensacola, Florida.
Special thanks to John Cudahy of ICAS for the special invite along with the entire Board of the California International Airshow for creating the logistics to make this reality. An enormous debt of gratitude is owed to the USN Blue Angels Demonstration Squadron as well as Col. Larry Gallogly and his crew of the 143rd Airlift Wing Air National Guard. Additional thanks to Blue Angels CDR Greg McWherter and Public Affairs Officer, CAPT Tyson Dunkelberger for selecting the resulting image as the official 2010 Blue Angels Lithograph.
For more images from this shoot and the 2009 California International Airshow, Salinas, click here or pick up a copy of the 2009 California International Airshow – Salinas Pictorial.
Camera: Canon 5D
Lens: 28-135mm f/3.5 @ f/5.6
Exposure: 1/500 – Aperture Priority
Image Created: 8/10/09 @ 9:10am pst
“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.
Over the past few years, gatherings of like aircraft seem to be all the rage. Whether it’s the Gathering of Mustangs and Legends at Rickenbacker Air Field in 2007, the 50th Anniversary of the CJ-6 Nanchang at Airventure in 2008, the T-28’s 60th anniversary in 2009, or the impressive gathering of DC-3 aircraft at Rock Falls, Illinois in 2010, the coming together of groups of similar aircraft never disappoint. The weekend of September 11th, 2010 would prove to be another milestone towards insuring history not be forgotten.
Their airborne presence was made known across California’s Central Valley as they headed from Chino to Mather Field near Sacramento. Although it started as a flight of five, mechanical issues meant the highly anticipated arrival would only number four. Calls were coming in to the California Capital Airshow Director, Darcy Brewer as the aircraft would pass various points across the State causing the excitement on the air field to climb. Only after seeing the four dots representing the P-38’s and a fifth being a P-51D chase plane, did reality sink in. History was being made.
The endeavor to host six flying P-38 “Lightning’s” at one venue began nearly a year prior to Sacramento’s 5th anniversary show. Around the world, only seven examples remain airworthy. Of those, six are located in the United States with the seventh being owned by Red Bull based in Austria. With the help of Bob Alvis and the National P-38 Association, the “Lightning” aircraft owners and pilots along with Director, Darcy Brewer and air show volunteer, Scott Wolff, the coming together of these historic aircraft was anything but uneventful. Despite the hardships and monetary hurdles, however, four of the world’s finest examples touched down at Mather Field at approximately 6:45pm on Thursday, September 9th.
The aircraft taking part in the gathering included “Glacier Girl” flown by Steve Hinton, “Thoughts of Midnight” flown by Kevin Eldridge, “Ruff Stuff” flown by Rob Ator and “Honey Bunny” flown by Jeff Harris. Setting down in Fresno on the way to Mather was “23 Skidoo” flown by Chris Fahey.
What few know is that this event almost didn’t happen. While the coming together of six P-38’s had always been the goal, the ultimate mission was to showcase the aircraft at two separate venues. Both the California Capital Airshow and the Reno Air Races, which were to be held the following weekend, would host all six P-38’s. After the loss of a sponsor, Reno was forced to drop out of the program leaving the Sacramento Airshow footing an even larger bill.
Three P-38’s, “Glacier Girl”, “23 Skidoo” and “Honey Bunny”, were already in the process of attending Sacramento and were being staged at Southern California’s Chino Airport. With such a dramatic change in plans and only a week before the show, serious work needed to be made to raise additional funds as the remaining P-38’s had much further to travel. “Ruff Stuff” was coming from Minneapolis, “Thoughts of Midnight” from Texas and “Tangerine” from Oregon. With the last minute assistance of Dan Friedkin and Rod Lewis, two of the three were able to make the trip and ultimately, history. It would be the largest assembly of P-38’s since World War II.
During the weekend of the air show, the P-38’s would be put through their paces. All four would demonstrate their agility in front of the audience, but more importantly, show the attending WWII veterans that they are not forgotten. The four-ship of P-38’s would first fly the honorable “Missing-Man” formation to the tune of a solo trumpet and utter silence. With 70,000+ spectators looking on, a dropped needle could be heard amongst the silenced crowd as the aircraft’s eight Allison engines flowed harmoniously with somber tune of “Taps”. Once Rob Ator in “Ruff Stuff” pulled out of the number three spot, it became the most emotional memorial flight in recent memory. “It was so poignant and meant so much,” said Bob Alvis.
Upon the conclusion of the “Missing-Man” tribute, the P-38’s joined up in a very loose in-trail plane-chase as each aircraft would swoop in front of the crowd, their unique engine sounds paying homage to those who cared for them and worked on them tirelessly during the War.
Following the showcase, Steve Hinton and Kevin Eldridge would remain aloft. Hinton would spend the next few minutes flying an elegant solo routine looping and rolling “Glacier Girl” in the skies above California’s capital. Although the gracefulness of the “Fork-Tail Devil” would be briefly interrupted by the state of the art F-22 Raptor demonstration, both Hinton and Eldridge would re-enter the airspace taking on the number two and three position for the USAF Heritage Flight. More than 60 years of aviation history pass in front of the crowd, a sight none of the veterans of the P-38 program could have ever envisioned.
The air show weekend wasn’t without incident however, as “Glacier Girl” suffered a relatively minor mechanical issue on Sunday forcing her back to the hot pit. In the meantime, Jeff Harris had the misfortune of dealing with medical issues and was also grounded. With an inoperable P-38, Steve Hinton taxied “Glacier Girl” back to the line and hopped in Jeff Harris’ “Honey Bunny” to insure the show went on.
Throughout the weekend the P-38’s were on display for everyone to get a closer look at, especially the WWII veterans who worked so hard on keeping them airworthy when it mattered most. The entrance to the P-38 paddock played host to various vendors including the National P-38 Association, Lockheed Martin and others including a special area where spectators could reminisce with veterans.
One of those veterans was Capt. Bill Behrns (Ret.) who flew 104 combat and six weather missions during World War II, mostly stationed in Chittagong, Burma, now the country of Myanmar. During his involvement with the 459th Fighter Squadron, Behrns scored 4.5 enemy kills in his P-38 “San Joaquin Siren”. Behrns was the last of the 32 original pilots assigned to that special squadron of which only four survived.
Entrance to the paddock by voluntary donation enabled spectators the ability to pose with the aircraft and get a closer look. While most would expect these warbirds to be roped off, the pilots and crew instead remained with the aircraft answering questions and giving personal tours. In some cases, they even enabled a lucky few to sit in the cockpit.
When it came time to fly, the paddock was the perfect place to hear all eight Allison engines roar to life.
The weekend provided reflection for those too young to have known the P-38 as a front-line fighter. It provided a sense of peace for those who put their lives in harm’s way for the freedoms we take for granted today. It was a chance to touch a panel they had removed so many times before in a time of war. And it was a chance to recognize those who sacrifice so much to keep them flying today.
There will no doubt be another gathering of P-38’s sometime in the future, but this will probably be the last time they will ever gather for those whose lives depended on them.
Honey Bunny, a P-38L Lightning, NL7723C, was delivered to the Army Air Force as photoreconnaissance F-5G Serial# 44-26981. Its construction number is 7985. Aero Exploration Company Incorporated of Tulsa, Oklahoma acquired it from the War Assets Administration at Kingman, Arizona for $1,250 on March 22, 1946.
Originally registered as NX53752 on May 10, 1946 and then as N53752 in 1948, it was withdrawn from service in Tulsa, Oklahoma in July 1949. Despite changing hands many times, #981 remained relatively active compared to most acquired warbirds. Today she is owned by Jack Croul and operated by Allied Fighters in Chino, California.
Not only was #981 the only non-camo P-38 present, the airframe also boasts having the only functional turbo-chargers of any airworthy P-38 gracing the skies today.
Ruff Stuff, P-38L, N79123, entered civilian hands in July 1956 where she was originally registered as NX79123. Like most warbirds, the P-38 changed hands numerous times finally ending up with David Tallichet in Chino, CA.
Restoration of 44-27231 began in 1984 in Tulsa, OK before being moved to Chino in 1987. During the restoration process, the F-5G ‘recon’ nose was removed and replaced with the traditional fighter nose seen today. In November 1995, the airframe was once again airworthy and wore the name “Marge” along with a silver paint scheme. For three years beginning in 1998, “Marge” was on display at the USAFM at March AFB.
In 2004, the aircraft was purchased by Ronald Fagen and by 2007, the P-38 had a new paint job and the current nose art, “Ruff Stuff” which got its name from WWII pilot, First Lieutenant Norbert C. Ruff.
Thoughts of Midnight, P-38L, 44-53095, is one of the few existing P-38’s not formerly converted from an F-5G reconnaissance variant. Removed from service in 1946, #8350 was originally assigned registration number NL67745, but was soon to see service in Honduras as FAH503 and later, FAH506. The airframe was later brought back the States in 1960 registered as N9005R and stored in Blythe, CA.
In 1969, #8350 was given a new name, “Der Gabelshwanz Teufel” and remained so until 1986. The aircraft changed hands eventually ending up with the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, TX. Following an accident, she was repaired and renamed “Putt Putt Maru” until undergoing restoration in 2006. Now owned by Tom Friedkin and Comanche Fighters, the freshly restored and repainted aircraft flies with the registration NL38TF and the name, “Thoughts of Midnight”.
Glacier Girl is a Lockheed P-38F-1-LO Lightning World War II fighter plane, 41-7630, c/n 222-5757, that was recently restored to operable condition after being buried beneath ice on the remote Greenland Ice Sheet for nearly fifty years.
On 15 July 1942, its squadron was forced to make an emergency landing en route to the British Isles during Operation Bolero and subsequently rescued. Glacier Girl, along with five other P-38 fighters and two B-17 bombers, was eventually buried beneath 270 feet of ice. Fifty years later, in 1992, the plane was brought to the surface after years of excavation and transported to Middlesboro, Kentucky, where it was restored to flying condition. So challenging was the excavation of Glacier Girl, she was documented in an episode of The History Channel’s “Mega Movers” series, titled “Extreme Aircraft Recovery”. Currently this airframe is equipped with the only genuine nose guns of any airworthy P-38.
To view additional images of the P-38 gathering, click here.
There’s no denying that those with a remote fascination of aviation would donate any given body part to fly in a state of the art US Navy fighter. What they don’t tell you is the metamorphosis one needs to embrace in order to enjoy the thrill.
Perhaps you’ve read articles or listened to comedians describe their nauseating experience of an incentive ride in a military jet followed by weeks of therapy. Apparently they seemed to have skipped the part where they had to squeeze into an outfit purposefully designed to be four sizes too small and become a human origami project in order to slip on everything else. But I digress…
While working with VFA-122 “Flying Eagles” during the historic “Tailhook Legacy Flight” training program, I along with the attending warbird pilots, had the great honor of being allowed to fly in an F/A-18F Super Hornet.
It all began with our mock physiology training. Instead of being shot out of a canon or subjected to the swirling t-cup ride at Disneyland, we were taught the miracle of the “Hik Maneuver”. Not to be confused with the complexities of a “Red Neck” tractor pull, the “Hik Maneuver” involved the rapid and specifically timed process of exchanging air in the lungs combined with muscle tension to prevent loss of consciousness during high g-load. It used to be called the “Hook Maneuver”, but grunting “Hik” while popping a forehead vein sounded better.
Along with the brief training we were also shown what the various yellow handles, buttons and knobs with black stripes were for. This was of course not to be confused with the black handles, buttons and knobs with yellow stripes. You don’t want to touch those…I think. One was to arm the ejection seat, one was to eject, one was to make the pilot eject, one made expresso and another was for the windshield wipers. This was one cool seat!
Following our short introduction to the Rhino’s WSO Chair, Lt. Schwerdtfeger showed us around the Flight Physiology compound at NAS Lemoore. The tour included checking out the twirl-a-hurl centrifuge machine, the braincell-killing altitude chamber and every Aquaphobiac’s vacation destination, the dunk-tank.
My scheduled hop in the Super Hornet followed all the other warbird pilots’ opportunities. I had the joy of sharing their experiences and fears vicariously through them. What was once a dream soon to come true turned into a fear similar to being called next at a talent show.
When it was my turn to prepare for flight, I was sent to the paraloft where I would get sized up…in gear that is. This big dude who obviously works out gave me a quick look over and compared me in size to pilot similar in stature i.e., short. He then opened a locker belonging to a Commander of the unit and instructed me on how to look my best in olive drab.
Now, I had my own flight suit so I was certainly doing my best to look the part, but wearing blue jeans under that flight suit which were then covered by a blood-constricting G-Suit, might not have been the smartest thing. It took me nearly thirty-minutes to zip up those damn military leg warmers! Then came the harness. I was too exhausted to put on a harness, but alas, somehow I did it. And after that was the 216-pound survival vest consisting of the inflatable horse collar, oxygen mask and filter, flares, a Vietnam-era flashlight, a Jenny Craig meal for four including place settings, and a bunch of other stuff I was really hoping not to use. Oh yeah! I looked sexy…kinda like an Oompa-Loompa that was being cast as Rambo.
By this time I was all suited up and ready to go. I hobbled down the stairs and toward the hangar door before one of the guys in the paraloft noticed my bright white tennis shoes peaking out from my all green garb. Apparently tenny’s aren’t the in-thing. Off came all the gear and on went some loaner boots. If getting the G-Suit on before was hard, strapping them around the added circumference of a boot-neck was impossible.
I’ll spare you with the excitement of flight-suit deja vu, but let it be known it involved sweat, blood (literally) and my pilot to help get the crap back on. I had a new found respect for pilots everywhere, and I hadn’t even climbed into the plane.
Speaking of my pilot, Lieutenant Alex “Stranger” Wright was awesome! He had the patience of a saint and was willing to carry me out to the plane. Well, maybe not that last part.
With all my gear on, sensation in my limbs was disappearing fast. Fortunately we were assigned an aircraft that was parked furthest away on the ramp. That was by no means comforting. Even better, I was told we were to do a “Hot-Swap”, a process where the aircraft would remain running as we swapped pilot and crew. I really should have listened…was it the yellow and black striped handle or the black and yellow striped handle?
Once strapped into the seat, by my pilot, because I had no strength to do it, I checked the oxygen flow. There was none. Inhaling simply caused the O2 mask to adhere to my face like a plastic bag. Nothing to worry about there. I asked “Stranger”, who was now comfortably strapped into his seat, how to adjust the O2. He made me aware of a knob by my left butt-cheek that needed to be rotated 90-degrees. I couldn’t see past my knees let alone over my shoulder and down by my side. Of course he chuckled, “Oh, you may need to feel your way around to find it.” Oh sure, I’m sitting on a friggin’ rocket and you want me to start feeling around? The last person who asked, “What does this button do?” didn’t fare so well. Nervousness aside, I found it. I could now breathe. That was a good thing.
We launched as a flight of four consisting of an F-6F Hellcat, Helldiver and another Super Hornet. I had brought with me a loaner D3x from Nikon and a 24-120mm to record this glorious moment. Though every time I raised the camera to my face, my O2 mask would leak slightly forcing a steady flow of oxygen directly into my right eye. I quickly learned how to hold the camera with my left hand, position my right hand on the shutter with my thumb awkwardly jamming my right eyelid shut. I’m sure I looked perfectly normal to everyone in the flight.
It wasn’t until the group of aircraft broke formation and the two Super Hornets were left to play that things got really interesting. “Stranger” pulled hard back on the stick enabling the G-meter to reach 7.5 and I decided to try out that “Hik Maneuver” thing. While holding a camera now weighing nearly 45-pounds up to my face, I nearly knocked myself out keeping too much blood in my head. Apparently I am G-tolerant far beyond the 7-G range. I resulted to giggling like a schoolgirl instead. Any remnants of masculinity were long gone. All the while my G-suit was painfully contracting forcing my spleen to tickle my tonsils.
It had always been my dream to get that over-the-shoulder shot of the aircraft engulfed in vapor. As we pulled hard to the left for the “Banana-Pass” followed by an abrupt break to the right, all I could think about was how I got in the position of resting my head on my shoes. The last thought on my mind was how to raise this insanely heavy camera above my head. Nonetheless, I did my best to capture the moment and am proud to say I never incurred any sign of losing the G-war. I think I even managed to get a picture or two.
“Stranger” put the Hornet on the deck effortlessly and we taxied back to the same spot we started and were again to exercise a “Hot Swap”. Once pried from the rear seat of the Super Hornet, I made my way down the ladder and waited for “Stranger” to accompany me on the ramp. While waiting, Lt. Erik “Dookie” Kenny informed me that the back seat would be empty for this next hop and asked if I wanted to join him for a second flight. Amazed at the incredible offer bestowed upon me, I politely and quickly responded, “No.” The look on “Dookie’s” face was priceless.
Earlier in the morning I had briefed with Peter Kline, pilot of the T-2 “Buckeye” also participating in the Legacy Flight Program, regarding an aerial photoshoot. Time simply did not allow for another Hornet hop. But rest assured, this would be the only time I’d pass up an opportunity like this.
“Stranger” and I walked…or rather he walked, I waddled back to the paraloft and we removed our gear. I quickly rushed back to the T-2 and we immediately fired up and got into the air. The shoot was amazing for many reasons. Mostly due to the fact that Capt. Mark “Mutha” Hubbard, Commodore for the Strike Fighter Wing Pacific (SFWP) was at the controls of the F-6F Bearcat with two Rhino’s in trail. The other amazing fact was that holding the #3 position was “Dookie” flying “143”, the SuperHornet I had just crawled out of.
Although I mock my experience, the fact is I can’t thank the folks at VFA-122 enough for hosting the entire Legacy crew and enabling all of us to see first hand what our Naval Aviators endure. It goes without saying I have a new found respect for our military pilots. Additional thanks to Dr. Rich Sugden and Peter Kline for including me in the Legacy Program and enabling me to document such an incredible joining of the past and present. Putting commemorative aircraft in the air that were not scheduled to fly was due to the amazing efforts of Demo Coordinator, Lt. Erin “Eeyore” Flint. The passion of Capt. “Mutha” Hubbard is without a doubt a critical element to insuring the success of the Legacy Program. His unwavering desire to see the history of Naval Aviation celebrated in front of millions of aviation enthusiasts and air show spectators is an invaluable asset. The Legacy Program is truly honored to have such a great representative. And of course the program would not be what it is without all of the Legacy Pilots, warbird owners and Navy demo pilots who choose to participate and remain involved in such a historic program.
If you’ve already checked my first tutorial on tips and tricks of photographing an air show, this section will introduce you to the aspects often overlooked. To most, an air show is an event that takes place in front of a crowd, but if you look carefully you’ll find that an air show, or any event for that matter, provides photographic opportunities all around.
A fun challenge to noticing these opportunities is to ditch every lens but one. Force yourself to shoot with a single 50mm lens and see what happens. Eventually you’ll find yourself becoming more selective with the finer details on an aircraft, including atmospheric conditions that were once outside your field of view, or capturing the expressions of joy on people’s faces since the aircraft flying are no longer an option.
The first section concentrated mainly on the overall aspect of air show photography like prop blur, lighting and positioning. In this section we’ll cover the more artistic and detailed side of air show photography like macro, individuality, journalism and documentation.
It’s all in the details
Going back to sticking with one lens is undoubtedly the best way to exercise creativity. Although our minds know what it is we want to photograph, the limitations of a single perspective force us to find a way of conveying the story we want to tell within the confines of what the camera will allow.
Historically, (though not literally) a 50mm lens on a full-frame D-SLR is equivalent to what we see with the human eye in relation to the perceived distance to a subject. Of course our peripheral vision enables us to see a wider field of view than what a 50mm allows. This is where our eyes conflict with what the camera will let us do. It is our creativity and ability to artistically compose an image within those confines that makes someone an artist in the true sense of the word. Rather than forcing something to fit within a frame by zooming in or out, dealing with limited composition options will allow a photographer to become more creative with other aspects of photography like depth of field, spot metering and placement of the main subject. These finer details will lend to the overall mood of the image.
With that concept in mind, pick out a detail on an aircraft you find intriguing. It could be a leading edge slat, a pitot tube, even the corner of a fuselage window. Abstract photography is an art form all its own and can add a curious element to your air show photography collection.
Extreme Wide Angle
Now that digital photography has equaled the constraints, or versatility, of the film world by providing an economical 135mm full-frame sensor, extreme wide angle imagery can add an element of wonder.
Both Nikon and Canon are increasing their share of wide angle lenses and pushing the boundaries of optical technology. This enables the photographer to create worlds the viewer has never seen before. If photography’s rule of thumb is to show an ordinary object as it has never been seen before, wide-angle photography can become quite an asset.
Some examples of potential wide-angle photography ideas would be to capture the enormous tail of a C-5 Galaxy in its entirety or the exhaust of an F-15 Eagle. Practical uses would be the interior of an aircraft where the confines couldn’t be captured any other way. Extreme examples would be concentrating on the lengthy nose of a jet or even capturing a child from below, looking skyward at a passing formation of aircraft.
Wide-angle photography is a pretty forgiving technique in that there is so much in the frame. Often times you can ‘shoot from the hip’, so to speak, by capturing images without the need to look through the viewfinder. Aiming the camera in an approximate direction and angle will yield fairly predictable results as compared with trying the same technique using more precise telephoto lenses.
There is however a downside to wide-angle photography. The extreme effect of these lenses is of a niche style. Be careful not to overdo it as too many extreme wide-angle or fisheye images contained within a portfolio could become monotonous and routine. The idea is to mix it up and only use these lenses during appropriate situations.
Nothing turning on something burning?
One of the key elements to aviation photography involving a propellor or rotary driven aircraft is no doubt some form of prop-blur. The technique of slowing down the shutter speed to give a sense of action is one of the most challenging vices an aviation photographer faces. If the shutter speed is too slow, the photo becomes blurry. If the shutter speed is too fast, propellors or helicopter blades look frozen resulting in no sense of motion.
With that being said, most photographers let out a sigh of relief when a jet takes to the skies. Since there are no visibly moving parts, there is no need for any form of blur. Or is there?
Capturing some sort of motion when photographing jet aircraft can be a challenge. To accomplish this, slow down your shutter speed when there are partly cloudy skies present or the aircraft is flying low enough for there to be some sort of background.
Since images of jets streaking across a solid blue sky are very common, a sense of motion is already perceived. Freezing the jet against a mountainous background isn’t going to kill the image or leave the viewer wanting more, however blurring the background or adding that element of motion will only add to the impact of the photograph.
Thinking outside the genre
Often times photographers will check out the work of other photographers in their field for new ideas or techniques. Improving on those techniques is what pushes photographers to achieve new and exciting imagery. But what if photographers expanded their research to cover aspects of other genres of photography.
Motor sports photography shares many similarities with that of aviation in regards to equipment and technique, but what styles could be adopted by either genre to put a spin on things?
Ever notice how automotive photographers will ask that that the parking lights remain on during a shoot? How about the front wheels being turned hard right or left? Many automotive photographers tilt the camera to provide a sense of action even though the vehicle is parked. These are just some of the ways automotive photography techniques could be transferred successfully to aviation.
Of course it doesn’t end there. Aircraft are pointless without their operators, so why not check out cutting-edge portrait photography. The individual components of an aircraft all working together are crucial for the aircraft’s success. To better concentrate on those components, check out commercial or studio photography techniques. Even other fine art photographers can provide suggestive tips like white space, symmetrical and asymmetrical examples as well as abstract imagery.
All too often we limit ourselves according to what the status quo may be at that given time. As IBM initially coined, artists need to continually “think outside the box”…or viewfinder. Take your pick.
Black & White will never die
Sure, film is just about dead. There are a few of us still trying to keep it alive by using infra-red, medium and large format C-41 and transparency films, and others. But all and all it’s safe to say, sadly, film is dead. Fortunately black and white lives on and probably always will.
Although some cameras will allow black and white photography through various custom functions, my advice would be to ignore these features. After all, why would you limit yourself. If you shoot in black and white, that is all you will get, black and white. If you shoot in color, you will not only get a useful color image, but with the proper techniques, a beautiful black and white image to add to your gallery.
When done correctly, a black and white photograph can bring back the nostalgia of the day when warbirds or period correct aircraft are illustrated. With the advancements in technology and improved photographic techniques, photographers can bring the past to life in ways we could only imagine back then.
For the best black and white practices, brush up on old school black and white printing techniques such as dodging and burning, maintaining shadow detail and perhaps even understanding how the Zone System works. In regards to best Photoshop black and white conversion techniques, a quick browse on your favorite search engine should do the trick. But the one tip I’ll suggest is to not use the ‘desaturate’ tool or the straight-forward black and white conversion tool. Use of these tools will result in muddy and low-contrast gray images. Take your time and do it right.
Place the plane game
Finally, there’s composition. Normally this would be a biggie on the list of techniques a photographer would use to convey their vision, and by all means, it should be. But airplanes move fast and trying to put them where you want them isn’t always easier done than said.
In the world of art there are rules. In that same world, these rules can occasionally be broken, but knowing when and how to break those rules only comes once a photographer has learned to respect and obey those rules. One of the biggest and most well known rules in photography is the rule of thirds.
For some strange reason the human eye has a problem viewing something that is dead-center. For example, a sunset looks more appealing when the horizon is 2/3rds of the way down the photo. A portrait is more pleasant if the subject’s eyes (or sometimes head) is placed 2/3rds of the way up the photo. A child running to the left looks better on the right 2/3rds of the image and the opposite of a child running to the right also holds true.
The rule of thirds seems to have a greater importance with moving objects, such as aircraft, due to their direction of motion. Our minds need space for the aircraft to go. An aircraft thundering off the edge of an image leaves the viewer no imagination for its continued flight. Essentially it just ends. This also leaves the viewer with an uneasy and awkward feeling.
Allowing the aircraft room to maneuver on your photo not only leaves a pleasing feeling with the viewer, but also lends itself to be more versatile. Dead space (or white space as it is known in the graphics world) makes the image more appealing to magazine designers since there is now room for tons of text.
Strategic placement of your subject doesn’t always come naturally. Over time the photographer will become better at understanding what works and what doesn’t. Once the rule of thirds becomes second nature, breaking that rule will become more understandable.
And when should a photographer break that rule? Most often, when symmetry is concerned, utilizing the rule of thirds is simply impractical. Going back to the example of a sunset, if there happens to be an incredible reflection of clouds upon a lake’s glassy surface, go ahead and place the horizon in the middle of the frame. That will allow for brilliant symmetry. Many aircraft posses that same form of symmetry where breaking the rule of thirds might apply.
Most importantly, have fun! Air shows are a form of entertainment and should remain entertaining.
For many of us, the DC-3 is seen as a tired workhorse of the skies, a third world answer for passenger and cargo transport. A fuselage full of chickens and wooden boxes might be high on the list of stereotypical thoughts. The gathering of DC-3’s and C-47’s in Rock Falls, Illinois quickly grounded that mindset and illustrated to everyone that the DC-3 is strong, active and still filling a void within the aviation community.
On the weekend of July 23-25, a record number of airworthy DC-3’s and military C-47 variants came together at Whiteside Airport in Rock Falls, Illinois for what would be called ‘The Last Time’. Although the original goal was to have 40 DC-3’s on the tarmac, due to weather and other complications, 27 made it to Whiteside. Of the aircraft gathered, 8 were military C-47 variants, 15 were DC-3’s with 10 of them being former C-47’s. Additionally the world’s only C-41 and C-41A were present along with an AC-47 gunship and one of only two flying DC-2’s in the world.
My entry into the world of the ‘Dakota’ began earlier in the year with a call to a good friend. Brooks Pettit, one of the operators of the American Flight Museum in Topeka, Kansas and pilot of the AC-47 gunship, ‘Spooky’, was working with the organizer of the The Last Time, Dan Gryder.
The plan was to divert from going straight to Oshkosh for the annual Airventure Fly-In and head to Kansas City instead. From there I would join up with the AC-47 crew and fly the short trip from Topeka to Whiteside in the gunship. Sounded like a great plan!
Stepping into a DC-3, the first thing most people notice is the steep floor and the slight workout necessary to reach the cockpit. With the start of each engine, a puff of smoke and a world of vibrations, ‘Spooky’ quickly took to the skies. There’s no doubt this plane was built to fly as the floor would conveniently level off once airborne. Once over Whiteside, we could see we’d be number four on the ramp. The party was just starting.
Although the local weather at Whiteside was excellent, a storm band was closing in preventing many of the aircraft from arriving Thursday afternoon and through the following morning. The aircraft that had touched down quickly became the subject of many photographers as lightning strikes and rolling storm clouds made for impressive backgrounds.
The storm continued on through the night and into the morning enabling most aircraft to make it in by late Friday afternoon. By Saturday morning, whatever aircraft could make it were either parked on the tarmac or occupied giving rides.
It was decided the night before that Saturday morning would prove to be perfect for a three-ship DC-3 flight showcasing the various models. Dan Gryder would lead the pack in his DC-3, the 2nd oldest airframe flying today, followed by Brooks Pettit and Robert Rice in one of the few modified AC-47 gunships currently touring the country, and Scott Glover in a very historic C-47 having served in multiple WWII air operations including D-Day. Flying the Cessna 210 photoship was Tucker Nelson in addition to a second photoship with Greg Morehead in a T-6 ‘Texan’.
Each evening, Dan Gryder and the band would rock out with the visiting DC-3 pilots and crew. Before long, the band moved to the tarmac playing under a wing amongst more than two dozen DC-3’s and continued to jam into the early morning hours.
During the day, the tarmac was filled with spectators who were given unique opportunities to tour the various airframes. This gave some of the museum aircraft a chance to raise the funds necessary to keep ‘em flying. The gathering was not only recognized by media and aviation enthusiasts from around the world, but was probably one of the largest events the local community had seen in some time.
While some spectators toured the aircraft, others meandered through the maze of food and souvenir vendors located near the parking lot. For those looking for more of an adventure, C-47’s ‘Tico Belle’, ‘Southern Cross’ and ‘Sky King’ were offering a limited number of rides.
Sunday night marked the the eve of “The Last Supper”. All members of the flight crew from each aircraft were treated to a wonderful dinner hosted by the local eatery, Long Shot. Throughout the weekend, locals from Rock Falls provided free transportation, discounted hotel rates and more.
On Monday, July 26th, the dream of Dan Gryder was about to come true with a massive number of DC-3’s taking to the skies. Their destination was the Experimental Aviation Association’s annual Airventure Fly-In at Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Throughout the course of the weekend, only one aircraft had prior obligations at Oshkosh requiring an early departure from Rock Falls, so the number of participating DC-3’s fell to 26. Still an amazing number!
One issue that remained unresolved was the use of a photoship for the mass arrival at Oshkosh. Originally Dan Gryder had enlisted the assistance of a CJ-6 Nanchang, but due to mechanical difficulties the aircraft was not able to make it. Saving the day was Mike Filucci who got in touch with good friend, Jim ‘Pappy’ Goolsby who was on his way to Oshkosh in a similar aircraft. I had the fortune of flying with ‘Pappy’ during the 50th Anniversary of the CJ-6 Nanchang a couple years prior as well as during a special assignment at his home airport. I couldn’t have asked for a better stick!
Shortly before noon, engines began to turn. Sitting on the tarmac in the back of ‘Pappy’s’ CJ gave me a panoramic view of two dozen DC-3’s in motion. One by one, they began launching out of Whiteside airport. Unfortunately, not everything went perfectly. During run-up, ‘Tiger Lady‘ (C-47 N47060 / AF 42-100603) had issues and removed herself from the line-up and C-41A (N341A / AF 40-070) aborted take-off for mechanical reasons. A third DC-3 returned to Whiteside due to oil temperature problems.
Those that made it into the air gathered in groups of three with a fourth in a disjointed position. It was similar to a standard fingertip formation with the number four aircraft flying further on the outside than normal. During the course of the trip each group of four would slowly creep up on the group ahead of them until a single mass formation could be achieved.
Circling the gaggle of DC-3’s was a Bonanza, a B-25 photoship and our CJ-6 with Nelson Tucker taking up the lead in his Cessna 210.
About 30 miles from Oshkosh, the mass formation began to take shape. Twenty-three DC-3’s, or forty-six radials, approached from the West blanketing the skies in metal. Not since World War II had this many of this airframe type come together for such an impressive sight.
After flying over Wittman Field, the formation separated into individual aircraft. One by one they landed on RWY18 taking only sixteen minutes for all to touch down.
The experience was one that defied the name. For most, the hopes that there will be “Another Time” lingers on the horizon. But for now, “The Last Time” simply proved the determination and passion in keeping the workhorse of the skies alive, is a dream held by many and will be for some time to come.