Musings of an Aviation Photographer

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B-17G Flying Fortress 'Fuddy Duddy' Air to Air PhotoshootHere we are in January, another year has passed. 2014 seemed to go by in a flash, and the world keeps spinning faster and faster it seems. 2014 proved to be a much better year for aviation with many airshows and military acts finally being reinstated after two years of government uncertainty on budgets. And boy did it return with a bunch, much like how it used to be. But not all airshows were so lucky, nor were the various military demonstration teams that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing each year. Still, it was infinitely better than the previous years so who could complain? Photography continues to advance at a quick pace, not just with stills but also video. Cell phones with cameras on them continue to reach new levels of clarity, megapixel size, and special effects. There are whole camera kits you can add on to your cell phone to mimic ‘SLR quality’ (yeah right). Photoshop, HDR, and Google’s Silver Efex now seem to dominate the photography world bringing out details we haven’t been able to get otherwise.

For me, this year was mainly full of aviation. It was a full plate, with back to back airshows and several really rare (not to mention epic) air to air shoots. The top photo moments will be dominated by aviation for this past year, with one particular ‘photography bucket list’ item finally being fulfilled after several years of trying! There were some pretty epic moments this year in the airshow circuit as well, and with so many little achievements throughout the year I’ve had to carefully group them together as this list would certainly be longer than 15-20 moments. I could have gone back to the top 15 moments like I had in the past, but I decided to keep it at 10 top moments. Well, enough introduction… let’s get to the list!

Best Photography Moment #10:

Tiger Swim

San Diego Safari Park Tiger

Ironically, last year’s #10 was also a Tiger Swim… however this year it was across the country at the San Diego Safari Park (last year’s took place at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida). One of the three non-aviation events on this list, this took place in September when visiting the new Tiger Trail experience at the Safari Park. Right place at the right time, this Tiger was exhibiting some very peculiar behavior (according to the park officials) and started to pace around and inside the little pool of water which sat on the other side of the thick glass where visitors could see into the Tiger’s pen. The Tiger growled, hissed, and even jumped into the water swimming over to the glass and swiping at the kids who stood up to the glass. For myself, it made for some pretty epic Tiger shots! The leading theory was that earlier in the day several service dogs had been brought through the park being trained and the Tiger had picked up their peculiar scent and couldn’t get rid of it. The smell had ‘thrown off’ the Tiger, unsure where the smell had come from and in turn it became a bit aggressive. The exhibit was also relatively new for the Tiger, which probably didn’t help. When it comes to shooting at zoos, I find it’s these ‘right place right time’ moments that get you the really epic shots… otherwise it’s just photos of them all asleep! Another photographer was there while the Tiger was acting in this peculiar manner and mentioned that she is a regular to the Safari Park snapping photos for fun and had never gotten shots quite like this… considering I only head out to the Safari Park perhaps once every other month, that’s a pretty lucky stroke!

Best Photography Moment #9:

El Centro Photocall

F/A-18C Hornet - NAF El Centro Photocall

Making the list a THIRD time in a row, Naval Air Facility El Centro’s amazing photocall program has been an incredible opportunity to get shots you just can’t get ANYWHERE else. I’ve been fortunate enough to be invited to several of these photocalls through the Aviation Photographers of Southern California (APSOCAL) group and PAO Kris Haugh; and every time it’s pretty incredible. Being able to see the day-to-day operations of this seemly small base in the middle of nowhere makes you realize that NAF El Centro is a critical tool for the United States Military (mainly Navy and Marines) in the ongoing training missions for bases all over Southern California. Call it a gas station, call it a military hotel for pilots; NAF El Centro is a very active base with lots going on at any time. I’ve written several articles on past photocalls (see here: ) where you can read about the importance of this base and what happens during these photocalls more in depth. This photo moment is for the last NAF El Centro photocall of the year in November. Nearly 100 photographers were selected to attend this photocall, a record allowed to participate, and we all lined the runway during a warm day. Luckily for us, there was a squadron of Navy pilots in F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets being trained to fly the large front-line Naval Fighters along with pilots learning to fly in smaller T-45 Goshhawk trainers and a large C-2 Greyhound transport aircraft. It was quite the day of photography with Hornets launching and landing throughout the day just mere feet from all of us on the side of the runway. What really made this day stand out, however, was during later in the day when scattered clouds rolled in slowly bringing the golden glow of the early sunset making for some very dramatic and beautiful shots! I’d rank these photos next to my shots of the week aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln as some of the best F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet shots I’ve gotten.

Best Photography Moment #8:

Aviation Sunshine

B-17G Flying Fortress 'Fuddy Duddy' - Lyon Air Museum

When it comes to most aviation museums, most aircraft haven’t seen the light of day in years… or very rarely. If the aircraft are not actively flying, they will often sit inside for quite some time. When a museum has a situation that requires the shuffling of aircraft, or the clearing of a hangar for some special event, often it’ll be a rare chance to get some photos of these aircraft basking in the sunlight. Lyon Air Museum out at John Wayne Airport (SNA) had just that happen when Google rented out the hangar for a special event, forcing the museum’s pristine collection of aircraft to be towed outside of the hangar and parked in the sunlight. While Lyon Air Museum is a pretty active museum when it comes to showcasing the aircraft and even having most of them fly at least once or twice a year, there’s still some aircraft that often get left inside the hangar and this was a perfect time to capture them outside of the normally darker hangar. The museum was closed during this time for guests, but I was invited to come out and get some shots of this rare occurrence on the ground and from the roof of the museum. The museum’s perfect B-17 Flying Fortress, A-26 Invader, B-25 Mitchell, C-47 Skytrain, Douglas DC-3 Airliner, SNJ Texan, and L-19 Bird Dog were all lined up outside on the ramp with a background of modern airliners launching in and out of the airport. It was nice to have the opportunity to go out and capture these aircraft on the ramp without people or the typical museum placards and artifacts surrounding them. Thanks to Mark for the chance to take some unique shots of these beautiful birds!

Best Photography Moment #7:

DC-3 First Flight

Wings of Valor Douglas DC-3 Takeoff

When Wings of Valor (part of Aviator Flight Training out of Fullerton Airport) bought an airline DC-3 to add to their collection, they ferried it home down to Chino Airport (the DC-3 is too large for Fullerton) and soon after ran into quite a few troubles. Engine issues, wind damage to the aircraft and more caused the aircraft to be down for quite some time as repairs were made. Many months were spent trying to get the airplane back to airworthy status so it could start taking people for paid rides. The Douglas DC-3, a wartime veteran having taken part in the D-Day dropping of paratroopers in World War 2, was otherwise in immaculate condition with an incredible airliner configuration interior. A lot of anticipation, time, and (mainly) money were put into this DC-3 getting it airborne. Finally, in early September the DC-3 was ready for its first airborne flight test with a new engine, new tail parts, and a whole lot of hard work. I was invited to come out to Chino Airport to shoot the DC-3’s first flight and get some photos of the incredible interior. It was a pretty exciting moment as the DC-3 came to life and started to inch forward under its own power. It wasn’t long until it was at the end of the runway gaining speed and then finally it leapt into the air for a very successful first flight after many months! After two orbits around the airport, the DC-3 was brought back with a lot of cheering, laughter, and celebration!

Best Photography Moment #6:

Blood Moon

April 2014 Blood Moon Eclipse

Probably one of the most photographed and documented lunar events by thousands of people that I can think of, were two ‘Blood Moon’ eclipses which occurred in April and then again in October (April being the more spectacular), as the moon passed into the shadow of Earth. The result of this alignment is that all the sunsets on Earth are projected onto the moon. This is the only light that can make it to the moon, since (from the moon’s point of view) the Earth is blocking the sun and giving the moon a reddish color. I went outside during the April Blood Moon and photographed the moon every 15 minutes throughout the night capturing the entire sequence of the moon’s transition through the shadow. This was the first time I’ve ever attempted something like this, and it was pretty fun! The resulting collage image of the moon turned out better than I thought it would (after a bit of aligning!) There will be two more eclipses this year (2015) but it’s tough to tell if they will be any better than last year’s.

Best Photography Moment #5:

Airshows 2014

USN Blue Angels at MCAS Miramar Airshow 2014

This is the one entry that I could probably have split up into several different moments from 2014. With airshows back in full swing, it was a chance for me to really up the game with some new equipment I had yet to really use at airshows because of the two years of government sequestrations that left many airshows having to cancel. Some of it was luck, some of it was skill I’ve learned, and some was just having the right opportunities. Here are just a few highlights from the 2014 airshow season:

– NAF El Centro’s airshow was the first time I’ve been able to tour the US Navy Blue Angels’ Fat Albert C-130 Hercules. It was also the very first and (thus far) only time I’ve actually caught EVERY Blue Angel solo opposing passes! It was also one of the rare times the Blue Angel pilots have worn their yellow flight suits during an airshow.

– 2014 was the first year I’d photographed at the Los Angeles Airshow at Fox Field where I captured some unique Blue Angels photos along with some rare A-4 Skyhawks, NASA aircraft, and more.

– MCAS Miramar was back in swing and with it some really great photo ops. It was also the first time I had my new Canon 1DX camera at this show. The night photos of a F/A-18 Hornet launching for some late night afterburner passes ended up being some of my favorite (keep in mind it’s almost pitch black so you have to have a high ISO and very long shutter speed with good panning). MCAS Miramar was also the first show I’ve been able to photograph the new USMC F-35 Lightning II in flight.

– Much like Miramar, this was the first year I’ve been able to use my Canon 1DX at the Nellis AFB Airshow in Las Vegas. Here I was able to photograph the USAF F-35 Lightning and managed to catch a really neat Raptor shot inside a hangar with the American flag.

Best Photography Moment #4:

Empty Disneyland

Disneyland Resort After Hours

I’ve had the privilege of shooting a special show for Disneyland for the last few years called ‘Flashback.’ One of my favorite things about shooting these really awesome shows is that I often have the chance to walk through Disneyland when all the guests are gone and it’s very eerily silent. There’s a wonderful peaceful feel as you walk through the crowdless streets and you can feel that Disney magic without bumping into people left and right. This year, I had the chance to snap a few shots of the empty park, but this still can’t convey how cool it was to walk down Main Street and through Fantasyland all alone!

Best Photography Moment #3:

DC-3 Pass

Wings of Valor T-6G Texan and Douglas DC-3

If you’re around airshows and aviation events enough, you’ll have your share of close low passes. If you’re an aviation photographer, you’ll often get special access and you’ll find those passes can be even lower. For the most part, there’s never any danger in the low passes, but it still brings quite a thrill to have an airplane buzz you close enough to make you want to duck. I’ve had a US Navy Blue Angel F/A-18 Hornet pass overhead at a mere 25 feet on landing, and a formation of Hornets launch about 60 feet above my head. When it comes to warbirds, I’ve seen them get really low, and I’ve had them often buzz overhead pretty low when coming in for a landing. I had yet to have a big warbird come by and buzz me, until October when I had a nice encounter with Wings of Valor’s Douglas DC-3 at the Los Alamitos Army Air Field Open House. It was long after the crowds had left along with most of the vendors. Most of the static aircraft had already departed and it was down to a small few other dedicated photographers, some reenactors, and myself out on this airfield. I’d gotten word from the pilot of the T-6 Texan that was with the DC-3, that after departing they would come by and do a pass over the field. With the sun fading fast, this would be one of those times where waiting to be the very last person out would be worth it! The DC-3 and T-6 took off together and immediately made a large arc turn heading back toward the runway. At first it looked like a nice wing-level flyby along the runway, which would be a pretty cool photo but not quite dramatic. It was at the taxi-way just before where the five of us photographers were standing, when the DC-3 made a dramatic wing dip to the right turning almost directly at us. The resulting flyby was incredibly low and almost made us take a step back and hunch down. Since most of us had figured the pass would be over the runway, we had our larger 100-400mm lenses on, which was too close even at the low 100mm end! Thankfully I had my 1DX with full frame, and that only barely fully captured the DC-3 as it screamed pass with the T-6 trying to keep up. It was a picture perfect end as the two flew off into the sunset and all of us on the ground laughing at how close and how awesome that moment had been!

Best Photography Moment #2:

Epic Air to Air Shoot

P-47 Thunderbolt formation Air to Air Photoshoot - Planes of Fame Airshow 2014

Each year the Planes of Fame Air Museum Airshow brings together warbirds from around the nation in an incredible display of military air power throughout the era of flight. This year’s theme featured the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt bringing four P-47s to the airshow (and a fifth static P-47 on the ground). Naturally, each year there’s a big air to air photoshoot for a very select few photographers that will encompass the epic gathering of the rarest aircraft. I was fortunate enough again to be able to participate in this air to air shoot which included two shoots on different days. The first shoot was incredibly rare. It featured the US Air Force’s modern F-22A Raptor cutting edge fighter along with a WW2 P-51 Mustang, P-38 Lightning, and P-47 Thunderbolt. The Air Museum’s B-25 Mitchell bomber went up as the photoship platform (one of the best there is in my opinion) for this USAF Heritage Flight formation. The placing of the aircraft made it a bit difficult to get shots of all four airplanes together, but the shoot was pretty unique with the very sleek Raptor forming up with these warbirds. The second air to air flight occurred after the first day of the airshow and the plan was to have all four of the P-47s (two bubbletops and two razorbacks… the only razorbacks left flying) go up along with some of the aircraft that would also be flying during that time. The shoot ended up consisting of an A-1E Skyraider, Planes of Fame’s new Pilatus P-2, the four P-47 Thunderbolts in several different formations over Lake Matthews, and finally P-51A, P-51C, and P-51D Mustangs right at sunset as the last light was fading. The B-25 Mitchell was again the photoship for this shoot with a race against the setting sun! It was quite the epic air to air shoot with some really incredible images that will be really hard to top this year in 2015 during the airshow. This could easily be the #1 spot on this list, but it only takes second next to my aviation bucket list item that I was able to cross off in 2014.

Best Photography Moment #1:

B-17 Flying Fortress Air to Air Shoot

B-17G Flying Fortress 'Fuddy Duddy' Air to Air Photoshoot

Making the #1 spot for this year easily went to something I’ve worked on getting for several years now. After countless attempts to get an air to air shoot with the famed WW2 B-17 Flying Fortress bomber and having no success due to weather, timing, mechanical problems, etc., I finally had a chance to get some shots of the majestic big aircraft. Lyon Air Museum was doing flight tests of their wonderful B-17G Flying Fortress known as ‘Fuddy Duddy,’ and everything came together to finally have that opportunity to go up with the bomber during one of the day’s final test flights. Taking off in Lyon’s beautiful SNJ Texan (first time flying in that aircraft), we met up with the B-17 over Orange County and headed to the Saddleback Mountain area. I was surprised at how tough it was to see the bomber against all the ground and houses… it looks so big and reflects a lot with its glossy chrome finish, but yet somehow it wasn’t until it was pretty close and up on the radio that we spotted it. Mark Foster, the pilot of the Texan photoship, put the Texan through several maneuvers to get me all sorts of different angles on the B-17. It was pretty incredible seeing that B-17 off our wing and thinking how this played out hundreds of times with pilots in P-51s, P-38s, etc. escorting these big bombers to the target and back. I hope to have more opportunities to photograph this and other B-17s in the future, but for now that’s one less thing on my aviation bucket list!


DELTA Pilots

Delta Airbus Pilots take photos of the SNJ Texan

Since I always include an honorable mention entry, this year’s entry has to do with the #1 moment from 2014. Sitting in the backseat of the SNJ Texan waiting to take off for the B-17 air to air shoot, we were told to hold on the runway after the Texan pilot couldn’t see launching aircraft on the parallel runway. This was due to the Texan being a tail dragger and the noise of the aircraft being higher than the pilot’s line of sight. Since the tower had cleared us initially to launch before telling us about the parallel departing aircraft, tower had cleared a DELTA Airlines airliner to line up and wait on the end of the runway behind us. After holding us while traffic was cleared for us, I looked backward as the big airliner turned and cozied up behind us, right on our tail. Knowing it is pretty unique to get a DELTA airliner on your tail, I snapped a few shots. It wasn’t until I had gotten home later that day and looked at the images from the shoot that I realized I wasn’t the only one taking photos at that moment! Zooming in on the two DELTA pilots, I saw two pairs of hands holding cell phones, snapping photos of us stopped in front of their airplane! I guess it was pretty rare for them as well to be holding for a chrome-finished SNJ Texan and also wanted some photos from that moment!

So there you have it, the 2014 10 Best Photos Moments with a special Honorable Mention. Another year has finished, and it’s time to create some new memories and photographs to share with the world. As always, I’d say one of my New Year’s resolutions is to update this blog again aside from this yearly best photo moments post, but I know a year from now I’ll be saying the same thing. Regardless of the blog, keep an eye on Warbird Photos and Dietz Dolls for a lot of exciting new features and directions this year! Keep an eye out for the opening of the all new WARBIRD PHOTOS ONLINE STORE along with many new pinups and a lot of fun merchandise you can get such as playing cards, apparel, and more! So here’s to 2015 and all the new possibilities it can hold!


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