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Aviation Nation 2009

Posted in Aviation, Blog, Journalism, Photography with tags , , , , , on Saturday, 11 September 2010, by Stan

ACC Heritage Flight (QF-4, P-38, F-86, A-10)

November 14, 2009

Las Vegas, Nevada – Went to Nellis this weekend for the first time to catch Aviation Nation 2009. I don’t know why I’ve never made the trip before. It’s only another 90 miles farther than going to Miramar. And it’s light years easier getting into and out of than Edwards. It’s now my new favorite air show.

One thing that impressed me was the non-stop action. It reminds me of Miramar. Great if you like a lot of action but it’s hard to find a good time to make a food run for fear of missing something.

The weather was just about perfect; around 60 degrees but since the desert sun was shining brightly it felt quite warm. Not a cloud in the show airspace but some big cumulus formations threatened to the east. With the picturesque mountains as a backdrop, the promise of some excellent photography lay ahead.

The first of many mixed-aircraft formations to take to the air included an A-10 Thunderbolt II, an F-22 Raptor, an F-15 Eagle, and an F-16 Falcon. I would have liked to have seen the F-15 do a demo. I seem to miss the shows where the F-15 Demo Team is performing. All of the other jets performed solo demos later in the show.

Following the fly-by was the demonstration of the F-22 Raptor. Impressive plane! For those who don’t believe that the Raptor really confuses radar, consider this: If you use an active auto-focus camera, i.e., one that measures distance to the subject by sending out an infrared beam, a good portion of your shots will be out of focus. (I may write about this in a future blog.) That’s one reason why it’s always good to keep your manual-focusing skills sharp. I’m still waiting to catch that perfect Raptor afterburner shot where the flames are curved by its thrust vectoring capabilities.

As part of the Doolittle’s Raiders re-enactment, two B-25 Mitchell bombers took us back to WWII and the raid over Tokyo. Heavenly Body, which sees a lot of action on the air show circuit, was looking beautiful at the tender young age of 64. She, along with Executive Sweet, showed us how they did things back then. The pyro guys on the ground helped the ladies of the air prove that they were as deadly to the enemy as they were beautiful by simulating a series of bomb drops. Did I forget to mention the nose art?

It was good to see The Horsemen flying at Nellis. They are the world’s only P-51 Mustang aerobatic team. I saw them earlier this year at Luke. They were good at Luke but for some reason today their performance, provided by pilots Ed Shipley and Dan Freidkin, just shouted teamwork. Maybe it was the angle from which I photographed them today. One shot showed both of them flying east to west over the runways as if the were connected by an invisible wing.

The Horsemen at Aviation Nation 2009 in their P-51 Mustangs. Photo (c) Stan Thomas/Kanale Creations

Another shot, one of my favorites of all the thousands of aviation photos I have, shows the paint scheme on the body reflected on their wings as they fly so close together that they are almost touching. And those big Rolls-Royce Merlin engines are starting to become music to my ears.

A re-enactment of dogfights during the Korean War featured five different aircraft, each performing a different role. A call came over the loudspeaker that a MiG was in the area. An F-86 Sabre was dispatched to check it out, and if necessary, take care of the bandit. An A-1 Skyraider, a P-40 Warhawk, and an AT-6 Texan patrolled the show area performing the role of spotter and ground attack. Imagine five planes flying in a tight airspace, all on different paths, and at different speeds.

What riveted me was watching the MiG-15 and F-86 go at it. In the air, there’s no difference between 1953 and 2009. So it was no stretch at all to imagine that this was actually happening just as it did back then. The MiG-15/F-86 Sabre dogfights are some of the most storied air battles in the history of aviation. Now, it is being re-enacted right above our heads: The MiG was spotted a couple of times way off in the distance, then engaged by the Sabre. The MiG had a nice, long look at the Sabre in the rearview mirror as the Sabre rode his six like he was glued to it.

Another thing that impressed me about this part of the air show was the amount of real-time coordination required by each of the planes. Remember GPS didn’t exist back then, and yesterday’s radar was nowhere near what it is today. In the demonstration today they have to process a continually changing scenario of two jets chasing each other across the sky, imaginary mobile and stationary ground forces most likely shooting at them, and the propeller-driven planes that are themselves moving.

The Royal Netherlands F-16 demo team was on hand at Nellis but their orange jet had a maintenance problem so they couldn’t bring it. That was another reason I went to Nellis; to get a picture of that orange paint scheme. But the show must go on and Captain Ralph “Sheik” Aarts ably put the replacement Viper through its paces.

The Dutch fly a very aggressive routine in their demonstration. ‘Sheik’ spent most of his performance time pulling high G’s. Watching it makes you appreciate the kind of extreme stresses the F-16 can handle and the kind of physical conditioning required by its pilot to be able to fly it in those conditions.

This was Captain Aarts’ third and final year at the controls of the team’s demo jet and this was the last show of the season for the team. ‘Sheik’ gave us a flawless show. A nice way to complete the year. Well, there was one hitch: the Dutch team’s announcer was expecting Captain Aarts to deploy the drag chute upon landing but for whatever reason Aarts did not release it.

Dean "Wilbur" Wright flies Patriot Jet #1 by Nellis tower

I finally got a good shot of the Patriots. The Patriots Jet Team flies the beautifully painted L-39 Albatross. Beautiful, but it’s shiny black. As photographers know, that presents a challenging set of circumstances that have to be overcome in order to get a good photograph. Normally at Miramar the sun is in front of you all day long so all of the shots of the Patriots come out as a dark shape against an ugly yellowish-grey sky. Here at Nellis we have the mountains in the background. We also have a wider section of the air show space to the east and to the west where the sun is not in the viewfinder. And we have a clear blue sky. All that made it easier to relax a bit and enjoy watching and shooting the performance of the Patriots.

The Wings of Blue didn’t perform because the wind was just a hair above their performance limits, maybe by 1 or 2 mph. So to fill the time, announcer Gordon Bowman-Jones pulled off one of the biggest hoaxes I have ever seen perpetrated against a crowd that big. Being one of the best air show announcers anywhere had a lot to do with being able to carry out the feat as smoothly as he did.

Jones said that since the Wings of Blue couldn’t jump, they contacted an F-117 that had just taken off from Holloman headed for a museum in the Midwest. He said they’d try to get it to do a fly-by before heading out. A minute later he ‘confirms’ that they agreed to the fly-by. I should have known from his commentary – aside from the fact that the Nighthawk has been retired for several years now – that he was up to something. He says that the plane uses the same technology as Wonder Woman’s invisible jet; it has a forward-facing camera that projects the scene onto the rear of the plane, and rear-facing camera that projects the scene onto the front of the plane. In the booth with Bowman-Jones, a guest announcer from a local radio station has taken the bait, hook, line, and sinker.

Now the plane is supposedly 27 miles out. Gordon comes back on and says that the reason the Stealth Fighter is so quiet is because the engineers went to a special anechoic hangar and recorded the sound of perfect silence. The F-117 has two pods that broadcast this sound at a high level to ‘drown out’ the sound of the engines. I was ready to go get a shovel but thought the thing was still going to do a fly-by. Suddenly he excitedly announces that he sees it and if you turn your heads exactly 90 degrees to the left you’ll see it inbound. It has to be exactly 90 degrees or you won’t see it. The ENTIRE crowd is looking left, myself included. We wait, we wait, and we wait. Soon you hear the sound of a propeller engine in the speakers pan from left to right. I got the joke as soon as the prop sounds started. When no plane showed up, everyone else got the gag. Gordon, you just punk’d 100,000 people. I’m sure Gordon left the air show through a back entrance tonight.

As part of the Air Combat Command Heritage Flight, a QF-4 made an appearance. They’ve long since decommissioned the Phantom II but a few examples are still around in remote-operation, drone-towing, and full-scale target drone roles. The ‘Q’ designation means it’s a drone conversion. Today our QF-4 had a real pilot aboard taking over the controls and is one of a handful of Phantoms that got a third lease on life as part of the Heritage Flight.

The Phantom II is one of my favorite airplanes and it’s been close to 20 years since I’ve seen one airborne. So it was a real treat to not only see it fly, but to capture it on digital ‘film’. To make it even better, before it joined up with its Heritage Flight teammates, it did a couple of fly-bys for the crowd. When it did join up to perform the H-Flight, four different war eras were represented; A WWII-era P-38 Lightning, a Korean War-era F-86 Sabre, our QF-4 from the Viet Nam era, and an A-10 Thunderbolt II from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Aviation Nation 2009 ended with a demonstration by the US Air Force Thunderbirds. I was reduced to a virtual spectator for their performance instead of the photographer I have been at every Thunderbirds show I have attended since the late 1980’s. I was not happy about that. What happened? Read on.

It wasn’t until after I got home and downloaded all the photos from the memory card that I realized I had taken well over 1,500 shots – almost 10 times more than I normally shoot with my film camera. (Yes, I still love and use film). Those 1,500 shots do not include the ones I deleted. The Nikon D200 digital camera I got made that possible. It’s really nice not to have to worry about film at an air show now.

I am having a blast with this camera! The technology that has gone into this camera now makes it possible for me to get shots that I couldn’t get before. For example, crossing patterns used to be very difficult to capture. Now I’m getting four out of five opportunities. Vibration reduction in the lenses means I can capture prop blur on a fast-moving aerobatic plane at long range. Using the playback feature, I can make adjustments to the camera settings based on the information from the previous shot.

But for all its advanced technology, it’s no good if the thing won’t work. Which is exactly what happened right before the Thunderbirds took off. It kept telling me the battery was low and it refused to take any pictures until I turned the thing off and back on. Of course by then whatever it was I was trying to shoot was long gone. I went all the way up to Nellis with the specific intent of capturing three of the Thunderbirds’ maneuvers – calypso, sneak pass, and a good diamond shot. I missed all three because the camera was acting up. A little research turned up a problem common to my camera: DBS or Dead Battery Syndrome.

Despite a bunch of other small problems, I think I’ll go again next year. Missing those T-Bird shots is really nagging me and I am determined to get them. I have put a few photos from Aviation Nation 2009 up on my website. Most are available for purchase by clicking on the “Buy” button to the right of the image.

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