My First Air to Air Photography Experience

Getting a chance to do an air to air photography shoot has been something I’ve dreamed about since I began photographing airplanes.  The beautiful shots that grace the covers of the aviation magazines with beautiful prop blur at sunset over an incredible location, conjured up images in my mind of photographs I never thought possible for me to do. I didn’t think I’d be able to do it so quickly with my newly acquired photography skills, but it happened and this is the story.

I’ve been working with the gentlemen at 3G Aviation Media for over a year now and developing my skills on the ground, with night and sunset photo shoots. They’ve helped boost my confidence and encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone to create better photographs.  It’s been a great environment to learn in and obtain some wonderful advice and experience.

This past year was the first time they offered an air to air photography workshop.  I was so excited and nervous that I couldn’t decide which one to do.  For me, cost was a big factor.  I’m not a professional and photography is just a hobby at this point.  Trust me, I aspire to sell my work at some point, but I’m still trying to figure out the camera end of things for now.  Attempting to get a business going, well, that’s going to take some work of a different kind.

Let me elaborate about the options and costs so you can see my dilemma.  The first workshop was at the Atlanta Warbirds Weekend and they were going to be photographing the P-40’s for the gathering.  One session would be at sunset with the P-40 and a P-51.  Be still my heart!  The thought of photographing those two beauties together made me want to faint.  The cost was going to be around $2700 for that flight.  That’s a far cry from the typical $250 for a ground workshop.  I knew that this might be the only time I’d ever get to photograph those lovely planes together from the air, but I couldn’t bring myself to commit to it. 

P-40 Aluetian Tiger

I kept thinking, what if I don’t have the right equipment? What if my equipment isn’t good enough?  What if I pay that kind of money and all my pictures are blurry?  I’d die if I spent that kind of money and I didn’t get a single good shot.  I’m so new to photography, this just seemed overwhelming and highly unlikely for me to accomplish.  I’m sure I lost sleep mulling it over. 

At the same time, they set up a workshop for Mesa, Arizona with the Falcon Warbirds.  The cost would only be $1000 for this workshop, and this seemed more reasonable for a first time try for me.  The other wonderful thing about the location, my oldest son, his wife and my grandbabies now live in Phoenix.  I could go see them for a week, and try out this air to air thing. This was a win-win situation for me.

I spent some time talking to one of the 3G gentlemen about my equipment and what my chances were of getting some decent shots on my first go around.  He was very encouraging and said my current equipment would work great. I shoot with a Canon 70D so, that took a load off and I was feeling better about spending the money. 

After confirming arrangements with my son, I committed to the workshop and anxiously looked forward to making the trip to Phoenix.  I booked my flight and it was a done deal.  I couldn’t wait to go.

I decided to arrive the weekend before the workshop to get used to the weather and the time change.  I wanted to be prepared both mentally and physically.  You may think photography is easy, but the early mornings, long days and late nights can be very taxing.  If it’s extremely hot, it can dehydrate you quickly.  This time of year is cooler in Phoenix, but still reaching close to a hundred degrees most days. 

The workshop was in Mesa, about an hour outside of Phoenix at Falcon Field.  I convinced my son to spend the day with me checking out the old warbirds we would be getting acquainted with for the workshop.  He works on F-16’s and I thought he might enjoy a change of pace with seeing the older fighters.

Mesa, like Sedona, has some beautiful mountains surrounding it.  The deep reds contrast with the blue skies for an incredible view.  Walking out to the runway from the hangar, you can see several of the mountains in the background.  Red Mountain and the Superstition Mountain are just off in the distance.

B-17 Sentimental Journey

I was nervous about the photoshoot, not about flying or being at the airport.  That part seems second nature to me now.  There is a comforting feeling about walking up to a hangar these days. I was nervous about how my photos would turn out.  I was really hoping for at least one great shot.  I’d like more than that of course, but one would make this worth it.

Walking into the Falcon Warbirds hangar was very exciting.  There were  Nanchang’s and Yak’s all over the hangar.  The bright light coming through the hangar doors from the morning sun was already blinding.  I don’t think we are going to see any clouds today I was thinking.

We were welcomed by one of the instructors and headed into the conference room.  It was covered with photographs of the planes and models hanging from the ceiling.  The head of the operations introduced himself and told us to make ourselves at home. 

I learned that most of the pilots are retired military.  All with a ridiculous number of hours in aircraft I’d give my right arm to see fly and photograph these days.  I was honored to be among such royalty.  I knew I’d be in good hands for the flight today.

Watching the pre-flight briefing with the pilots was very interesting.  I didn’t know how much planning went into doing a photoshoot.  There would be two flights.  The pilots going up today have flown together many times, done multiple photoshoots and airshows.  Since they are familiar with each other, there’s a bit of humor and ribbing that goes on and they are very comfortable together.  There was also an air of seriousness to their conversations.  You could tell they wanted it to be safe and the communication well planned out in advance.  What signals would be used, what direction we would be heading, what pictures we intended to try and capture, all walked through on the whiteboard.  Each planned photograph was discussed and the location of each plane was identified before we left the ground.  There would be five planes going up today. 

The workshop attendees would be flying in the back of the Nanchang CJ-6’s.  The instructor would be flying in a Cyrus with his pilot, and helping to position the other planes as we moved across the air.  My flight would be going out for the sunset shoot over the Superstition Mountain. 

My pilot, ‘Spanky’ as he’s known, spent some time talking to me about the plane, what I could expect to hear and see when flying with him.  I’d be strapped in with a parachute today, not something I’ve had to do on a flight so far.  We aren’t planning on any aerobatics, but I guess it’s a good precaution.

We discussed our range of motion once we’re strapped into the plane.  It gets difficult to pan and get much movement once you are strapped in place they said. I was also concerned about being able to see out of the cockpit.  I’m on the short side and typically fly with cushions under me.  I talked with Spanky about it and he grabbed a couple of cushions for me to try out once we got in the plane.

Walking out with the gear, I felt like I was walking on air.  A chance to fly in one of these beautiful planes and photograph them at the same time, it was like a high of its own.  Spanky helped me up and got me loaded in the back seat.  “Don’t touch that button, switch those two on when I tell you.  Put your arms through the straps, and connect the leg straps over and through, click them in.  Pull the straps tight.”  Wow, I can’t move.  I can see perfectly out of the window, but I can’t move.  How on earth am I going to take pictures?

“I’m in the back seat of a CJ-6!” I was squealing in my head. Where’s somebody who can take my picture to mark this event?  Looking around, I saw my son and he had his phone out taking my picture and laughing at me.  I looked like the cat that ate the canary!  Two thumbs up!  This is the best day ever and I haven’t even left the ground yet!

“Make sure you can close the canopy,” Spanky says to me.  “Grab that latch and pull it all the way forward. Now, latch it in.”

I couldn’t get it at first, but after giving it another stronger push, I could get it closed.  In this heat, the cockpit turned into a greenhouse and I felt the heat rise immediately.  I opened it back up until we were ready to taxi.

I’m sitting in a fully operational, two-seater, dual control Nanchang CJ-6.  Spanky let me know that it’s a Chinese plane that the Russian’s put a new engine in and basically souped it up to make it a bad-ass plane,  his words. I think he  also said that it has a German propeller. It’s affordable to fly and a lot of fun too he told me.  I believe it. 

It was interesting listening to him talk about flying it and how he and other pilots still get together and practice dogfighting maneuvers for fun and practice.  I was envious listening to him.  What an adventure! 

I’m looking at the dials and switches, making sure I’m not touching things that I shouldn’t.  I watch Spanky as he begins pre-flighting.  We both have our headsets on so we can talk to each other now.

“It’s going to get a bit windy.  Clear prop!” He yells.  The grunt of the engine and a puff of smoke quickly dissipates as the propeller begins to turn.  It feels as nice as it sounds right now.

“You doing okay back there?” he asks.

“Yes!”  ‘Yes, I am.’ I thought to myself.  I’m doing incredible!

Five planes, all engines running and the communication begins.  One by one we taxi out to the runway.  We line up side by side.  I can’t believe we are going to take off together.  We’re inches from each other’s wing.  I see the other pilot looking at us as we begin to take off.  He’s glancing at us and up the runway.  I’ve never been this close to another plane when taking off before.  It makes me a bit nervous, but it’s also extremely exhilarating.  As we pull away from the runway, I see that we are bearing left and departing in sync still just a couple of feet away from each other.  I’m formation flying for the first time! 

This is already incredible and it’s just getting started! 

As we pulled away from the airport and headed towards the location for the photo shoot, I opened my canopy so that I could take pictures undisturbed by the distortion of a window.  What I didn’t realize was how windy it would be with it open.  They told us it would be in the preparation class, but until you are up there with the windows open you don’t know how it’s going to feel and affect your photos.  It also made it extremely noisy and difficult to hear the communications going on. 

I found that if I got too far to one side or the other to try and get a shot, my camera vibrated like crazy because of the wind.  There was no way to make an adjustment other than to pull the camera and myself back towards the middle.  The problem I finally figured out was that we were the back plane in the formation after we started lining up for photos, and we were much further away than I had anticipated.  It made it difficult to capture the photos I really wanted and that we had planned for in the briefing room.  I couldn’t hear the radio and so I didn’t try to communicate much.  I wasn’t clear on how to tell Spanky to position in the air, and I really wasn’t sure of his comfort level for getting closer as we moved around the mountains. There were a lot of moving parts to this formation and we were doing figure eights around the mountain together.  I didn’t want to ask him to do anything he wasn’t comfortable with, so now I know that we should have discussed that during our initial conversations so that I’d know how best to talk to him during flight.

I decided I’d just do what I could, capture as much as I could and hope for the best.  It was already exhilarating to be flying in the Nanchang and in formation; so if nothing else, I was still a happy camper.

I did realize that it would have been a good idea to have two camera bodies with me with two different lens options instead of just one.  I had the standard lens attached but could have used the 200mm when we got further away than expected.  Some of my shots made the planes so small they were almost indistinguishable from the terrain.  A longer lens could have helped.

Once we finished the patterns around the mountains, we began heading back to Falcon Field.  The sun was beginning to get lower on the horizon, and it was straight ahead of us.  The nice thing this time about being the rear plane, I had a chance to get some incredible silhouette shots of the planes in front of me.  I even managed to get the sun in a much desired starburst  looking through the canopy a time or two.  These turned out to be my favorite shots of the day.

It was an amazing experience.  I still have a lot to learn about air to air photography; but for my first time,  it was simply incredible. When I got done, I hugged my pilot and thanked him for the best day ever.  He was fantastic!

I got more good photos than I thought I would.  There were some I wish I had gotten, some that turned out blurry, but all in all, I was pleased with my first attempt at air to air photography. The colors were amazing.

We finished the day with a night photography shoot.  We were all thrilled to find out that we had a full moon coming up over the horizon, and the instructor had positioned the plane in such a way as to be able to capture the full moon coming up behind the plane. This requires a more complicated process to photograph and I won’t go into that in this post.  I might do another one on how the below picture came together.

This was the most fun I’ve had photographing so far.  It was thrilling to ride in the Nanchang, and the opportunity to photograph others from the air was incredible.  I gained experience, got some great shots, and made some new friends.  I’d love to do it again and hope to in the future.  I know I still need practice and probably some other gear to help get more of the shots I really want, but it was an amazing experience and well worth the time and money.

Please check out my friends at http://3gaviationmedia.com/ for more information on their aviation photography workshops.

For more information and some great videos of the Falcon Warbirds, please check them out here http://www.falconwarbirds.com/

2 thoughts on “My First Air to Air Photography Experience”

  1. Wow, really nice. You should think about ‘breaking out’ and doing this full time. If only you could get with someone and create a plan to do that…. 🙂 Nice work young lady.

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