It all started in March. “We have an opportunity, a once in a lifetime one to have a gathering of five P-38s” was how the phone call began. For the non-aviation enthusiast, the P-38 Lightning is a WWII fighter of incredible fame. Between those in static displays and flying, we’re looking at just a handful of these dual boom flying machines of an ancient era left in the world. Personally, it was a plane my father, a bombardier/navigator in B-29s in WWII was involved with in the factory. I grew up on stories of this fabled aircraft with models and photos about the house. So when the call came and I was asked to help in the effort to bring the P-38s to the Reno Air Races in Sept, I jumped right in.
Fast forward the clock to the races just last week. As it is with aircraft that are 60-80 years old, things happen. And running these warbirds takes money, just the gas bill alone makes me gulp. So at the start of race week, we only had one P-38 at the races, the very famous Glacier Girl and that was it. So what had been planned for months had fallen by the wayside. I had brought my Ken Lab Gyro K4 with me, made plans but like so many previous times in my career, the best laid plans…well, you know the rest.
The second day of the races and the ramp rumor (what I call them) was that the 23 Skidoo P-38 from Planes of Fame was flying up. Then the plan was hatched, how about a shoot with the two P-38s and the two F7F Tiger Cats at the races? It had never been done before and the likelihood it would ever happen again were slim to none. OK, the shoot might be on. The next day, it was off again. The next day, it was on again. My good friend Richard said about the whole thing, “I’ll believe it once we’ve landed.” The goal was to do an air-to-air photographing a flight of four planes from the rear of a C-130. Talk about grandiose! The next day, the flight was off again and then on the last possible day we could do it, it was on, then off and then on if they can get the tire on the C-130 changed soon enough.
Then came the call…we’re on for 17:30. Then it was 16:30 and then it was 17:00 and finally, briefing would be at 17:30 for a flight at 18:00. Holly Cow! There were to be only eight photographers on this historic flight and I was very incredibly, incredibly, incredibly fortunate to be even asked to be one of them. My emotions went up and down from my throat to my toes so many times I felt I’d already taken the flight. As we walked over to where we were going to have the briefing, details kept changing, time of the briefing, location, up until the very moment the briefing began, things were in flux. While I had brought and thought through the camera gear I was going to use, with each change in the plans I would fret through what gear to take. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity, there would be NO reshoots!
We all gathered right next to where Glacier Girl (a ten million dollar beaut!) was parked all week. She had been pulled out to the ramp and parked next to 23 Skidoo, Here Kitty Kitty and Big Bossman (F7F Tiger Cats). And there I am, the “rookie” with aviation photographer stars Paul Bowen, Richard VanderMeulen, Dave Leininger, Scott Slocum, Kevin Graham, Buckie and Jimmy listening to four legendary pilots brief us on the flight. I pinched myself twice. This flight was a first for everyone, from the pilots to the planes to the photographers. And the stakes were very high, there was zero room for any mistakes. And there I was, the rookie, wide eyed, nervous, sweating, excited, taking it all in while counting every blessing. Keep in mind that I’ve only been doing aviation photography for three years and my first air-to-air in January and here I was, incredibly blessed to be included. Later, when I asked why I was included, I was told, “your reputation and a big thanks.”
The briefing was over and we basically ran back to the Media Room to get our gear, get in the van and get loaded up in the C-130. From the briefing to the Media Room I was rethinking the lenses I would use once again. It’s then that it occurred to me that Bill Pekala from NPS was there shooting with the new 28-300VR. Changing lenses while shooting wasn’t an option. We would be shooting in groups of four photographers at a time with each group getting at most 20min to shoot. I needed to have THE lens on THE body from the get go. I walked up to Bill, told him the situation and asked point blank, “Would you trust this lens to such an event?” I trust him 100% and when he said, “Without hesitation” I asked if I could borrow the 28-300 (and did it perform!). I walked out of the Media Room with the 28-300VR on the D3x and the 24-70AFS on the D3s. With that, we were in the van and then walking into the C-130 getting briefed.
We would be shooting from the ramp at the rear of the C-130. We would be in the suck zone where anything will be sucked up and out! This includes photographers as well as camera gear not secured. So each photographer would be wearing a harness which was secured to the floor of the C-130. I was in group 2, second group to shoot so we picked a shooter from group one to partner up with. We went through putting on and taking off the harness, something where there is no room for mistakes. Any mistake, of a person or object falling out the back of the C-130 would not mean just the loss of that life or object, but also the planes behind us which the item would crash into doing 200+ knots bringing them down as well. This was very serious stuff. With all of this talked over and practiced under the watchful eye of the load master of the C-130, we sat down, put on our seat belts and the C-130 taxed out.
After all these months, after this amazing roller coaster ride, we are actually taxing to take off. Five of us in the very back of the plane are giddy as kids and of course being photographers, we are taking photos of each other. The excitement nearly took my breath away because before I knew it, we were airborn. Then I could feel us in a bank. Dave tapped on my shoulder and pointed out the window on the side of the C-130 where we could see the ground and then the runway. We were flying the race course! After one lap it was off to our appointment over Pyramid Lake with four amazing aircraft. Once in the air, there was no communication except by yelling in the ear to someone next to you (we all were wearing ear protection). The sign came up, we were down to only three aircraft, a Tiger Cat was having issues and flying back to Stead Airport. The slight disappointment was just setting in when we got the sign that we were back to four aircraft. What a roller coaster ride! Then was the sign to get the first four shooters in their harnesses and with that, the top half of the ramp door opened. We all strained to see in the bright light the flight behind us but we could see nothing. The first four photographers got up on the edge of the ramp and you could tell from their body gestures they were shooting and loving every moment of it. Their twenty minutes of shooting seemed to last all day. Without a word, when their time was up, they skinned down the ramp, took off their harnesses and just as we practiced, we put them on and moved up the ramp to shoot. What I had been thinking about for months was about to be in my viewfinder.
Dave & I went up the ramp together. We skinned up and as we neared the edge the suck zone started to pull us up the last few feet. I couldn’t see anything out the back of the C-130 and I wondered if the four planes had left formation and would be joining up with us shortly. I got up to the edge of the ramp, have my knees literally on the edge of the ramp, one more inch and I would be flying, I look out to see Glacier Girl parked right behind the C-130!!! OMG!!! I was not prepared to be nose to nose with history. Dave and I just looked at Glacier Girl and then each other really not believing what we were seeing. It literally took my breath away! Then we came out of the dream, SHOOT!!!!
The first shots were taken at 1/250, for sure sharp images. Like I said, this had not been done before and more than likely will never happen again so had to have some images tack sharp. With those recorded on both bodies, I went to work with the D3x/28-300 shooting at 1/90. Why that shutter speed? That’s what gives you the beautiful blur to the props and when the planes are flying right into the sun, it’s magical! Now keep in mind, you’re tied down to the C-130 by a fifteen foot tether with your knees on the edge of a metal ramp covered with non-skid material. It was great!!!! Using proper handholding, leaning out on the tether and pulling against the tether using my thighs I steadied myself and shot.
We were making a constant clockwise circle over Pyramid Lake, the background and light constantly changing. Richard worked the four planes into different formations so we could constantly shoot something a little different. The pilots of the four aircraft have amazing skills coming in making the most incredible turn into something beyond belief. The whole time we were fighting the clock. The sun was setting, fuel is expensive. With every turn the background changed, the light changed and the formation changed. I would fill up the buffer on the D3x and switch on the D3s and once the D3x was ready, I switched back. In our twenty minutes of shooting, I had over 800 images. If two were tack sharp, I would feel really good. Oh yeah, the doubts and fears raced through my mind. Opportunity of a lifetime, using a new lens for the first time, shooting at 1/90 in conditions where 1/1000 was required, there was plenty of room for total failure!
Time was up, slipped back down the ramp, got out of the harness and strapped back down in my seat. I looked at the LCD and I saw a sharp image. Phew! It was then time for giant smiles, high fives and the satisfaction of success. We landed, hugged and celebrated the moment with the killer C-130 crew, shook hands one more time and walked over to the Media Opps party. We were greeted like heroes with folks wanting to hear the story you just read and see the images. I handed my two bodies to our sons Brent & Jake and from their faces, I could see I had succeeded in capturing the magic of the experience in the images.
(Note: I ended up with 76% of my images shot tack sharp but I kept every single image I shot. Each and every one a special memory that I must save! A special thanks to Valerie for one of the greatest rewards friendship this profession has ever graced me with!)