Air-to-Air with Team Oracle

Just four years ago, I picked up a DSLR for the first time shortly after my first son was born. Like most new parents, I wanted to capture the highest quality shots I could of the new center of my universe. Unlike many parents, however, I was determined not to fall into the trap of buying a fancy new camera and then eventually letting it gather dust in the closet. For a couple of years, I shot a copious amount of baby pictures, along with a handful of images of my other love, aviation.

Everything changed for me when I managed to land an image in the September 2013 issue of Air and Space Magazine:

Thanks to connection through my employer, I had my first chance to fly with the aerobatic superstars Sean D. Tucker and Brian Norris of Team Oracle in June 2012. Suddenly I was going from photographing children, and the occasional airplane, to doing an air-to-air shoot with some of the most talented aviators in the world. I simply couldn’t believe what was happening to me. Not only was I getting to fly thousands of feet above the ground in an aircraft with no door, but I was getting to take pictures too? “Me? Little old me? I can’t do this. They should find someone better to do this,” I thought at the time.

I took hundreds of shots that day, shipped them off to Team Oracle, and thought nothing more of it. A year later, I was contacted by Air and Space’s photo editor. They wanted one of my shots. “What?! But it’s a bad shot. The composition is bad. The front seat rider has her head turned the wrong way. The lighting isn’t perfect. The aircraft at the top is too close to the edge for me to level the horizon,” I thought to myself. That moment taught me an important lesson about photography; it’s not always about technical perfection. The moment can matter even more than the image quality. I had a shot that illustrated what they wanted, and that was all that mattered.

For many amateur photographers, getting an image published in a magazine is a dream come true. My reaction wasn’t any different. I simply couldn’t believe that I could do that. Well, it turns out I could do it and it sparked an interest in air-to-air photography that hasn’t abated yet.

Getting the Shot

As someone that is afraid of heights, I never imagined that I would one day be sitting right on the edge of a Piper Seneca with an exposed side and just a simple safety tether strapped to my back. Sure, we had seat belts too, but I often had to remove that to position myself for a shot. That left just a safety tether that had enough slack on it that I’d still fly out of the aircraft and be dangling by the tether if I wasn’t careful. The adrenaline rush of being so close to another aircraft in-flight, and a mind racing through all the technical elements of photography, trumped all fears that day. This image by my friend at Craig Madsen Photography illustrates well what it was like that day (that’s me on the right):

Left: Jon Laqua, Right: Emmanuel Canaan, Photo Credit: Craig Madsen Photography

I still laugh when I think back to being jostled around constantly while trying to keep my hand steady, thinking I couldn’t possibly be getting these images in focus, and then hearing Team Oracle photo ship pilot Chad Colberg’s voice from the cockpit say, “Did you get the shot, or do you need Sean to do it again?” My reply was often a meek “yes, I got it” as I thought to myself, “can I really tell Sean D. Tucker, the world-famous aerobatic superstar, to do it again just for me?” Thankfully after one of his inverted “Top Gun” maneuvers, I found the courage to ask him to do it again after spinning through some blurry images on my camera screen. He deftly rolled his aircraft inverted one more time, and that’s how I got the shot.

The Air-to-Air Experience

I am so grateful that my first experience with Team Oracle wasn’t my last experience with them. I have since had two additional experiences with them that have furthered my desire to do air-to-air photography as often as I possibly can. There’s a special something about air-to-air photography that excites me like no other side of aviation photography. The feeling of being up in the air, mere feet away from a powerful machine in its element is difficult to describe in words. The best I can do is with this one word: Bliss.

People often ask me if the aircraft is loud when you are that close. The rush of the air around my photo ship is usually loud enough to mask all noise from the aircraft in formation. The funny part is that I’m usually so engrossed in my photography that the world around me becomes silent. I really find it peaceful up there.

There are many tips I’ve learned for doing air-to-air (see the post from my tech blog on this topic), but so many more that I have yet to learn. All in all, the technical aspects of air-to-air are relatively simple, but the big challenges are finding great pilots that are experienced with formation flight (Team Oracle has this in spades), planning out what formations you are going to try for, and looking for backgrounds or compositions that can tell a story. Here are some of my favorite shots from my experiences with Team Oracle that I think really tell the story of how incredibly fun it is up there:

I really love the smile on the front-seat passenger’s face here. It exemplifies how it feels to be on either side of that aircraft:

Brian Norris pilots Team Oracle’s aerobatic Extra 300 as it peels off to give a rider the time of their life. This image really helps express the freedom I feel whenever I do air-to-air:

After the aerobatic aircraft breaks off, my friend and collegue Jon Laqua has a little fun while we wait for it to return and form up with us again. This image was captured two and a half years ago, yet we’re still talking about that day all the time:

If you ever have a chance to meet Sean D. Tucker, do it! He’s an utterly incredible and inspiring leader. I always laugh when he describes this aircraft as his “office.” He knows he has the greatest job in the world, and has a lot of fun doing it, but always takes it 100% seriously as safetly is of the utmost importance. He is seen here flying his custom-built biplane that he calls the Challenger III:

This is one of my favorite shots. We were flying in formation with the team’s Extra 300 as Brian Norris gave a ride to an Oracle customer. While this was happening, I looked down and I see Sean just hanging out beneath us, smiling away. I leaned out a little and shot downwards. I had a 24-105mm lens, but shot this at just 28mm. We were that close. It wasn’t until post-processing that I noticed the baseball fields beneath him, so I decided to title this Aerial Baseball:

The aerobatic superstar, Sean D. Tucker, plays some aerial baseball over Minnesota.

Immediatley after the shot above, I decided to go in for the full 105mm reach of my lens and get a nice portait of Sean at work in his “office.”:

We always do multiple customer rides whenever I shoot with the team, and on this occasion, Sean himself took up a rider. He loves these rides as he enjoys sharing his love of flight with others. This image was captured just seconds after takeoff. I wasn’t about to waste any opportunities to get a great shot!

I absolutely love this shot, but often find that others can’t quite tell what is happening here. I guess I’m always excited about it because I can’t believe I managed to get this in focus. This was captured right at the instant that Sean did a barrel roll around our photo ship. He started on the left side, then rolled over the top of us and ended up on the right side of us. This is in tight formation folks. That takes an impressive level of talent. Here you see a break in the prop disc as I had to spin up to 1/250th of a sec shutter speed to ensure I caught this (I usually shoot props at 1/100th to get the nice full disc):

That smile you see there? That’s Sean everytime I see him. Always smiling, always a fountain of energy (even at age 62!):

Sean D. Tucker showing just how much he loves having the best job in the world, while giving a ride to a very lucky passenger.

When describing my Smithsonian shot up above, I mentioned how timid I was to give instruction to Sean. By my third year flying with them, I finally found my courage and began making requests. In this image, I had just relayed a request through our photo ship pilot, Chad Colberg, to have Sean give as a big grin and a thumbs up. Without hesitation, Sean complied and flew one-handed while holding the thumbs up long enough for me to get this shot. In the background, the newest member of the team, Chuck Coleman, flies his own Extra 300. Chuck is also an instructor for Virgin Galactic:

Sean D Tucker graciously gives me a big grin and a thumbs up at my request, as Chuck Coleman maintains a tight formation with Sean and our photo ship.

I smile a little extra when I see this image as it had been a cloudy dreary day all day. Lucky for us, we found a break in the clouds towards the end of the day. It was beautiful blue skies, smiles all around, and smoke on! Yeah baby!

Sean D. Tucker is all smiles when the smoke is on as he and Chuck Coleman find some sun through a break in the clouds and use it to show off their beautiful flying machines.

The following are from my 2012 experience where I got to ride with Brian Norris and see things from the other side of the lens. In formation with us is the team’s Piper Seneca photo ship (that I am usually shooting from). Always a photographer, I still brought my small Canon S95 along for the ride. The first image, however, is a screen grab from the in-cockpit action camera:

A screen grab from the in cockpit camera of Team Oracle's Extra 300 when I had my aerobatic ride with Brian Norris.

Aerobatic Air-to-Air

Up until this point, most of my images above were shot from the team’s Piper Seneca. That was fun and mind-blowing by itself, but things really got interesting on my most recent air-to-air experience with the team in 2014, when we took it to the next level with aerobatic air-to-air. Rather than retell the whole story here, I really encourage you to check out the article I wrote for the International Society for Aviation Photography. I describe my experience in detail starting on page 38 of their digital magazine ISnAP.

Here are some of my favorite images from that flight. The first image does a good job of showing just how tight of a formation the team flies:

The masters of aerobatics at Team Oracle, treat riders to the flight of their lives over Minnesota. From the top: Chad Colberg piloting the Piper Seneca, Sean D. Tucker piloting the Extra 300L, and Chuck Coleman piloting his own Extra 300L from which I am shooting from.

This image was originally captured in landscape orientation as Chuck Coleman and I rode alongside Sean D. Tucker in the same orientation he is in. Anyone I showed the image to couldn’t quite wrap their heads around how we were oriented, so I rotated the picture to a portrait orientation. “That’s it,” I yelled when I saw this. Hopefully the image conveys the heavy positive Gs I was experiencing as I took it!

Sean D. Tucker powers Team Oracle's Extra 300L through a loop over Minnesota in tandem with Chuck Coleman's Extra 300L.

Like the image above, this shot was originally captured inverted with the sky on the bottom and the ground up top. I hope this orientation makes your head hurt a little bit less. This was a moment of bliss for me as we reached the apex of the loop. All the heavy positive Gs melted away and got temporarily replaced by light negative Gs. For a split second I felt so free and unburdened:

Sean D. Tucker reaches the apex of his loop over Minnesota while Chuck Coleman and I ride alongside.

For this image I left the orientation exactly as it was captured to show just how crazy some of the maneuvers were. I am still in shock that I was able to get this many in focus as we performed loop after loop with me twisted around hard in my seat (I could barely see through the lens):

Chuck Coleman of Team Oracle takes me on an amazing ride in his Extra 300L while in formation with the aerobatic superstar Sean D. Tucker over the skies of Minnesota.

I don’t think Chuck Coleman likes this image much (sorry Chuck), but the reason I like it, is that it shows how talented of an aviator he is. Here we are in the midst of a loop under heavy Gs, yet he still has time to both fly and pose for me. Amazing guy:

Chuck Coleman wears many hats. From Virgin Galactic instructor to airshow performer, Chuck is seen here wearing his Team Oracle hat while simultaneously posing and performing an aerobatic maneuver over Minnesota.

This image is a great way to show you what it’s like to be on the photo ship. Cramped space, but with the door removed, it feels so refreshing, open, and free:

Team Oracle's photo ship, piloted by Chad Colberg, treats a group of photographers to a blissfully smooth ride while Sean D. Tucker and Chuck Coleman fly in tight formation.

Finally, check out this behind the scenes video showing how the aerobatic air-to-air shots were captured (I know, I know, cheesy music, but I had to do it. Had to.):

Living the Dream

Having the chance to do air-to-air photography has been a dream come true for me. You’ll hopefully see many more air-to-air stories in the future as it is truly my favorite form of aviation photography. Thanks to Team Oracle, I’ve been able to learn that this is something I love doing. Stay tuned for the story of my fall colors Stearman shoot from the fall of 2014. Thank you to all who read my stories and enjoy my images!

Buy the camera and the lens used to capture many of the images in this story: Canon T4i and Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM Lens

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