Soaring With Angels

I have seen the United States Navy Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron perform on a number of occasions over the years, but not once did I ever look up at them and think that just five years after first picking up a DSLR, and just three years after my first air-to-air flight, I would end up flying alongside them over one of the most iconic cities in the world, San Francisco. I’m often asked how I was able to participate in this flight, and what it felt like to be up there. What follows is the story of that unforgettable flight, as well as two additional flights that took place the following day, the sum total of which constitute the most amazing experience I’ve ever had in my life.

A Seat on the Plane

There haven’t been many times in my life when I was able to make a decision without a single moment allotted to at least some consideration. The moment I received an email from Sean D. Tucker inviting me to fill an open seat on a photo flight with him and the Blue Angels, was one of those moments. I think my eyes may have actually bugged out of my head when I read that email. I pounced on the opportunity knowing that I may never get an offer like that again. I’ve been lucky enough to work with Sean and the rest of Team Oracle many times over the past few years. Sean has watched me progress along my photography journey and, thankfully, saw something in me that prompted him to offer me a chance to grow further. I didn’t know how my cash-strapped, time-deprived, child-tethered butt would make its way to San Francisco for the flight, but I knew I would find a way to make it work.

The Morning of the Flight

Please God don’t let me fuck this up.

My apologies for the foul language, but that is the precise phrase that played over and over again in my mind like a broken record from the moment I woke up, until the moment the Blue Angels eventually formed up with our photo ship. If any of my close friends are reading this, they likely remember receiving a text message including words to that effect as well. I was no stranger to the importance, cost, and rarity of a shoot like this, nor did I have any delusions of grandeur in regards to my photography skills. Ask any aviation photographer if they’d ever like to do an air-to-air with the Blues and they might just offer to sell you a kidney in return.

I’d end up having a full seven hours for that phrase to echo in my mind before the moment of truth. However, what I have learned over time is to not let the magnitude of an event overwhelm you. Instead, while still giving the shoot the same respect and careful planning I bring to any air-to-air shoot, I wouldn’t spend too much time thinking about this being any different than anything I’d ever done before. In fact, from a technical perspective, it wasn’t much different. It would be the same camera gear, same photo ship, and same Team Oracle crew that I’d worked with in the past. I checked and double-checked my gear, preset the shooting mode and settings I expected to need, and didn’t allow myself to dwell much further on the event. Until the briefing that is.

Fly on the Wall

This shit just got real.

Sorry, I’m being profane again. I’m a pretty quiet, introverted guy most of the time, but I swear like a sailor in my mind. Once again, I had a broken record in my head, except this time, there was some DJ in my brain creating a dubstep mix about not screwing this really real event up, and he kicked up the tempo the moment I walked into the pre-flight briefing.

One second I was casually talking to Sean, and the next I was being ushered into a tiny conference room tucked away in the corner of one of Oakland airport’s private air terminals. The closed door of the conference room seriously looked like a janitor’s closet with no indication of the awesomeness contained within. Inside, was the entire Blue Angels flight crew. Yes, all of them. This flight would be the full diamond, not “just” one or two of their beautiful blue and gold F-18s.

Remember that introverted nature I mentioned? Yup, it decided to surface at this moment as I found myself a bit star-struck in the presence of such talented and famous aviators. My jaw clamped shut like a vice, and I was almost completely mute as they each introduced themselves to me. I was able to meekly eek out my name, while spending the rest of the brief wondering how in the world I ended up in that room. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of specific shots I wanted (such as the one below) and these were indeed discussed, but thankfully I had already gone over these with Sean prior to the full brief. This allowed me to observe mutely like a fly on the wall, while Sean, a man finally in his element, took the lead in discussing how we’d execute this complex task.

Intensity
Intensity

Everything suddenly got very serious as they discussed the radio frequencies, how we would safely enter and exit the aerobatic box without being in conflict with the Blue Angels, how they would form up with us, the circular shallow descending pattern we would fly, and the limited time we would have in formation before the jets would be low on fuel (our photo flight would be icing on the cake to the practice air show they would perform beneath us as we orbited in the aerobatic box thousands of feet above them).

Once everything was nailed down, we left the room to smiles all around and headed back to prep our aircraft. As we left, Sean didn’t hesitate to give me a light ribbing and take note of the camera I had held in my lap for the entire brief without taking a single picture. I just couldn’t do it. Knowing that these aviators are constantly being hounded by cameras wherever they go, it just felt irreverent to subject them to even more photos. This was a memory that would just have to remain just that, a memory.

Showtime Baby

Are you ready for this? It’s going to be intense.

It was words to that effect that Sean said to me right before jumping in his beautiful, custom-built, Challenger III biplane. I had checked, double-checked, and triple-checked my gear. I was as ready as I’d ever be. Just prior to departure, I realized that while I wasn’t the most experienced photographer on the flight in general (two media photographers were with us), I was the most experienced with the unique skill set required for air-to-air photography. I briefed the other photographers on the flight based on what I had observed in the flight briefing, as well as offered them some tips on settings to use.

Our photo ship pilots (Scott Steiner and Chris Rudd) informed me that they would be looking to me to position the formation, as I was the most familiar with how this is done. I wouldn’t be able to position the Blue Angels, but I would be able to position Sean and they would follow. For the uninitiated, this is done via simple commands such as up ten, down ten, out ten, etc. Those numbers are referring to feet of movement, and yes, these aviators are so talented, they can be that precise. The purpose of all of this, is to get the aircraft where I want them for the best photo composition.

We took off as a two ship flight consisting of our photo ship and Sean’s Challenger. The Blue Angels had long since taken off to begin their practice show over the San Francisco Bay. Since we had a bit of time to climb up to the starting altitude of about 4,000 feet, I was able to capture a number of shots of Sean solo over the city. We took this time to periodically move him forward into tight formation with our ship, in simulation of where he would be when the full diamond formed up with us. He’d hold this tight, exhausting position for a short bit and then move to a more relaxed cruising position. Below are some of the shots I took during the slow climb to altitude.

Bay Area Cruise
Bay Area Cruise
Office In The Sky
Office In The Sky
Splash of Red
Splash of Red
Angel Seeker
Angel Seeker

If you click on the link for the last image above, take note of the dark spot in the extreme upper-right corner. What I almost thought was sensor dust at first glance, is actually a very tight formation of four Blue Angels jets. This was one of the coolest and most relaxed portions of the flight where I was able to look down and watch the Blue Angels perform below us. I never thought I would have that perspective on one of their performances. Here is another shot where you can see their smoke trail stretching across the city as they cruise very low over the buildings.

Above The Blue
Above The Blue

Four Minutes

Here they come boys, get ready to shoot!

Those were the words I heard from our safety pilot, Chris Rudd, just seconds before the Blue Angels pulled into my field of view. Chris had a vantage point from the front of the plane where he could see their approach and advise the photo ship pilot, Scott Steiner, of any changes he needed to make to our speed or flight path, as well as assisting with the complex transitions in and out of the aerobatic box (an area of airspace dedicated to aerobatic flight activities). What seemed like a sudden approach to me, had actually been a few minutes of the Blue Angels formation slowly approaching us and matching our speed. In the image below, you can see them form into the diamond just before pulling in tighter and climbing to our altitude.

Formation Approach
Formation Approach

Chris’s words above, marked the starting point of four of the most intense minutes of my life. Yes, I would have just four short, frenzied minutes to get my shots in before we’d run out of altitude and the Blue Angels would be out of fuel. The three of us in the back of the photo ship (a twin-engine Piper Seneca), immediately began jockeying for position to get a shot. This proved even more difficult than I had imagined, as I quickly realized that I would need Sean even farther forward than anticipated to allow me to get the whole formation in view without having the tail of our photo ship obstructing the view. I repeatedly directed Sean forward and up until I was satisfied with his position from my perspective in the back of the plane (technically the “worst” seat on the photo ship, but I think you’ll agree that I managed pretty well). My goal was to position Sean higher in the frame in order to have key San Francisco sights nestled beneath them as you see below:

Aerial Splendor
Aerial Splendor

For gear, I had both a Canon 6D with a 24-105 mm f/4L IS lens attached, and a Canon 7D MKII with a 70-200 f/2.8L IS II lens. This is my current go-to setup for air-to-air. For this particular flight, I didn’t even touch my long lens as they were CLOSE. So close, in fact, that I rarely strayed past 28 mm. Any photographer reading this will know quite well the slightly warped perspective that a wide-angle lens will give you on a full-frame camera. This led to a moment of stunned shock as I briefly lowered the camera to find these powerful aircraft much closer in reality than I had thought they were.

I’m often asked if I used a gyro stabilizer on this flight in order to have a reliable chance of crisp shots at the slow shutter speeds necessary for prop blur on Sean’s aircraft. All of the shots you see here were taken hand-held, with most being captured between 1/100th and 1/200th of a second shutter speed (generally 1/125th whenever possible). A gyro would certainly have been nice to have, but it is a costly, bulky, accessory that I am unfamiliar with, and I didn’t want to introduce a new element on a shoot this important.

This flight wasn’t just intense for the photographers; the pilots had a much harder job than we did. If you can, click on the link for the image below and see if you can make out the ear-to-ear grin on Sean’s face as we completed our final rotation with the Angels, and we could all start to relax a bit:

Departure
Departure

Even the Blue Angels themselves had a bit of struggle to slow down enough to the speed of our photo ship. Take a look at this behind the scenes video from our flight, courtesy of the Team Oracle GoPro (mounted outside the aircraft and directly beneath my seating position). Note the extremely rapid movement of the horizontal stabilizers as the fly-by-wire control system struggles to keep the inherently unstable F-18 airframe in smooth flight at slow speeds:

Despite all of the craziness of this flight, when I look back at the images, they seem strangely peaceful to me. Here are a few more of my favorites from that flight.

A Walk In The Park
A Walk In The Park
Angels
Angels
Inverted Splendor
Inverted Splendor

It may seem strange, but it never occurred to me at the time that we were over a city filled with millions of people as they can’t be seen from the air with the naked eye. After landing, I realized what a spectacle we were when people started reaching out to me on social media with images like the ones below from John Duncan of Six-Five Studios. His images do a fantastic job of capturing our flight from the ground. Please check out his fine work and give him a follow.

SixFive_SF Blue Angels_1015_144

SixFive_SF Blue Angels_1015_152

One More Thing

I’ve got something else for you.

Would you believe that I originally planned to fly out to San Francisco just for that one flight? That’s how important it was to me. Thankfully, Sean had one more thing up his sleeves that necessitated a change to my flight plans. He informed me that on the day following the Blue Angels flight, we’d be going up with the Blue Angels support aircraft, a U.S. Marine Corps C-130T Hercules affectionately named “Fat Albert” (further shortened to “Bert”).

This flight would differ from the previous day’s excitement in a number of ways. First, the briefing this time was much more intimate. Sean and I, along with a photographer from the Blue Angels, stood outside in the impressive shadow of Fat Albert with the first female Blue Angel and Fat Albert’s pilot, Captain Katie Higgins to discuss the flight details. We would also have a unique photo ship pilot this time around as Sean D. Tucker himself took the reins of the Seneca! A short distance away, stood a number of the U.S. Navy Seals and other special warfare crewmen that comprise the U.S. Navy Parachute team “The Leap Frogs”.

The main purpose of Fat Albert’s flight that day wasn’t to give us an opportunity for an amazing photo shoot, but rather it was to open the Friday show of San Francisco’s annual Fleet Week air show. The flight plan called for Fat Albert to orbit the city for a few turns at around 3,000ft (presumably to get the crowd’s attention), then climb up to 8,000ft to drop the Leap Frogs. The parachute team would then form up and carry the U.S. flag down to the ground while Fat Albert followed them down in a descending spiral.

While still possessing an element of intensity, the pacing on this flight would be quite different as it would take some time to climb up to 8,000ft. This gave me time to capture a number of shots of Fat Albert over San Francisco’s iconic landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz. I also had a rare moment to appreciate the beauty of the landscape and snap a few aerial shots of the city as we climbed.

Big Beauty
Big Beauty
Wings Over The Bay
Wings Over The Bay
Marine Traffic
Marine Traffic
Just Hanging Out
Just Hanging Out
City By The Bay
City By The Bay

The most difficult moment of the flight came during the Leap Frogs drop. Ordinarily, the subject of an air-to-air shoot would be behind us to afford a better angle for the photographers. However during this portion of the flight, Fat Albert would be ahead of us and farther out. This was to allow us a view of the jumpers exiting the ramp. We also had to stay a safe distance away, both to stay out of the wake turbulence of the C-130’s powerful props, and also to allow the jumpers room to safely exit the aircraft.

The strange angle resulted in all three of us photographers literally piling on top of each other as we struggled to get a good angle for a shot. On this flight, I ended up in the front of the aircraft. Normally, this would be rock star seating for any other subject, but for the drop, it meant I’d have the hardest time finding an angle to shoot from. The shot below was actually taken through the glass of the photo ship as I scrambled to find any angle I could. Despite the difficulty, and the haze at altitude, I actually love the shot below as it just happened to be right above San Francisco’s International Airport (SFO) and the lead jumper appears to be surfing the sky as he exits the aircraft.

Surfing SFO
Surfing SFO

During this mad scramble to get a shot, I witnessed one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen thus far on an air-to-air shoot, and it had nothing to do with subjects outside the photo ship. This was me observing one of the photographers on the flight, who’d only brought wide angle lenses (in the belief that Bert would be much closer to us at the point of the drop). She quickly discovered that she would need a telephoto lens as we neared the drop point. Luckily for her, the other photographer on the flight was a Nikon shooter as well, and happened to have a spare telephoto lens. I’m normally squeamish about in-air lenses changes so that’s one reason I carry two bodies. She, on the other hand, had no qualms whatsoever about changing a lens just a few scant inches from the open door and the high-speed airstream threatening to rip the (borrowed) lens from her hands. I still shudder at the memory. Now that’s a photographer!

Would you believe I’m deathly afraid of heights? If I wasn’t focused intently on capturing the images, I might have been terrified to notice that I’m hanging precariously over the Golden Gate Bridge in the image below as we chase Fat Albert and the Leap Frogs back down to the ground after the drop (image courtesy of James Beer). Despite appearances, there is enough positive G-force while turning, that I was not aware at all that we were banking so steeply. You can see here where I was seated and can hopefully imagine just how difficult it would be to shoot towards a subject in front of the photo ship.

Harness
Harness

The Cherry On Top

I’ll do this for you

As a photographer, the flight with the Blue Angels was, for me, like the sweetest of confections, with the flight with Fat Albert the next day being the whipped cream. And what about the pièce de résistance; the proverbial cherry on top? Well, that ended up being the final ‘golden hour’ shoot solo with Sean D Tucker following the Fat Albert flight. This was something I had never expected, and always wanted to do with Sean as I’ve never had the chance to fly with him anywhere near sunset. I made a remark along those lines to him, and was met with the quote above. Take note that an air-to-air flight is no small logistical challenge, and it certainly isn’t cheap. An air-to-air flight mainly for my benefit would be something special indeed.

While we would also be joined by an Oracle videographer on the flight, the intensity and previously cramped shooting conditions would be gone for this flight. This time, I’d be able to relax a bit and enjoy the beauty that surrounded me, and appreciate for brief moments the almost magical nature of what we were doing. Since this post is already long enough, I’ll leave you here with some of my favorite images from this sunset flight over the bay area, as well as a sincere thank you to those who take the time to read this post and enjoy my images. I’d also like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Sean, the crew of Team Oracle, the Blue Angels team, the Leap Frogs, and to everyone else that had a hand in making this dream a reality for me.

Focus
Focus
City Commuter
City Commuter
Bay Area Serenity
Bay Area Serenity
Aerial Tourist
Aerial Tourist
Straight Outta SF
Straight Outta SF
Nose In
Nose In
Bayside  Cruising
Bayside Cruising
Gateway Guardian
Gateway Guardian
Countryside Cruising
Countryside Cruising

As always, prints of any of the images featured in this post are available on my website.

Please note that some portions of this post originally appeared in a Warbirds News article. Please check it out as well if you can. Also, if you’re interested in buying any of the equipment I used on these flights, please consider using the following referral links to support my efforts: Canon 6D and 7D Mark II, EF 24-105mm f/4L IS and EF 70-200 f/2.8L IS II lenses.

 

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