Miscellaneous Aviation Events

Space Shuttle Atlantis Departs from Edwards AFB California, USA
Red Flag 07-2 military exercise Nevada, USA
Collings Foundation F-4D Air-to-Air Photo Shoot Prescott, USA
Vietnamese Air Force In Action Danang, Vietnam
SpaceShipOne's First Flight Into Space California, USA
Phancon 2004 New Mexico, USA
Fire Fighting Aircraft Czech Republic, Russia and the USA

Space Shuttle Atlantis Departs from Edwards AFB (California, USA)

The Indian restaurant where I was having lunch with work colleagues on June 22nd, 2007 happened to have a large screen TV tuned to CNN.

And what should be on TV but the landing of space shuttle Atlantis in Florida after 14 days in orbit during mission STS-117 - or so I thought.   But as it approached the runway I recognized the control tower at Edwards air force base in California, not too far from my home in Los Angeles.

A few hurried emails and I was on the list to see Atlantis' departure from Edwards atop one of the converted 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft.

Due to technical issues it was postponed from the original date of Friday, June 29 to the next day, at 7AM.   After a two and a half hour drive I arrived only to find that departure had been delayed one more day and was now due at 5:30AM.   After an hour and a half of sleep I again made the trip to Edwards.   Thankfully the takeoff happened just after 6AM, so there was now enough light to actually photograph it.

The space shuttle orbiter is a big aircraft, weighing 110 tons and measuring 124 feet in length and 59 feet in height.   Flying at Mach 25 at the start of re-entry, it heats up to an incredible 2700 degrees Fahrenheit as it "glides" to earth at an angle of up to 40 degrees, losing 10,000 feet of altitude a minute.

It's an awesome piece of technology, and well worth seeing in action before they are all retired in 2010.

Red Flag 07-2 "Colonial Flag" Military Exercise   (Nevada, USA)

The Red Flag military exercise is held several times a year at Nellis air force base near Las Vegas.   It pits a "blue team" of fighters, ground attack aircraft and bombers against a "red team" of fighters in simulated soviet paint schemes and flying according to soviet military tactics.

Many support aircraft such as aerial refuelling tankers and transport aircraft also participate, providing the ultimate in realistic environments for trainee aircrews.

The exercises aren't just for American forces, over the years aircraft from many different allied nations have taken part.   This session included transport and ground attack aircraft from the United Kingdom and Australia.

One difference between seeing aircraft at an airshow and watching them at an exercise like Red Flag is that all the planes are loaded with ordnance, some dummy and some live.

Red Flag 07-2 featured a number of military aircraft which aren't commonly seen by the general public.   On the American side were planes like the E-3 Sentry AWACS, RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic warfare platform and the navy's EA-6 Prowler electronic countermeasures plane.

The British Tornado fighter/bomber is obviously a rarity in American skies, as was their unusual special operations C-130 Hercules, complete with refuelling probe; however the aircraft which attracted most interest from enthusiasts were these Australian F-111 Aardvark fighter-bombers, drawing photographers not just from the USA, but also from Canada, the UK and Japan.

Collings Foundation F-4D Air-to-Air Photo Shoot   (Prescott, USA)

At the conclusion of the 2005 Arizona Sky Fest I had the opportunity to do an air-to-air photo shoot of the Collings Foundation F-4D Phantom II, one of the classic American aircraft of all time, produced in larger numbers than any other American fighter.   It was the Vietnam War equivalent of the Korean War's F-86 Sabre, or the P-51 Mustang of world war two.

This particular aircraft is the only civilian owned F-4 in the world, and is painted in an authentic Vietnam war era color scheme commemorating Steve Ritchie and his back-seater Charles DeBellevue, who were the only air force crew to become aces during the conflict.

The photo shoot itself was a difficult affair, since the Phantom is a very fast aircraft and keeping up with it is no easy feat.   Flying in the back of a Saab Metroliner with the emergency exit door over the wing removed, we had to repeatedly bank and turn in often turbulent air to cut across the Phantom's path.   No wonder then that as soon as the shoot was over I spent ten minutes dry retching into a barf bag, but I've never regretted one moment of this experience!

Vietnamese Air Force in Action   (Danang, Vietnam)

Flying into Hanoi's main airport in 2004, I was surprised to see revetments housing Vietnamese air force MiG-21 "Fishbed" fighters, which were the most potent communist aircraft of the Vietnam war.   Since I was making an internal flight from Hanoi down to Danang a few days later, I made sure to reserve a window seat so I could photograph the MiGs.

I thought I was very fortunate to get these photos, but I really hit paydirt a few days later when I returned to the airport for an internal flight down to Cam Ranh.   As I entered the parking lot a MiG-21 took off with afterburner blazing and an enormous roar, lifting my hopes that I might get some more photographs, but this time of the Vietnamese air force in action.

With thoughts running through my head of how a tyrannical communist government might treat a spy photographing their aircraft, I decided to play the dumb tourist by pulling out my camera and outsized telephoto lens in plain sight while I was in the terminal and holding it very visibly in front of me.   I continued this little charade when we were taken out to the tarmac to board our flight and was rewarded with several sequences of different MiG-21s taxying, taking off and landing.   The rarity of the photographs lead to them being published a short time later in several British aviation magazines.

SpaceShipOne's First Flight Into Space   (California, USA)

I had no particular expectations when I took a day off work in the middle of 2004 to see the attempt by SpaceShipOne to become the first civilian craft to break the magic altitude of 100 kilometers, which would allow it to claim the $10 million "Ansari X Prize" and a place in space exploration history.   As well as the opportunity to see history made, it was also an opportunity to see three freakish aircraft created by maverick designer Burt Rutan, a legend in the modern aerospace industry.

SpaceShipOne's first flight into space was certainly an event to behold and not without its share of drama.   Released from its mothership at an altitude of 47,000 feet, SpaceShipOne turned upwards and fired its rocket engine, reaching Mach 1 just 10 seconds later and its top speed of Mach 2.9 about a minute later.   However, although the huge crowd of spectators didn't know it, SpaceShipOne experienced serious problems on its way up which made the pilot contemplate a very risky high altitude bailout and eventually resulted in a reduced final altitude of 100,124 meters, enough to win the prize but well short of the intended goal of 108,000 meters.

There was more drama on the return leg as SpaceShipOne glided back down, again reaching Mach 2.9 on the way down, which produced two clearly audible sonic booms.   Another loud bang which left the pilot "pretty scared" was caused by a failure in the rocket nozzle, which had a large kink in it which was clearly visible on landing.  And there was one final piece of excitement a few days after I uploaded the photos - to my surprise my website rocketed into the stratosphere, going from a daily average of 2,500 visitors to a single day peak of over 36,000!

Phancon 2004   (New Mexico, USA)

Holloman Air Force Base at Alamogordo in New Mexico was the venue for this year's F-4 Phantom II Society conference.   Holloman is home to the F-117 Nighthawk Stealth Fighter, as well as T-38 jet trainers and a German Air Force detachment here to enjoy the wide empty spaces available for combat training.   It's one of the very few places in America where one can see the European swing-wing Tornado fighter/bomber in motion.

However it's not the Tornado or the Nighthawk which is the focus of this event.   About 150 attendees came from Europe, Japan and even Australia to reminisce and see the historic F-4 Phantom II fighter flying.   This event is one of the last places in the United States where it's still possible to see F-4s flying, unfortunately all of the Phantoms here are configured as QF-4 target drones which are used for missile testing at the nearby White Sands missile range; even worse, a software glitch prevented the QF-4s from flying during Phancon.

The Germans, however, do still operate the F-4F as a front-line fighter and treated the dedicated Phantom Phanatics to a very good display over two days of taxying, taking off and flying, both in formation and singly.

The weather gods also smiled briefly and allowed some good photos of the aircraft.

Fire Fighting Aircraft   (Czech Republic, Russia and the USA)

S-64 Skycrane

Over the last ten years I've had an opportunity to photograph many different types of fire-fighting aircraft, both at airshows and in real-life emergency situations.

The S-64 Skycrane is the largest American fire-fighting helicopter, this one was dropping water on a forest fire in southern California.

The Martin Mars shown here was also at work on fires in southern California, a couple of years after I photographed the Skycrane.

This huge world war two era naval seaplane is a legend amongst aviation enthusiasts, the two which are still flying are based in Canada, so it was a special treat to see one operating closer to home.

Martin Mars
Beriev Be-200 Altair

The eastern Europeans have spent a lot of effort developing and operating this sort of equipment, from helicopters like the Polish W-3A Sokol and the mighty Mi-6 "Hook" through to fixed-wing aircraft like the remarkable jet-powered Beriev Be-200 Altair seaplane.   In 2006 I journeyed all the way from Los Angeles to the Gidroaviasalon exhibition in the Russian Black Sea resort town of Gelendzhik to see Beriev's two jet-powered seaplane, and several other interesting Russian aircraft.