The Arsenal of Democracy couldn’t have happened without the support of many people. They said that 56 planes took part of the flyover on May 8th which is a lot when you think about it. Planes and Pilots came from all over the country to be a part of the event and many of those pilots spent time practicing and doing photo flights. There was so much commotion at Culpeper throughout the week but the airport felt rather calm most of the time. Last Wednesday everyone was busy getting planes maintained and cleaned so that they could fly in the practice flight the next day. The T6’s were part of the trainer formation that flew on Friday and they would go up repeatedly to practice. This particular P-51, “Ain’t Misbehaving” was coming back from their practice flight of a four ship of mustangs as well. All of this was shot with a D4 and 70-200 VRII.
When to convert an image to black and white? This has always been a question that I have asked and is often answered during the moment of capture. Sometimes it’s the subject or sometimes it’s the mood of the moment, but something about the moment it clicks that makes you think, “hey that will be a nice black and white.” It’s common in most fields of photography but in aviation it is a lot less. I never quite figured out why. Perhaps it’s because everything we knew about aviation was once captured in black and white and now everything has to be captured in color. It’s the difference between historical images and contemporary images.
These two examples are ones that I took a while back of a PBY Catalina and a T6 Texan. Both of these images I converted not because of the mood, or the subject, or even the clouds but of the combination of everything. The goal was to recreate the historic images that lead the way in avaition photography. A classic black and white image of a PBY beached at Pearl Harbor with destruction all around has become a staple in military history. As well ha all the images of trainer aircraft flying above the clouds. It’s simple ideas of recreating the past that fuels the projects for the future. Theses ideas spark others and the cycle continues. Black and White photography is not just about the right elements, but about the overall message being conveyed.
I have decided to add a new section to my blog that talks solely about the history of aviation. I have grown to really enjoy and appreciate the history of airplanes over the last several years and this seemed like the most logical way to consistently bring what knowledge I have learned to others to enjoy. Every Thursday I will be writing some form of review of a different aircraft highlighting everything that I can think of from development, to service, and to todays usage. With that in mind, it took me a while to decide which plane to start with. I have had the great fortune to have photographed so many great aircraft, that many have become favorites of mine. As some of you might recognize this plane, I decided to start with one of the first planes that I photographed and was in fact the first aircraft I ever did an air to air shoot with. This is the North American AT-6 Texan.
This is the AT-6 Texan, redesignated the T-6 in 1962, one of the most used and collected warbirds that exist today. The T-6 was designed as an advanced trainer aircraft during WWII and was used at some point by almost every serviceman that went through the US Air Corp. After completing basic training on the biplane Boeing Stearman, pilots would go on to advance training where they would learn to fly mono wing planes such as the Vultee BT-13 Variant and AT-6 Texan. Afterward depending on the proven skill set and placement they would go onto either single engine training school or multi engine training, basically separating the class into fighter pilots or bomber pilots. The AT-6 played a pivotal role in training pilots being one of the first training aircraft they flew with metal surfaces, hydraulic flaps, retractable landing gear and .30mm machine guns mounted in the wings for aerial and ground gunnery practice.
The T-6 was such a popular aircraft that 34 countries signed contracts with North American for planes of their own. 15,495 T-6’s were built to supply the orders from the other countries as well as the US. Throughout it’s service the aircraft has been known under several designations: the USAAC and later the USAAF designated it the AT-6 until 1962, US Navy designated it the SNJ and the British Commonwealth air forces designated it the Harvard, which is its best known name outside the us.
Due to the T-6’s ease of maintenace, low cost and large production, it has become one of the most popular warbirds collected today. Unlike fighters or bombers which had a relatively short lived life expecantcy overseas, the T-6 lasted long past WWII and was used during Korea as a trainer for the US. It never saw front line service as a fighter for the USAAF but it was used by other countries up through the 1970’s as a fighter plane. With its Pratt & Whitney R-1340-AN-1 Wasp radial engine, 600 hp (450 kW), the plane was capable of speeds up to 208 mph. This later changed as the planes performance was enhanced for racing. The T6 gave pilots the ability to do rolls, Immelmanns, loops, spins, snaps and vertical rolls which was partly why it made for such a good trainer. This later allowed the plane to be very versatile in aerobatic roles at Airshows.
Seen here is a row of T-6 trainers at EAA Airventure Oshkosh from 2011. Because they have such a low cost to fly they have become such a staple in airshows that it is actually hard to find an airshow that doesn’t have at least one T-6 around. Amongst the most famous group of Airshow performers is the famed CAF Tora! Tora! Tora! group which uses several replica Zero and Nakajima “Kate” Torpedeo bombers which are all modified T-6 Texans.
One of the great historical aspects of the T-6 is all the different paint jobs that the plane had from going to so many different countries and being used for so many different squadrons. This particular plane is based out of Honolulu and is owned by a nice man named Bruce Mays. His T-6 is painted in honor of the USS Saratoga. These are the aircraft markings of a plane that would be stationed on that carrier. Back in 2011 I had the great privilege of lying with Bruce and my Dad on an air to air mission with his T-6 over Pearl Harbor. Being such an iconic spot in WWII history, and with such few warbirds actually on the island, this was by far one of the most fun and satisfying air to air shoots that I have ever been on. The only slight challenge to the whole matter was having to fly in a Cessna 172 in the back seat shooting through the plexiglass windows. Nevertheless the images and story were all worth it. Not to mention his T-6 looked absolutely gorgeous in the morning light over Oahu.
While the T-6 makes a great photo subject, and in my opinion is one of the best warbirds to practice air to air photography with, it is also one of the best photo platforms to use. With a good range in speed, again low cost in fuel consumption, and high rate of availability, the T-6 is one of the most sought after photo platforms, especially those with the reversible rear seat allowing the photographer to shoot straight back.
In 1920 Ralph Pulitzer sponsored the Pulitzer Trophy Race to establish publicity for his newspaper and aviation. The races later moved to Cleveland where they become known as the Cleveland National Air Races, which lasted until 1949. The races were put on hold during WWII but resumed afterward. They initiated a special class after WWII just for the T-6 Texan. That class continued on to the Reno National Championship Air Races, which started in 1964 after the Cleveland races were shut down. Today the T-6 class at Reno is one of the largest classes of competitors, including fan favorites like #6 “Six Cat” owned by Nick Macy with six gold medal wins to his name and #43 “Midnight Miss III” owned by Dennis Buehn with five gold medal wins.
This here is Dennis flying his beloved Midnight Miss III back in 2013 at Pylon Race School. Dennis was the start of air to air photography for both myself and my Dad and has been a friend of ours ever since. He showed us that not only are the planes really cool but the pilots are a breed of their own. One of the most important lessons they teach is not about history, but that life can be over in a blink of an eye so enjoy every minute of it. Dennis continues to race his team of aircraft, further influencing those in the warbird community. He has owned and rebuilt over seventy T-6’s in his life which makes him one of the true experts on the aircraft.
The T-6 Texan, SNJ or Harvard if you prefer, is one of the main stay aircraft of the warbird community. If ever there was one cornerstone aircraft that all pilots have at one point or another, flown, it was this one. If it were not for this plane many of the brave men who fought in WWII may not have gotten as good of training as they got. Today these planes can be seen all around the world, and is one of the few planes that that can be said about. At museums all across the country visitors can go and see the T-6 and at a price can even go and buy a ride in one. I highly recommend that anyone interested in aviation go and see about a ride. It will get you hooked.
For the second year in a row the Planes of Fame Airshow did not disappoint! Last year was incredible with 5 of the then 7 flying P-38 lightnings in the world showing up and this year was a real treat to have 4 of the six flying P-47 Thunderbolts in the world. This included the only two flying Razorbacks. Now I spent yesterday going through images, getting them tagged, renamed, filed and started to plan out where what was going where. Well all of that was just from Saturday! I’m still getting through Sunday. It was a great weekend.
This is a quick click of a T6 Texan that was part of the Korean War re-enactment. There was some nice clouds way high up but the wind helped out to give them some character. There will be more to come.
What is flight? Flight is the world between heaven and earth that houses many beautiful creatures that soar around looking down on the world. Birds naturally start flying at an early age, instinctively as their biology tells them to. For humans that were never designed to fly, physically or mentally, it has been one of the greatest challenges to overcome in the past hundred years. For some flight is just a way to travel from one destination to another, but for others it is a way of life. A life that many consider to be truly free. A last reach to the stars. Our jobs as photographers has always and will always be to capture stories, so that there will always be a record of what happened. There is no easy path in any field of photography but when it comes to machines that have no smile, no eyes and no voice, bringing out the life in each plane can be a real challenge. It’s the challenge of bringing Romance to Flight.
No matter what plane it is the core elements are always there. The fuselage, the nose, the wings and the tail. Each plane has one of these things, if not more, and often the story comes down to how the details in each of these areas makes the plane what it is. In a way every plane has its own characteristics which make it unique. Sometimes with a flashy paint job or a colorful past, but no matter what it is none of it matters if it doesn’t come out in the photograph. Take this AT-17 Bobcat/ T-50 for instance, or otherwise known as a Bamboo Bomber, photographed down at CAF Mesa with a 24-70 f/2.8. This uncommon plane was first built in 1939 as a military trainer to help students get used to a multi engine aircraft. It later branched into the commercial world as the T-50. Over 5,400 of these planes were built and although it’s not a rare plane it certainly isn’t common either. With it’s rounded wings and bulbous nose getting low and shooting up against the Arizona sunrise brings out the radiance of the yellow paint job as well as the structural simplicity.
Being old isn’t the only way to have character, although more and more character does seem to come out as one gets older. It can be something as simple as the destination that tells the story, and we all know that the best destination is seen in the background. This Piper Turbo Prop is flying into this frozen airport at my home town at Mammoth Lakes. Dad and I raced down there one evening before dinner. Armed with a 200-400 VRII and D3 we waited along an old stretch of highway as the plane came in. Thankfully since we had no sunset, and the plane was late, we had a low fog come through to give an eerie wintery mountains feel to the scene. What that family was planning to do that weekend I don’t know but imagine ski’s were involved.
I’m often reminded of how easy it feels to bring out the “majesty” of these vintage planes and how much harder it is with more modern aircraft. The only reason it feels that way is because most of these old planes already have a history to them, it’s just a matter of bringing that back to life. For newer planes where the history isn’t written yet it’s about finding ways of showing how technology has progressed. Like these V-22 Osprey’s down at Miramar. There was at least a half dozen lined up going over this little hill, all looking the exact same. The one on the end kept coming and going on maneuvers as it was scheduled. Probably one of the most amazing technological achievements, this tiltrotor airplane breaks the laws of physics letting us not only fly but hover in the air.
On the rare ocasions when there isn’t just one aircraft out front but a whole line of planes as far as the eye can see, that’s when the pixels must really fly. There is nothing like having a squadron at the ready.
Sometimes that squadron is a dozen warbirds from various collections and museums, and other times its a line of racers getting ready to go out for that last race of the year. With a 70-200 VRII and lots of depth of field, bringing out that first plane can be just as important as that last one. It’s all about the story and finding those shots where you can see down that line of planes and it’s perfect, are far and few!
It doesn’t take long before you realize that there is more to this whole plane thing then just the planes. As I’ve talked about before it’s about the people behind the planes. It is amazing how much aviation touches our daily lives and how few people know about it. Then again it’s also amazing how some people dedicate their lives to making sure that everyone has the opportunity to learn about these aircraft. Taking the Texas Flying Legends out of Houston, TX. Their mission is to educate while honoring all veterans and preserving their stories. Their credo says it all, sacrifice above self. Their beliefs don’t just extend in what they do on the ground but in the air as well, as they are constantly preforming, critiquing and improving their aerial demonstration.
Back on the ground it’s right back to whats really important, the vets. It’s important not just for today’s pilots but for everyone to get involved and talk with veterans. They’re stories are unbelievable and most are willing to share those stories if you just sit and talk with them. When they know you aren’t just there for an autograph and that you truly care, the world can open up.
It doesn’t just end with the vets. The pilots, the volunteers, the mechanics, the staff even the reenactors they all have their stories to tell and enjoy just being around the planes. For most it’s not about the money it’s about shear enjoyment. It truly is a great feeling to just spend a day under the wing of a plane and watch the world go by. Even for some greased up mechanics working on a C-53 after a long flight, under that blue sky and on top of that green grass, everything is at peace.
It’s about the people and just showing an interest that great things can happen. Well if that’s not a reward enough it can lead to great things like flying over Galveston Bay with millions of dollars of warbirds. This P-40 Warhawk, Aleutian Tiger, is a great example of just this. Dad and I got to work with the Texas Legends for one reason, we talked, we showed up and we kept our promises to help. That was all. Always remember that last part.
I know everyone wants to hear some super secret awesome way to get marvelous shots of airplanes no matter what the subject, what the background is and what the light is, but the truth is there is no secret. Everything still comes down to the basic fundamentals of photography. Good light, interesting background or with planes a clean background, good panning, and the subject needs to be sharp. The only trick, if that is what you want to call it, is applying the physics of the rotating prop to an appropriate shutter speed. Slower shutter speed shows more blur in the props, it’s best to shoot in shutter priority to get this result. How far down you go is up to your panning abilities but that’s all it takes. After that the rest comes down to your own personal taste and creativity. Post processing falls into both of those last two categories. I will say watch out for dust, it’s a pain in the butt.
In the end it all comes down to what’s pleasing to the eye. Making these machines into individuals with their own characteristics makes the best shots. Every pilot knows when they step into a plane that each one has it’s own quarks, we just need to show that in our images. Flight began as a romantic notion of touching the stars and proving that man can do anything that he sets his mind to, even defying our physiological nature. As long as that notion is in your heart when you photograph these planes then it will show in your photographs.
This is a question that I always seem to never have an answer for. There is a subtle seduction to black and white photography no matter the subject, light or image content. Perhaps it goes back to the golden age of photography where everything feels more romantic. I’m not really sure what it is but it is something that I always contemplate when working with aviation. With landscapes it’s a bit easier to see what feels like the right ones to make into black and white but with planes it’s not. I think part of it has to do with which aircraft it is.
Takes this T6 Texan for example which I was lucky to photograph back in 2010 during my first air to air shoot. This plane at one point belonged to Dennis Bheun who sold it not long after the shoot. You can read more about the plane and the shoot in one of my Dad’s posts. More to the question I raised, it feels to me like the planes today that still feel like they are flying back in the day are the ones that turn into better black and whites. Now that could just be me or the connotation that everything from that era was in black and white but either way it’s fun topic to think about.
In the Camera Bag:
Nikon D3, 70-300 VR, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film
The question I pose this time is how big does the subject have to be if there is great light on it and the background? I bring this up because I often wonder it myself. This T6 seemed like a good example of this. Normally I would pass on a shot like this but because the mountains look so good the plane looks great. The closer the plane comes, the more the mountains disappear breaking the illusion of speed and flight. Having that good background makes all the difference. The one thing I have noticed when working with planes is that whenever you can put ground in the picture, no matter the size it gives the image depth. Planes in the sky by themselves is just boring. It’s a challenge to find those spots where you can get both ground and sky in one frame but when you can it always makes for good images.
Nikon D3, 200-400 VRII, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film
Probably one of the coolest things to see in Aviation is a row of the same aircraft lined up. Staring down the noses or tails is just cool. Maybe it’s the symmetry of all the planes together or maybe it’s just because it’s one great plane by another, whatever the reasons is, I like it. The great part is, it’s just a simple click. The only challenge is waiting for all the people to clear away so that you aren’t spending a lot of time rebuilding the planes.
Nikon D3, 70-200 VRII, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film
We tend to see a lot of strange things at Reno, we never know what will show up. Well this year one of the qualifying planes in the T6 class had a very unusual paint job. At first glance it appeared to be a SBD Dauntless Dive bomber which if the wings were less straight it could pass for one. The couple days that we had clouds, the great clouds showed up before I got there, were good shooting days. The SBD T6 as we lovingly dubbed it was unusual but fun to photograph. There was something catchy about the plane. It certainly stood out surrounded by all the polished aluminum T6’s
Nikon D3, 600f4, TC-17E II, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film
It looks like so many planes but which one is it? It’s both depending on who you ask. This is an Aichi D3A “Val” Dive bomber movie conversion. It was originally a Convair BT-15 Trainer but back in the 1960’s when they started making the film Tora! Tora! Tora! there was no example of flying Japanese aircraft, so the adjusted the BT-15 to make it look like a Val. The plane went into storage after the movie and didn’t see action again until Pearl Harbor. This plane flew in the movie along with 6 other aircraft from Planes of Fame.
The original Aichi D3A Dive Bomber, called the “Val” by the allies was a carrier based dive bomber. It was the first Japanese aircraft to do damage to an Allied ship in WWII. It also sank more allied ships than any other axis aircraft. Although effective early on, by 1944 the Val was outdated and by 1945 it was used as a kamikaze plane from land based air fields.
In the Camera Bag:
Nikon D3, 200-400 VRII, on Lexar UDMA Digital Film