I often get asked on Instagram how my photos of these airplanes in flight are made. The answer is less complicated than some expect but non the less quite spectacular.
Taking air to air photos is not that hard from a photographic point, but logistically and organization wise it’s more difficult.
First of all there’s the social part. You need to know the people involved in aviation. From pilots to other photographers, airshow organizers, etc. I won’t go any deeper on this, but don’t expect to organize a shoot out of the blue without having the right contacts. I was lucky to have some great contacts early on, most of them becoming friends over the years. I did a couple of shoots with pilots from the local airfields, most of them were backseat rides. But soon I became a member of the Aviation PhotoCrew, again doing backseats, but also doing shoots from an open cargo ramp of a Skyvan. I will focus on those Skyvan flights in what follows.
Every successful photo flight starts with a good briefing. When we put airplanes together in a close formation it is important that everyone involved knows what will happen, how it will happen and when it will happen. We talk about the frequencies for communication, the directions we will give as a photographer and what they mean, the height, the join-up timings (when the planes involved, operate from different airfields), speed, different formations and maneuvers, etc.
Pre flight it is important that all safety measures are in order. When flying an airplane with an open ramp or a helicopter with the doors off it is important to secure yourself properly. For flights with the Skyvan we use safety harnesses to secure ourself and our cameras. I have used similar harnesses for doors off helicopter flights. The point of these harnesses is that they secure you to a fixed point in the airplane. This prevents you from plummeting to death when things go wrong. The second reason is to secure your cameras. They’re connected with a safety strap to your harness. People going in the front have two safety straps, mostly for a psychological reason…
Besides yourself it is also important to secure the camera. Obviously you have the straps, but you also have to tape you lenses, card and battery slots. It happened before that things just fly out of the back: small papers, pieces of tape. Just imagine a lens or a battery going out and getting sucked into a jet engine. It would make for a nice ejection photo, but that would be the last thing you’ll ever photograph… That’s also the reason why I like to wear a flight suite. It keeps my clothes from getting dirty but it also has a buttload of pockets to put all my stuff in.
If everything is secured, we’re ready to go. Taking off in the Skyvan is pretty impressive when you do it for the first time or when you sit on the edge. I’ve done it quite a lot in the past years, but it still scares me a little. When in the front row, the acceleration makes you shift all the way to the edge. Of course your straps make sure you don’t fall out, but in the back of your head you still think about it. As soon as the plane is climbing and the runway starts to become smaller, also the feeling of being scared flows away. The Skyvan climbs to the agreed height and location and soon you can hear the directors or the pilots giving locations of one another. I usually go in the copilot seat or in the back, but I never direct from the first row.
Pilot’s will call in or the pilot will ask over the frequency where our subject is. Usually with the directions we get a visual quite fast and when visual contact is made the join up is easy. The jets will formate on our six o’clock and will do the agreed maneuvers or will follow the directions the director on the first row gives (or the second director in the back row). The directions are communicated to our Skyvan pilot who will then tell them to the pilot of the plane behind us. It still amazes me to see a plane do exactly as you told. Seeing a jet flip over and shoot flares especially for your photos is an impressive sight. The directions are basic, short commands like: up, down, back off, closer, break, smoke on/off, etc.
The maneuvers and distance between planes vary depending on the subject. Most military jets do come quite close (they are trained for aerial refueling), while civilian acts tend to stay further away (not all though! I could tell a lot of stories about close flying oldtimers and aerobatic planes. Even some real big planes came really close!). Jets will mostly come in close for the close up, do some weaving, gentle and steep turns, breaks and some shoot flares. Helicopters are a little more static and teams will mostly make passes. Also jets that can’t fly slow enough to join up will make passes underneath or besides the Skyvan. It’s a matter of being fast to catch them just before they disappear under our plane.
When the maneuvers in the back are done, the plane will join on our wing so we can take some side on photos. For the photographer going in the copilot seat this is the perfect moment, that is if it joins on the right hand wing. You see basically nothing when it’s on the left. The maneuvers will be mostly the same, but the side windows also offer the opportunity for some specials like the knife edge.
The Skyvan is a perfect photoplatform and allows 15 photographers to take photos. But every position has its advantages and disadvantages. During a project with several flights, every photographer gets the opportunity to change seats between flights and try out the different positions. A lot of photographers have certain expectations when they fly with us. Often these expectations are far from reality. The most unrealistic expectation is that they think they will see the plane for the entire duration of the flight. This is not the case. Every position in the Skyvan offers a certain perspective that is different depending on where you’re sitting/standing. No matter where you’re standing, you will see the plane for about 50% of the time. When I go in the copilot seat I see it for about 25% of the time.
Most of the shoots I do are with the Aviation PhotoCrew of which I’m a member. We try to give others the opportunity to experience air to air photography. Most of the shoots we do are quid pro quo. The pilots burn their fuel for our photos, and they get all the pictures and can do with them whatever they want. Airshows facilitate us and make sure we get the necessary slots to take the pictures, but they get the photos for their social media and other marketing. So I can answer another often asked question: I don’t make any money doing this and it’s certainly not my day job.
It’s great fun and a thrill non the less.
Read about the gear I use for air to air photography.
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