Look at the front cover of most aviation magazines, and the majority of the time the cover photograph will be an air-to-air image of some sort. Whilst photographing aircraft from the air is still predominantly the domain of experienced, professional photographers, the last few years have seen a shift in accessibility with groups and organisations now allowing relatively inexperienced photographers to try their hand at what is arguably the most fun and addictive aspect of aviation photography. Ben Montgomery and Harry Measures each joined a different sortie to experience what these organisations bring to the table for photographers.
The majority of readers will probably know what air-to-air photography is, and even if not, it’s pretty much what the name suggests – taking photographs of an aircraft in flight, from another aircraft. Generally the photographer (or photographers) fly in a cameraship that has good visibility to the sides and aft, with the target aircraft – the one you are there to photograph – formatting on the camera ship to provide good photographic angles. Why would you want to expend the time and effort doing that, when you can watch aeroplane’s take-off and land just as well from the ground?
If you’re unsure about why air-to-air is not only interesting but in fact awesome, then hopefully we can either change your mind, or at least try and explain why more and more people are now being ‘bitten by the bug’ and spending money, time and effort to bring air-to-air sorties to life.
In the last few years, aviation events have become much more ‘mainstream’ within the enthusiast communities, with most museums, airbases and airshows having held some form of exclusive event for photographers – whether that be nightshoots, photo days or otherwise. This increased spread of activities is generally only possible because of the willingness of many to open their wallets to achieve the images or experiences they want – an effect that has given rise to organisations offering air-to-air photo sorties.
TimeLine Events – Air to Air with Hunter ZZ190
A fairly new option to openly buy places on air-to-air photo shoots is through TimeLine Events (TLE), who are already well known within the aviation community for providing superb quality static shoots. The person behind the new venture is Neil Cave, who has steadily been building up his experience and portfolio of air-to-air images over the last two years. In order to see what Neil’s shoots had to offer, Harry Measures joined TLE for a date with one of the elusive Hawker Hunter F.58s of Hawker Hunter Aviation (HHA) based out of RAF Scampton –
Having been in the loop regarding the Hunter sortie before it was confirmed, I was really quite excited by the prospect, and almost as soon as details were released with the date set for mid-November, I had put my name down. The general plan was to rendezvous with the Hunter over the South Coast and track along past the Needles – fabulous! Neil kept everyone in the loop regarding the plans development, culminating in a thorough email on the eve of the shoot. Although the weather forecast was looking changeable (at best) we decided to meet at Thruxton regardless, and make the call from there, with the only caveat being that if the photoship left the ground we would pick up the tab whether the sortie was a success or not – fair enough.
I was one of the first to arrive at Thruxton, and made my way into the Café to wait for Neil & the remainder of the photographers. Slowly the table filled and by around 9am everyone was in, and so the attention turned to Neil to provide a full brief on the sortie. We were able to run through our positioning in the aircraft, as well as instruction on what sort of camera settings would be required for those that wanted some pointers. As a general rule of thumb, it is easiest to use two camera bodies, one with a 70-200 or similar and the other with a 24-105 or similar again, however I find the slight overlap in focal length useful. After careful consideration of the weather forecast and liaising with the pilots, the decision was made to give the sortie a green light – with roughly and hour or so to get kitted up and ready to go.
It wasn’t a particularly warm day, and due to the fact temperature falls roughly 2°C per 1,000ft it was pretty much guaranteed to be freezing in the photoship once the roller door was opened. This required layers and lots of them – a decent pair of thin gloves are also recommended. Once we all resembled – some looking slightly like the Michelin Man! – we got fitted into the harnesses (which are supplied by Neil) we would need to wear in the aircraft, for obvious reasons. The final job was to use duct tape to secure all aspects of our cameras such as battery/memory card doors, and careful placement of tape over the lens release button in order to prevent accidental release. The camera straps are threaded through your harness to stop them coming loose during the flight.
Once we were all ready to go we made our way over to the apron to await the camera ship, and by this point, the gap in the weather we had planned to utilise was arriving – the grey skies clearing to reveal stunning blue sky with a smattering of cumulus clouds. Perfect. After a short wait, our ride arrived in the form of a Beechcraft Beech 99. It is worth mentioning (as it was in the brief) that due to the over wing exhaust on the Beech 99, heat haze would have some effect on some of the photos, specifically those taken when shooting down or through the bottom 1/2ft of the door. Getting in one at a time, we had our harnesses secured to the aircraft before the pilot of the Beech gave us a further briefing regarding safety procedures. Also he went on to tell us about the heat haze – or more specifically the fact he would be mostly flying with the left hand engine throttled down to reduce the effect of it on our photos.
With thumbs up all round, the Beech 99 was fired up, and soon we were climbing up to altitude – around 8,000ft from the glances I got at the altimeter. Once we were given the OK to move into position around the parachute door, we all shuffled down and took our places, before the door was opened. Time seemed to slow down as we circled waiting for the Hunter, with all of us scanning the sky for a glimpse of our subject. It got cold quickly while waiting, mostly due to the wind-chill from having the door open. However, there was a wave of excitement between the six of us as the Hunter zoomed into view, and began to form up on us!
In the following 40 minutes with the Hunter, Neil conducted the formation expertly, with plenty of breaks and variations in the formations used. Although we weren’t able to follow the coast as originally hoped due to the weather, the scenery below was stunning. I even found a few moments to put the camera down and simply watch the jet in flight up close, and despite the noise from the Beech with the open door, and through a pair of earplugs you could hear the type’s Rolls-Royce Avon as the man behind the stick – Simon Hargreaves – peeled away. Magic. The 40 minutes was over all too quickly and the sortie was brought to a close with Simon bringing the aircraft in to a very tight formation before giving us a wave goodbye and breaking formation to head back to Scampton, leaving us to return to Thruxton.
It cannot be said that seats on these sorties are inexpensive – the cost of this type of shoot with TimeLine Events is generally around £500-550. It is however, probably one of the easiest ways to experience proper air-to-air photography – normally notoriously difficult to achieve, often-requiring years of getting to know pilots and building a portfolio. The cheaper (but not by much) options such as the various ‘fly alongside a Spitfire’ options offered by Classic Wings for example, provide a flight which isn’t strictly tailored to photographers – this isn’t to say that you won’t get some good photos but you will be shooting through glass and the subject won’t be alongside you at all times. The TimeLine events shoots however, are done using dedicated cameraships (or re-purposed skydiving aircraft), which allow you to shoot through an open door. You also get all of those things that as a photographer you would take for granted, such as light in the right place and correct subject aircraft positioning.
The Aviation PhotoCrew – Air to Air with Vulcan XH558
Back in October 2015, Ben had the chance to join the well-known Aviation PhotoCrew for a sortie out of Duxford airfield with Avro Vulcan XH558 –
Formed in 2009 with Eric Coeckelberghs at the helm, the Aviation PhotoCrew have provided a plethora of opportunities for photographers to gain air-to-air experience, most notably with their Air-to-Air Academy events – the sixth of which was held in September 2015.
Unlike Harry’s experience with TimeLine Events, the Aviation PhotoCrew typically use a Shorts 330 Skyvan as their transport of choice – which gives a very different view to the Beech 99. The Skyvan is more commonly seen in use as skydiving aircraft and was designed for freight transport, but is ideal for air-to-air photography because of the large cargo ramp, giving an expansive view directly to the rear.
It was because of this pretty exceptional viewpoint that I opted to register my interest in joining the PhotoCrew to shoot the Vulcan in late 2015 – as it seems did half of the aviation community! Interest was so high that the available spaces on the first flight over Beachy Head (images from which have featured in many UK media outlets since) quickly filled, and I thought my opportunity might have been curtailed. Happily, due to the superb professional relationship between Vulcan to the Sky Trust (VTTS) and the PhotoCrew, a second sortie was made available on October 4 following XH558’s display at Shuttleworth – what would be the type’s final airshow appearance anywhere. With a suitable amount of good fortune (and perhaps the influence of a photographic request from Marshall ADG, the airworthiness authority of the Vulcan, to help me on my way) I secured a seat on the sortie.
Even at this point, there is no guarantee that anything would happen. Exactly as would be the same for the TimeLine Events sortie with which Harry flew, photo flying relies heavily on both weather and aircraft availability. For the Vulcan sortie, the added complication was that the Vulcan would already have been airborne and flying displays, whilst the Skyvan would have to fly in to the UK from its base in Belgium. This added some risk to confirming my seat, as I’d have to commit to pay fuel costs should the Skyvan fly over and then the Vulcan become unserviceable. Such is the nature of air-to-air photography though, and this risk is inherent in every sortie that takes place.
As it turned out, serviceability was not an issue and both the Skyvan and Vulcan would go on to perform flawlessly during the flight. The weather however was not as favourable as it was for Harry, which a thick band of haze blanketing East Anglia for the majority of the day. That said it was a case of counting your blessings, as the preceding week had been overcast and damp. For the Skyvan, haze isn’t always an issue as it’s not too visible when looking down, but any time the horizon comes into view (or rather, tries to) it dampens out any crisp divide between land and sky.
The PhotoCrew have much the same safety requirements as TimeLine Events, with a good amount of time prior to the flight dedicated to taping up cameras and sizing safety harnesses. Lens hoods, caps and anything else loose is left on the ground, along with any ideas of changing batteries (no need!) and memory cards in flight. I even opted to leave behind my glasses as they were potential FOD (Foreign object debris), and instead corrected my viewfinder to suit my eyesight (which is pretty rubbish).
Crewing up in the Skyvan is a complex process, with each row of photographers helping those in front of them to secure themselves to the harness points throughout the aircraft. The obvious assumption from a seating plan would be that those sitting on the front row would have the best view, and whilst this is generally true in terms of obstructions, every photographer has a reasonably unobstructed view. The trade-off for those at the back are access to the side windows, which would prove beneficial when the Vulcan conducted some planned breakaways from the photoship. I was seated on the second row with a great view out of the back (which I needed for a photo of the Vulcan over the Marshall ADG facilities at Cambridge), but no view out of the sides.
Seated on the front row in the corners were PhotoCrew veterans Steve Comber and Michael de Boer – strategically placed such that they could access headsets to talk to the Skyvan aircrew, and in turn to the Vulcan crew. They would be our indicators of what was happening during the flight via hand signals, as the noise of the Skyvan’s engines ruled out any kind of verbal communication.
The take-off itself was equally unnerving and exhilarating, due to the large open hole behind you, and rapidly vanishing runway. In order to meet the Vulcan on time, we left Duxford early and circled over the ‘watchstrap’ layout of Wimpole Hall and gardens. After many such circuits (which whilst monotonous and loud did have the best view for in-flight entertainment), Steve indicated a ‘two minute out’ signal – the Vulcan had completed at Shuttleworth and would shortly be joining us for an expected 30 minute transit. The route would see us pass back overhead Duxford, routing up to Newmarket for a turn onto the approach for Cambridge airport. After transiting through the Cambridge approach, we would turn to the west and head over Grafton Water as the Vulcan slowly headed back home to its base at Doncaster.
The cool thing about this flight routing (other than the inclusion of the Cambridge approach in order to satisfy the requirement for the Marshall ADG photo) was that it would offer a diverse range of light. With the October sun low in the sky and weakened by haze, the first 10 minutes were heavily backlit – which actually worked well for a silhouette shot illustrating the unique delta shape of the Vulcan.
After we made the turn over Newmarket, the light was pleasing for the rest of the sortie and the relatively uncluttered backdrops of Cambridgeshire really helped the photography. In this sortie, we also made a ‘first’ for a Vulcan flight – for the Cambridge overshoot the gear was dropped to simulate the aircraft being on approach to the airport. Sadly – and through no one’s fault –, the Vulcan was too far back to quite meet the intent of the image, but it was impressive to see nonetheless. I feel at this point that an apology should be offered to all those who saw Cambridge on the Vulcan route for the day and pitched up at the end of the runway, only to see us sail overhead at 2,000ft. Sorry guys (but that was always the plan)!
30 minutes passed fast, and the only problems I had during the sortie were trying to judge time (no wristwatch – FOD!) and decide at what rate I could fill up my memory cards. As it was, I came back to earth with about 20% left unfilled on each card, so arguably I could have been less selective with shots. An interesting lesson learnt though, as unlike on the ground there isn’t really much time to review and delete photos to make more space – you always need to keep an eye on the relationship between the aircraft and the background, which is ever changing.
Very soon, we were back on the ground at Duxford, quickly de-kitting and putting the harnesses back into the Skyvan (which had to depart back to Belgium that evening). After the departure, I was left with loaded memory cards, ringing ears (foam earplugs may be a good recommendation!) and eyes stinging from the kerosene fumes.
The downside about this sortie was always going to be the cost. As Harry eluded to, photo flying is not a cheap hobby – and paying for the Skyvan to cross the channel, as well as fuel costs for a four engine gas-guzzling bomber put the final price to somewhere north of £1,000. Is this a fair price for experience? Hard to say. It’s always going to be a subjective answer, and to say that I was nervous about parting with that much cash is an understatement. For me, as a one off, I’m OK with it. If I was intending on making photo flying a regular part of my yearly expenditures I’d definitely have to review that statement though! The plus side is that the images are (relatively) exclusive, and the earning potential therefore somewhat higher. I’ve been lucky and able to pay off a significant portion of the cost already, and somewhere down the line could end up turning a profit (although unlikely!). You could think of that upfront cost as an investment, if you’re in it for money, or as just a requirement to get you the opportunities you love.
You could also argue that a downside is a lack of creative control – you’re limited to the sortie plan put in place, and as a passenger you don’t have too much say in that. This could be a recipe for failure, but it must be remembered that the guys running these sorties (AviationPhotocrew, TimeLine Events and others alike) are not only experienced, but also photographers! Their end game should be pretty similar to yours.
It’s hard to draw any kind of conclusion here. If there was one to be made, it’s definitely about the affordability/value for money of these sorties. If it was cheaper than an airshow admission ticket, there’s little doubt that everyone would be keen to do it. Value for money is a very subjective idea, and we can’t offer anything but our individual opinions. Paying for these opportunities will always be a gamble, predominantly on the weather – some sorties might be moved from date to date if the weather is too poor to safely operate, and in certain circumstances not ideal for photo flying. Given we were both relatively lucky with the weather conditions during our flights, and we hope the results speak for themselves. That said, even with less than ideal conditions air to air photography could yield some impressive – if slightly different – results.
We’ll leave you to make your own conclusions!