The culmination of my Air2Air Photography class at the Historic Flight Foundation was flying in the HFF's B-25 Mitchell, taking air to air photographs of either their F7F Tigercat or their P-51B Mustang. The Tigercat flight takes place over the Puget Sound to mimic the South Pacific theater, and the Mustang flight over the Cascades to replicate the European Alps. had registered for the P-51 flight as I thought there would be more dynamics to shooting the Mustang with mountains behind.
In the weeks before my flight, I was getting increasingly nervous about the entire event. Approaching this as a once-in-a-lifetime event, I was taking every precaution I could think of to ensure the best possible results from my 15-30 minutes of shooting in the air. I was actually losing sleep over it, having strange equipment failure anxiety dreams!
One of the pieces of equipment that was discussed during the Air2Air class was the use of a gyroscopic camera stabilizer unit attached to the camera. These units give your camera and lens significantly more stability in the buffeting interior of a platform airplane. Unfortunately, these units can run for over $4,000! However, i thought there might be a cheaper, DIY path to the same end.
The only household item that I was familiar with that could generate the kind of spin required for any sort of gyroscopic effect was a common 3.5" hard drive. I had plenty of these around, including some 10,000 RPM units. The primary challenge would be providing the necessary power and amperage required to power and spin a hard drive. It turns out that standard drives require both 12V and 5V power. Unfortunately, also -5V. I set up a test bench with a computer power supply and experimented with the various drives I had. Unfortunately, due to the type of SCSI drives I had (LVD), I could not get them to auto-power up. I only had 7,200 RPM drives to use. I managed to get them spinning, however, I wasn't quite satisfied with the amount of stabilization. It definitely worked, however it didn't feel like it would be enough.
Not quite the real thing:
I did not get a chance to complete my DIY gyrostabilizer due to the impromptu Las Vegas trip, so I would have to rely on my own wits to steady my camera and lens.
To Rent or Not to Rent
In the days leading up to my flight day, I was concerned with a gap in the range my lenses covered:
From what I had gleaned from people who had already flown, the "sweet spot" was in the 50-120mm range. I was afraid that I might be missing out on the wide end of that.
I did some tests with my 1.6x teleconverter but was not happy with the sharpness and loss of 2 stops. I couldn't afford that kind of impediment for my shoot! I contemplated renting a 24-105mm lens from Glazers, however once the day of the flight arrived, I decided that the cost and timing were prohibitive. I'd have to go with the 70-200mm, possibly the 50mm.
Another concern of mine was having enough removable media. I was going to be shooting all day and going up for my flight after that. I had to be careful about my ground-to-air shooting. I really hate having to "chimp" and prune photos in the field, but it could not be avoided.
The night before the flight, I received a confirmation from one of the organizers that indicated that I would be sitting in the nose. I had specifically requested the "waist" option, as it offered a larger, removable window. The nose, while thrilling, would mean shooting through Plexiglas. I was disappointed, but I thought it might be a good opportunity to shoot some wide angle video from the nose. Silver lining, right?
The day of the shoot arrived and the weather was beautiful. Not a cloud in the sky! This was much better than the day of the class which was full overcast. My gamble to pass up the open slots on the day of the first class paid off.
There were three flights scheduled for my fly day, an early morning (7:30am) flight with the Mustang, a 2:30 flight with the Tigercat, then my flight, at 3:30pm with the Mustang. This gave me almost a full day of shooting at Paine field, which is made much more accessible with the AOA access. What made the day even better was the fact that this was also Mustang Day at both the Flying Heritage Collection (FHC) and the HFF. There were three mustangs in town, flying formation as well as the Tigercat and B-25. Lots of time to practice steady shooting for that elusive prop blur.
The HFF staff, I must add, is amazing. They are friendly, informative and are excellent BBQ chefs. They had a free lunch for anyone at the museum that day!
My flight time neared and one of the organizers approached me and said that he was doing his best to get me in the waist, which was great news, I just didn't want someone else, who paid the same as I did, to get stuck up there.
My time to fly eventually came. We were briefed on the emergency procedure inside "Grumpy" the B-25, how to open the windows, how to drop the ladder and how to drop the hatch and ladder entirely. We then had a briefing with the Pilots of the B-25 and John Sessions, the pilot of the Mustang (and founder of HFF). He would come up from our 4 o'clock low, fly alongside, switch to the port side, which would allow him to get in between the B-25 and Mount Pilchuck.
Two great things happened on the way to the plane for the flight. Two momentous things. Two things that would make the whole thing a perfect experience. First, I got a spot at the waist! Not just in the rear compartment of the airplane, but literally right smack between the two windows. I'd have first dibs at shooting out the prime location on the B-25!
The second momentous event was totally unexpected. My friend Jeremy approached me and said he had a surprise for me. Another fellow, who would turn out to be named David, had actually rented a Kenyon gyrostabilizer for his shoot and was loaning it to me for my flight! I was stunned. I was elated, and honestly a little terrified. I found out he put down a $1500 deposit on the unit. And, I had literally 5 minutes to familiarize myself with it!
So, instead of shooting at 1/160th+ per second or higher (my 70-200 is a pre-IS model) I was looking at potentially shooting at 1/60th of a second for full-circle prop blur.
We saddled up, checked our gear one last time and eventually lifted off. I was in a compartment with 3 other fellows, the nose was taken by a fellow who was shooting video exclusively, so he was perfectly fine with being up there. It worked out for both of us. The three guys in front of me were sharing an open circular window and a closed circular window, while I was shooting out two larger rectangular windows.
It wasn't long before the Impatient Virgin was along side us, and our shooting scenery became serious, focused air-to-air shooting. The only part of the air-to-air shooting that really concerned me, aside from the aforementioned technical issues, was proper window-sharing etiquette. When the perfect moment came, when John was positioned exactly between us and Mount Pilchuck, I had a large window, and the other three were sharing a smaller window. Part of me wanted to be That Guy, but the Good Guy in me relented and I shared the window. I did get my shots, though. Before I knew it, the Mustang had peeled away and we were turning back toward Everett and Paine field. John was flying up slowly behind us for a few more shots, but they were in to the sun, so they weren't quite as good as those over the mountains.
We touched down and rolled back up to the HFF ramp and we unloaded. I was high as a kite. All that adrenaline and the knowing that I had got the shots I wanted had me walking on air. The fact that I had just gone on a flight in the worlds oldest flying B-25 had hardly even registered yet, with all the focus on photography.
Where are the photos?
One of the potential benefits of the Air2Air class was the slim chance of photos taken from the class actually getting published. One of the organizers was writing a story about the class (its one of the first of its kind) so he was looking for contributions for the article from the participants. It was hinted to me that to improve my chances, that none of the shots should be out "in the wild" prior to publication, as they frown upon that. So, until I found out if they're accepted or rejected, they'll be under wraps for another blog post later.
The Air2Air ground school portion was worth its price, and I would recommend it to anyone, even those who just to basic ground-to-air photography. The air portion of the flight was an amazing experience and I would also recommend it to anyone with the means to do so. I don't hold any fantasy that I'll be doing any further air-to-air work, but I relish the experience of both flying in and shooting from a WWII B-25 Mitchell. I thank the staff of HFF for the experience and look forward to many future visits.