Speedway departures can be a mixed bag at Nellis. Flex departures with a pull over the Speedway are the best but it does depend on how high planes have got. Some climb out quite steeply and are way too high for a good shot by the time that they reach you. On my most recent Nellis trip, though, we were treated to a few departures by the locals that broke the mold. They got airborne and kept it nice and low as they accelerated towards us before breaking in to the flex departure routing.
The evening light combined with the great angles made for some good shots. It didn’t hurt that I had a lower shutter speed than usual so got some nice blur of the mountains behind the planes courtesy of them being nice and low. The Strike Eagles also gave it a go which was nice.
A USAF Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II flexes on departure from Nellis AFB NV.
Some late day departures after the Flag returns included F-15Es, F-35As, L159s and A-4s. You don’t know how long anyone is scheduled to be out but you find yourself hoping that they will all make it back before the sun sets so you can get some arrival shots in the nicest light available. Once they are gone, it is a case of watching the time and crossing your fingers. As it was, we got lucky. They came back in a steady stream with all of them showing up as the sun was at its best. Arriving over Cheyenne is not ideal from a sun angle perspective at this time of year but we still got some nice angles. Some turned tighter while others went wider so we got to try all sorts of angles out to see which picked up what light was remaining.
A USAF Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II turns on to final approach at Nellis AFB NV.
Two USAF Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs run in to the break for landing at Nellis AFB NV.
A USAF Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles turns on to final approach at Nellis AFB NV.
If you ask Nancy about a name that I think has good comic potential, it is Dave. It is not that the name Dave is strange in any way but, if you asked me to name something, my first choice would be Dave. It has something that just works for being offbeat. Apparently, I am not alone in this (which will come as a great disappointment to Nancy who will now know I am not alone and will never stop). The online forum for aerospace, PPRUNE, has apparently decided to call the F-35 Lightning II the Dave. Tornados are Tonkas, F-16s are Vipers and now F-35s are Daves. I love it!
Red Flag 17-1 was the first of the Red Flag exercises to which the USAF brought the F-35A. The Marine Corps had brought the F-35B previously but they tended to go out in pairs. This time the Air Force took the jets out in significant numbers. Consequently, I was able to get lots of shots of the jets. Whether it was groups returning as four ships, individual jets departing or odd Daves in formation with other jets, there were plenty of options. They also turned in really nicely on approach for the spot I had chosen so some nice close top sides were also possible.
I won’t yet say that I have grown to like the look of the jet but I am certainly starting to thaw. Since they are all new and spotlessly clean, the colors (is that right given how variations of gray are what we are talking about) really come out nicely in the low light. There are some nice lines to the jet. It may be a bit chunky but it doesn’t have the same problems as the F-22 with angles at which it looks positively uncomfortable. Hopefully, the time will come when the operators are able to move away from the purely gray and adopt some nice colors on the jets. We shall see.
The local Nellis traffic gets a bit restricted by the exercise traffic when Red Flag is underway. Get a mission in during the morning or wait for the gap between the afternoon and the evening evolutions to get airborne. For those of us outside, they provide some additional aircraft to shoot. They may also give some variety in types (although given how few types there are these days, not a lot). Before the F-35 becomes ubiquitous in service and replaces the multiple F-16 units that currently participate, it is something a bit different.
The Weapons School has a bunch of F-35A jets now. The first ones to arrive at Nellis were OT jets for operational test and evaluation. Now the Weapons School is using them to develop tactics and employment. The lines of the jets are a bit different from the Marine Corp F-35Bs that I shot at a previous exercise. Without the lift fan, the back of the airframe is smoother while the canopy is blended into the spine in a different way that enhances visibility and fits with the different profile. The jets were pretty active while I was there so I managed to get a few shots. I had seen them during previous visits but, when on base we had been barred from shooting them and, while off base, I had always managed to be in the wrong place to get them. While I am currently pleased to have got some shots, I will soon be used to seeing them around all over the place.
I have had a bunch of times when I have seen F-35 jets. I got to shoot the first prototype at Fort Worth in its early days. After that, I didn’t see any more for a long time. As the production jets started to show up, I saw a number of them at Nellis AFB. Sadly, when we were on base we weren’t allowed to shoot them and when I was off base, I was always in a bad place to get shots of them. As a result, I do not have many useful shots in my catalog.
I had no shots of the B model. This is the one being developed for the Marine Corps to replace their Harriers and Hornets. It is also being acquired by the UK and Italy to use from their carriers. Red Flag 16-3 was the first one that the Marines brought their jets to so I was pleased to get a chance to shoot them. My timing was not great and there was limited flying while I was there. However, the Marines did launch a pair while we were in place. Nicely, both jets flexed on departure and came towards our position quite nicely. Recovery was a different story. For those that aren’t familiar with shooting at the Speedway, there is a constant debate about which gate is the best one to be at. Some jets turn on to final very tightly and you need to be a inside Gate 4 to get a good shot. Sadly, a lot of the jets turn long and they can be a long way off if you are at 4. If there is a four ship, the later jets tend to turn later so, even if the first jet is good, the later ones can be a way off.
If the jets are Navy or Marines, you need to be on your toes. They can be a lot more enthusiastic about keeping their patterns tight. When the two F-35s returned, we soon realized everyone else knew something we needed to know. They were all grabbing their cameras and running down the street. I took a while to catch on. The first jet turned very tightly. Even as I ran, I could only get a head on shots as he turned inside me. I then got moving again and was just about in a reasonable option for the second jet.
The second day we were there, timing was again not in our favor. Just as the 35s were returning, a pair of Growlers were launching to head home. They were coming off the runway we needed the jets to land on to get good shots. Instead, they were sent to the other runway. They broke left towards the hills. We did have some recovery though. By the time they had run downwind, the Growlers were gone and the runway was clear. They switched to land on our side. We had lost the final turn but at least they came closer when on final. At some point these jets will be very common but the first encounter is fun.