The Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) was attending Red Flag 19-2 with some brand new F-15SA jets. These jets had come direct from delivery so had not yet even made it out of the US. I guess they had that new fighter smell. They did fly the first day we were there, despite the strong winds which was a pleasant surprise. They flew along with the rest of the jets on our second day. I have mentioned their slightly strange approach to flex departures before so I won’t go there any further but instead will share what I have of the jets from the two days I was there.
E-8 JSTARS are not a rare thing at Red Flag but they do often get involved in the night sorties. Seeing one heading out to play for the daytime activities was a pleasant surprise. On their return on the first day they were following in the KDC-10 that I mentioned in a previous post. They also adopted some sporty approach techniques and were similarly unsuccessful in converting them in to a landing. The go around ensued and was followed by a more conventional straight in approach and landing.
There were two tankers I was hoping to shoot at Red Flag. One was the Colombian 767. It didn’t fly on the first day but on the second it started to taxi before returning to the ramp and shutting down. Never mind. The other was the Dutch KDC-10. I hadn’t shot one before and they are not likely to be in service for too much longer so this might have been my last chance. Therefore, I hoped it would fly and it didn’t let me down.
The winds were strong on the first day and it departed towards us off 21L. As soon as it was airborne, the nose cocked into the strong crosswind and it turned towards us. A right turn overhead and it was on its way to the ranges. When it returned, they went for a very impressive curving approach. It looked great. However, it wasn’t great from a flying perspective and a go around followed. The second approach was more conventional and more successful.
On the second day they flew again. This time the arrivals were from over the Speedway so a more traditional view of them coming in. I was hoping for a go around and a tight circuit to land but that was a tad optimistic. Maybe after the previous day they were more content to get the beast back on the ground.
I have shot at quite a few Red Flags both on and off base. On base of get such good access that you don’t see anything to make you think that the participants are camera shy. However, off base I have become rather suspicious of the Growler community. When you see something strange once, you figure it must be an oddity but, when you see something repeat, you start to think there is a pattern. When you tell your friend that something happens and then they do it again for both of you, you really think something is going on.
The E/A-18G Growlers fly in a way that makes me think they are trying to be difficult for photographers. (Either that or they think they are doing something to help but are actually making it worse!). During arrivals the Growlers often go left but, when they go right, they either fly incredibly tight patterns or they go so long as to make all shots rather dull. However, it is on departure that I have got most suspicious. When they come off the left runway heading towards us, they seem to sidestep to the left and then straighten up after a while. This puts them almost directly overhead the awaiting photographers. You get an underside shot but nothing more. Not a great shot but you start wondering what you are missing from the profile or above that might be more interesting. I am probably paranoid but I do see a pattern developing.
I’ve already shown the B-1s at Red Flag some love but here is a bit more about them because, well, why not? The four afterburning engines produce a lot of noise, light and, I guess, thrust. For a few of the departures, I focused the camera on the back end to try and show that energetic output. Daylight is not the best time to show up the afterburner plume – night works well for that as does being more directly behind the jet – but it still is possible to see the jet against the dark airframe. This is just something so impressive to see.
The Growlers use the same jamming pod that came from the Prowler. A new jamming system is in development but, for now, the ALQ-99 is the system that they have and the pods are the same pods. The jamming power comes from a generator that is powered by a turbine mounted on the front of the pod. As the jet flies along, the turbine spins in the airflow and provides the “juice” to power the electronics within. Even at relatively low speeds the turbine gets rotating. However, when the jets come in to land, if they have a centerline pod, the turbine is not moving. I don’t know whether the blockage from the nose gear doors is enough to stop it or whether it is deliberately switched off. However, the turbine blades are feathered and it is not moving. Compare the wing mounted pods and the motion and blade angle is clearly different.
When the B-1s show up at Red Flag, everyone is pretty pleased. A big bomber with four afterburning engines is like a giant fighter to photograph. It is a good looking jet. It also has a nice feature at night. The majority of the fighters that take off in burner are back to military power shortly after getting airborne. The B-1 is a different story. It stays in burner for a ridiculous amount of time. Not having flown one, I don’t know whether they pull back the power from full burner at some point but they do stay plugged in for ages. Long into the climb you can still see the glow.
I have shot the B-1s from a location out in the area on the extended centerline before. Go back to some old posts here and here and you will see the sort of shots I am talking about. Paul has also shot from out there so we agreed to try something different. We headed closer to the rotation point. The jets get airborne pretty smartly and, the closer in they are, the further away they are from the highway. However, something that had more of a side on feel was what I was after and so we tried a different spot.
Of course, you never know what time the launch will start and when the B-1s will be scheduled for so there is a lot of sitting around and waiting – in the dark. During the day it is easy to hang about and wait for something to move. At night things seem to take longer and you feel a bit more exposed. However, they did eventually launch and these shots are the result. I have learned some new things about the behavior of the camera at night which will be useful next time so, while the shots aren’t perfect, it was certainly worthwhile.
Returning jets from the Red Flag missions often come back with the other jets from their units. However, you do occasionally get a mixed formation or two as a straggler joins up with some other jets for the run in and break. This time, it might have been my imagination, but there seemed to be more mixed formations than normal. We discussed whether, with the F-35s taking part in larger numbers, other pilots were kind of keen to get in formation with them and check them out from closer quarters. Whether that was the case or not, whether there was another reason or perhaps it was just coincidence. Whatever the reason, we got a few mixed groups and not always just with the Daves!
The Royal Air Force has replaced its tanker force since I left the UK. The VC-10s and TriStars have been retired and there is a public private partnership in place to deliver tanking support. This uses converted Airbus A330s. They are able to provide tanking and transport services (with some of the aircraft configured only for transport). In RAF service, these jets are named Voyager. Red Flag 17-1 was my first real opportunity to photograph a Voyager in action. (Annoyingly my sister has shot them before me and has been on a refueling mission with them!) While an A330 might not be the most exciting jet to see, I was really looking forward to photographing it.
As the mission was recovering, the light was great. Low sun providing a warm and soft illumination on the returning jets. Then, the Voyager called up. Just as it did so, the sun went in. The Voyager came down the approach, its gray fuselage in the shade of some clouds. It landed, taxied in and then the sun came right back out again. Arghh! Sure, I can bump up the white balance a bit to warm things up but the jet was in shade and there is not much I can do about that. I had to leave before it recovered on the following day so no luck then. They will be around for a while so I guess I will get any crack at this at some point.
Paul and my second full day at Red Flag was also the one where we both had to fly home. We knew that the timing would mean leaving before the last of the big aircraft came home but we should get most of the recovery. We set a time and started packing up. We had done well so no complaints. We hopped in the car and drove towards the turn to take us out to the freeway. Just as we got there, a pair of B-1s came running in to the break in formation. Surely we couldn’t let them go. A rapid stop at the side of the road, grab cameras from the trunk and start shooting.
They flew by in formation and broke downwind. Each of them turned in reasonably tight for their approach and it was possible to get some nice topside views as the curved around to final. We could have been a bit closer and probably would have chosen different lenses if we had been able to choose but we got the shots. Then it was time to repack the bags and get going. We only lost about five minutes and everything worked out fin getting back so it was totally worth it. There was no waiting for whatever followed them though.