The weather at Nellis was definitely not playing ball for the majority of my time at Red Flag 22-2. However, as the recoveries from the afternoon exercise were completing, some of the regular base traffic was getting ready to launch. Nellis is a bit like Seattle (hear me out) in that, even when the weather is a bit crappy in the afternoon, there is a good chance the light improves later on. This proved to be the case on my first full day there.
As the later jets were launching, the clouds had cleared up a bit and there was some nice low angle sun to be had on the aircraft as they headed out. I had gone up past Gate 6 at the Speedway to be in place for any Flex departures and this proved to be a good spot. Some of the jets turned a little beyond me but gave a better top side view while other turned a bit earlier and were almost heading overhead where I was. The light was better than anything I had got earlier in the day so it worked for me.
An early ISAP symposium included a visit to Lockheed Martin’s facility at Fort Worth. We were there to see the first F-35 test aircraft, AA-1. In addition, they had arranged to bring Glacier Girl, a P-38 Lightning, to be there too to provide two Lockheed Lightnings. However, while I was up the scissor lift that was provided for us to get an elevated view, I looked the opposite direction. There were two interesting looking airframes parked up. One was an old F-16 that had probably been used for test duties. The other was not a flyable plane but it was some sort of test rig for the STOVL configuration of the F-35 – what would become the F-35B. A couple of cool looking items that you wouldn’t normally get to see.
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.