Is what I am seeing real or is it a Mirage? Sorry, pretty crummy pun usage. When I was going to Nellis for Red Flag, one of the things I wanted to shoot was the Mirage F1s of Draken International. It is a long time since I have seen an F1 – it was back when the Spanish Air Force was still flying them and they came to RIAT. Now that Draken is using them for aggressor support services, I was keen to catch one or two of them.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait long. The first time I drove up to the base, a pair of the Draken jets were recovering. I grabbed the camera as they came in straight towards me before going over my head. I had not set up the camera as I would have intended but just turned it on and pointed it at the jets. Not bad luck and some of the shots came out okay.
I did get a couple more opportunities. These were departures at the Speedway. In one morning I had a pair of them heading out without flexing. The camo pattern they have is the same but the colors vary. The black and white scheme was interesting. However, I prefer the brown scheme and the last two jets I got to shoot before I headed to the airport were F1s flexing north. Top and tail the visit with Mirages!
When the arrivals at Nellis on on the 03 runways, it means a trip to Cheyenne. This is not the greatest part of the world to visit but it is a feature of a Nellis trip. The sun angles were still quite low while I was there so I decided to try shooting from further around the road than I have done previously. For the planes coming in on the left runway, I had a reasonable sun angle on them. For planes on the right, they were coming right over my head.
I quite liked shooting like this. The planes have a surprising amount of variety in their line up angles when this far from the threshold so, while they are all coming close to you, it is not a repeat of the same shot every time. Each pilot takes a slightly different line and some variation in elevation too. You get something akin to head on shots and then it is a case of rapidly swiveling around to get a shot from behind.
There is a lot of fencing and trees along that part of the road so getting a clean shot of everything is hard to achieve. However, it is still possible to get something a little different. With the light angles being less than ideal, rather than worry about shots that aren’t going to be very usable due to either glare or shadow, why not get something a little different. It does require some quick adjustments and it can get a touch noisy but it is still fun to try something a little different.
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.
I stopped at Boeing Field to make a couple of calls and I was pleasantly surprised to see that a Boeing T-38 chase jet was not far out. I was able to get the camera out in good time for it to arrive and, even better, while there was plenty of cloud around, the sun popped out to allow me to get a reasonable shot. I then went back to dealing with my calls. I had noticed a USAF T-38 further east in the state but had assumed it was not coming my way. However, I was wrong. A short while later, it called up on approach. The sun was less cooperative which was a shame for a gloom black painted jet but it was still good to shoot. From expecting nothing to getting two T-38s in short order was a nice surprise.
It was recently announced that Nellis AFB has ended operations of the F-15C/D Eagles. The Eagles have been at Nellis since the 1970s so this ends a long association. The Strike Eagles are still based there and there will, no doubt, be F-15EX jets based there in the not too distant future but this was still noteworthy within the aviation community. I have shot a bunch of based Eagles over the years including the aggressor jets. They went a while back so I won’t include them here but here are a few of the Nellis jets over the years.
It had been quite a while since I made a trip purely for aviation photography. I may have managed to sneak some photo elements in to other trips but nothing just for planes. I decided to go to Nellis for Red Flag 22-2. I had skipped 22-1 because it clashed with some other stuff despite having some things I was quite keen to shoot. German Tornados were supposed to be at 22-2 which I was keen to shoot but they sadly canceled before the event even kicked off.
Despite this, I still wanted to go. A couple of days off work seemed like a good plan and it was a chance to explore the capabilities of the R3 on aviation subjects. While the Germans were not attending, there were some foreign operators taking part. Singapore had brought its jets – admittedly, they didn’t have far to come with Singapore having units at Luke and Mountain home – and Saudi Arabia had brought some F-15SAs.
Things were not as active as they have been on some previous Red Flags. Not everything seemed to be flying in each wave. The B-1s only flew on one of the evening and one of the day sorties of the two I was there. Also, things seemed to happen earlier than is sometimes the case. There were some long gaps in flying when I wondered whether something was up. It was just a slow Flag I guess. However, it was a good chance to hang around and photograph some jets. I guess I can’t complain about that.
Lightroom has three methods for stitching the panoramas together. I tend to use one but for some shots, a different style is beneficial. I was flipping through some shots of an HH-101 Caesar helicopter that I took at RIAT in 2019. I also had a Danish AW101 that I had shot in pano format. The Danish airframe had not been shot as well as it could have been and I did not have sufficient coverage. I decided to try different versions of the stitching to see which one gave the best result. Some result in a more natural look while others look more fish eyed. I can also stitch in Photoshop which gives me more capability for filling in gaps but, with the tricky areas being the rotors, that wasn’t going to work well since the AI is not going to work that out. Stitching also allows some warping to fill edge gaps but this can mess with the alignment of the main part of the image. I tried a couple of versions and they are compared here.
Every once in a while, I really test the high ISO capability of the cameras I have. The R3 got an early test when I was at Red Flag, I went out on two evenings to shoot some night departures and experimented with the ability of the camera to perform in those conditions. The high ISO capability of cameras has not moved on too much to be honest. The max ISO I used on my 1DXII was 51,200 and the R3 is still the same. It does appear to be a bit cleaner but they have possibly hit a bit of a limit. What I had not tried out before was an electronic viewfinder in such conditions.
The first night, I went out into the dunes to be ready for the B-1 departures. As it turned out, they didn’t launch that night. I did get some fighters coming out my way for a while before I concluded that this was a bust and I was heading back to the hotel. I tried shooting a few of the jets but I discovered the limitations of the camera pretty rapidly. When there is no light, the electronic viewfinder really struggles. The frame rate of the viewfinder drops like a stone and tracking a subject becomes pretty problematic. The frames per second drop too so the chances of a result are slim. With an optical viewfinder, this is not an issue but the chances of a good shot are also slim.
I returned to the hotel feeling pretty dispirited by this result. I wondered whether this was a real problem for adopting the R3. The following night, I went out again with the B-1s again being my main target. This time I had some tankers heading out before the B-1s launched. It was a very different evening. Sure, the lack of light still makes the chances of getting a good shot pretty low but the camera seemed to have no problem tracking the subjects and keeping the viewfinder frame rate up to a perfectly acceptable level. If I had only gone from the previous night, I would have concluded that it was unusable.
The embedded images in the RAW files looked pretty good but the Lightroom edits required a lot more work. DPP might be the answer or DxO PrimeRAW could do a good job. However, that is not the issue. Will the camera allow me to shoot at night with very dark subjects. Apparently, the answer is yes. It can handle it. However, it can’t track an almost black subject with a couple of navigation lights like an optical viewfinder can. That is a limitation that I may have to live with.
Stopping for lunch at BFI, I was happy to be informed by someone already there that there were a couple of Super Hornets from the US Navy that had departed earlier and were due back shortly. I was able to munch on my sandwiches and do a little work while I waited but it wasn’t too long before they arrived. Initially, they appeared to be making a section approach but, as they got closer to the field, the separated and came in with about a 30 second spacing. One of the jets had some squadron colors which is always welcome these days. Not a dynamic approach but still a nice surprise.
As we started our drive home from Oregon, we were to pass through Astoria. There is an airfield at Astoria and it is home to a Coast Guard helicopter unit that flies the MH-60T Jayhawk. I think this is one of the better-looking variants of the Black Hawk family both because of the paint job but also the configuration of external fuel tanks. I hoped we might see one there, but we had a long drive home and I wasn’t going to subject Nancy to a long delay.
Imagine my frustration as we pulled off US101 towards the airport when an MH-60 flies over our heads towards the airport a mile away. The light was great, and it looked good but I was driving and it was going to land long before we could get there. Had I blown it? Two minutes earlier and we would have been fine. I pulled up and it was taxiing towards me. I grabbed the camera and got a few shots as it headed to the Coast Guard ramp. Check out the logo of Astoria in the shape of the Jayhawk.
However, it didn’t shut down. I thought they might just be running after landing checks but Nancy asked why they hadn’t stopped everything so we waited for a while. Sure enough, another crew walked across the ramp and climbed on board. A few minutes later, they taxied back our way and then lifted. The departure route has the bridge across the Columbia River in the background and, with great winter light, it looked great. They turned down to the south and were gone. I got back in the car and we were back on the road barely ten minutes after leaving 101. I got my helicopter and Nancy didn’t have a long delay!