Red Flag 22-2 included a detachment of B-1B Lancers. The Bone is a cracking jet as it combines the size of a bomber with the shaping and engines of a fighter. It is an elegant shape whether the wings are fully swept or not. I have shot them at Nellis a few times over the years but I was still keen to get some shots of them on this trip. Unfortunately, things did not quite go to plan.
They didn’t fly on the day that I arrived. I had gone out in the evening for the night launch but they were not part of it. The following morning, they launched a lot earlier than I expected so I was still at Cheyenne when they went. My last day, they again didn’t launch. That meant the recoveries from the early launch were my only chance.
Weather was not helping too much. This was not just for the Bones. It was pretty overcast for a good chunk of the afternoon. The two jets came back in formation and broke into the pattern. Thankfully, the arrivals were using the 21s and they were allocated to the right runway. A pretty sporty pattern for a big jet combined with me having chosen a good spot by the Speedway meant that they were almost filling the frame as they turned on to final. Some nicer light would have been great but, since this was all I was getting in daylight, it would have to do.
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.
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.
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.
I was working through some shots and came across a sequence a little before a bunch of shots I have used a lot in the past. It was of B-2s on approach to Nellis just before sunset. I had some clear shots of them in the distance including as the gear was traveling. Here is one of those shots. I just liked it and thought I would share it here.
Adobe periodically updates the processing algorithms that are used by Lightroom and Photoshop. Each update provides some improvements in how raw files are processed and it can be good to go back to older shots and to see how the newer process versions handle the images. I find this particularly useful for images shot in low light and with high ISO.
I have some standard process settings I use but have also experimented with modified settings for use with high ISOs and the higher noise levels that come with them. I got to some night launch shots from an old Red Flag exercise and had a play with the images. The E-3 launch was actually as the light was going down but it still had some illumination so it didn’t need much work.
The KC-135 and B-1B shots were a different story and were at high ISOs and with very little light. I was able to update the process version and apply some new settings I had worked out since the original processing and it resulted in some pretty reasonable outputs considering how little light there was to work with.
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.
A Royal Saudi AIr Force Boeing F-15SA Strike Eagles turns on to final approach at Nellis AFB NV.
A Royal Saudi AIr Force Boeing F-15SA Strike Eagles turns on to final approach at Nellis AFB NV.
A Royal Saudi AIr Force Boeing F-15SA Strike Eagles on departure from Nellis AFB NV.
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.