104th Fighter Wing F-15 Eagle Night Missions
The 104th Fighter Wing of the Massachusetts Air National Guard is located at Barnes Air National Guard Base (ANGB), at Westfield Barnes Regional Airport, Westfield MA. It currently operates a single fighter squadron of F-15C/D Eagles with the 131st FS, and is responsible for the air defense of the northeast USA (Aerospace Control Alert, or ACA). In addition, they deploy globally for training and exercises, and recently spent a few weeks in Malaysia training with the Malaysian Air Force and Hawaii-based F-22 Raptors.
In 2005, the Base Realignment and Closure commission (BRAC) made the decision to move the F-15 Eagles from Otis ANGB on Cape Cod to Westfield, and the 104th FW would give up their A-10 Warthogs and change missions. The first Eagles arrived at the 104th FW in late 2007 or very early 2008.
At least three to four times a year, the unit conducts night flying training using night vision goggles. The training can run 3-4 nights in a single week, or 6-8 evenings over a 2 week period. The number of jets per evening also ranges from 2 to 8.
According to public affairs manager Master Sgt. Robert J. Sabonis in a press release from one of the recent missions: “These missions are a critical part of our required reoccurring training. The night-training is required to ensure our pilots are ready to respond to any airborne threat in the Northeastern United States, at any time, in any condition.”
Sometimes the jets do not use external fuel tanks, and would not typically use afterburner on take-off. However, the recent July missions featured jets with no tanks, but many of the jets used afterburner. Afterburner at sunset or complete darkness is truly an amazing sight.
Not only the does the limited light play a huge factor in getting photographs, but so does the weather. Warmer months of course offers later take-offs and more comfortable conditions (other than insects), and the cold months can be quite frigid and sometimes downright unbearable. Cloud cover can also make the light disappear much more quickly. Even as all the jets launch, the lighting can change very dramatically and rapidly.
If lucky, the jets launch right at the “golden hour” – just a few minutes before actual sunset.
The use of afterburners can throw off the exposure, so I will usually set the exposure from -1/3 to -1 to compensate.
I use my Nikon 80-200 f/2.8 lens at aperture priority set wide open and adjust the ISO to get a decent shutter. I try not to go above ISO 2000 on my Nikon D7000.
I have tried a tripod but I am too clumsy with one, and many times use a monopod shortened to its smallest size, and pressed into my gut for stability. I find the monopod on the ground still makes me stumble while panning. Though, I do use it on the ground for taxi shots.
I have been lucky and have gotten a few good ones all the way down to 1/80th of a second shutter speed.
Here is a collection of images I have captured at sunset and post sunset. Of these types of shots I take, 20 to 30% end up being “keepers”, but I am working to improve that percent.
Special thanks to the Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport and their continued support.