El Centro Photocall October 2012

There are few times in photography when the responsible thing to do is accept an invitation, then go about trying to get the day off from a paying job. The El Centro photocall is usually one of those instances. With unparalleled access and a short timeframe before the busses fill up, you tend to act first and think later. It’s the only responsible thing to do.

 

A Super Hornet Break Over Midfield

 

The El Centro NAF Public Affairs Office, specifically Michelle Dee, has arranged for members of the public to enter the base twice a year for the purposes of taking pictures of daily flight operations. How she has managed to convince people with the authority to allow this and manage to get everyone so close to the active runway is a mystery, but the appreciation for those efforts by those whom attend cannot be fully expressed.

The Improved Fresnel Lens Optical Landing System and a Hornet Shortly After Touchdown

 

While all of us photographers are out near the runway having a good time playing around with our cameras, the aircrews are all notably serious. Occasionally we’ll get a wave from an instructor or a slight wing wag on climb out, but the crews are not here to have fun like we are. They are at NAF El Centro for training and continued combat readiness. The goal of El Centro is to support combat training and be the premiere tactical training air installation for the US Navy. The seriousness of El Centro’s goal and the Navy’s mission translates to not messing around by the warfighter, even if 65 people have their cameras trained on them waiting for anything out of the norm to make that photo unique. El Centro is the place Naval aviators go if an overseas trip is in their future and it’s serious business.

 

Two Marine Corps Hornets from VMFA-115 Silver Eagles Take the Active with Live Weapons

 

Luckily for the photographers, NAF El Centro does not have a home squadron as a result of their mission to train. This means every photocall there will be a different set of aircraft practicing, the pictures are never dull no matter how many times a person attends. As can be expected, there are only so many aircraft in the Navy inventory, so there will always be some duplicates – typically T-45 Goshawks and F-18 Charlie through Foxtrot models. Other than those staples, the other aircraft present is a mystery and pleasant surprise every year.

 

A T-45 Goshawk at Touchdown

 

This year we had CH-46’s, UH-60’s, a Marine C-130J, EA-6 Prowlers galore, and there were a group of Merlins and Lynxs from the UK. For comparison, last year the Canadians ran from the snow in their CF-18s to practice in the Southern California sunshine while we were there.

 

An EA-6 Prowler at Touchdown in the Afternoon

 

This year, El Centro was packed. So many aircraft and aircrew that hotels in the city were sought out to hold the aircrew which couldn’t fit on base housing. This meant constant traffic, good news for photographers. The pilots got some solid practice idling their aircraft waiting for the active runway to open up for a takeoff slot.

 

A Prowler Streaks Past Two Hornets Waiting to Takeoff

 

Prior to being allowed on base, the photographers usually burn down their shutters outside the fence. One of the fantastic attributes of NAF El Centro is the proximity of the runways and taxiways to the fence. Most military bases have such a long distance between the aircraft and fence it is nearly not worth trying to photograph airplanes for pure aircraft pictures; not El Centro.

 

A Hornet as Shot from Outside the Fence in the Morning

 

After many years of aviation photography, I’ve resorted to searching for unique things. Typically airshows are the only time the public is allowed onto military bases to photograph military aircraft. Since the public is present, everything is carefully planned and executed. It’s the daily operations which have become somewhat of a mystery, however, just because they typically aren’t seen. El Centro this year it was backing out a CH-46 – coolest thing ever. Pull up the nose, get the aircraft on its main gear and just ease it on backwards. Seeing a CH-46 with a 30° body angle of attack backing from a parking spot to the taxiway; I would assume is not all that interesting to active service personnel, but to someone who’s only seen very coordinated efforts with military aircraft this was very interesting. A quick taxi down the taxiway towards the fence, the just a little more pressure on the collective and over our heads they went.

 

A CH-46 Moments Before Passing Overhead

 

As mentioned many times before in El Centro articles, another interesting experience at the photocalls is the sounds and feel of the photocall. Of course aircraft are loud; it wouldn’t take all that much insight to imagine as you get closer to a full afterburner takeoff, it gets louder. Of course at a certain point, further away than we are, a person feels the sound rattling their insides. From less than 50 feet, this effect is magnified to a point it wouldn’t really be comfortable to be that much closer. Oh, and afterburners are hot, surprisingly enough. As an F-18 comes by on a close-side takeoff roll the local temperature goes from a sweaty El Centro 80°F to a dry Hornet-boosted 130°F or so. Luckily that blows over in less than fifteen seconds.

 

A Marine Corps F-18 Providing the Afternoon Heat

 

Many thanks are due to everyone that made this photocall possible. All the El Centro NAF personnel deserve special thanks for allowing us on their facility and supervising us all day, especially Michelle Dee and Captain Devon Jones for taking time out of their day. I jumped on with the Aviation Photographers of Southern California, www.apsocal.com, under Damon Duran’s watch to merit an invitation onto the base. The efforts of everyone that made this photocall possible should not go unnoticed and thankless. Until next year.

 

The author may be contacted at matt.shinavar@gmail.com

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