2012 Aviation Nation: A Photographer’s Mother Lode

The annual Aviation Nation air show at Nellis AFB, NV is a fitting finale to the 2012 Air Force show season.  The home-based Thunderbirds, and the Air Combat Command’s F-22 Demonstration and Heritage Flight Team flew their last performances of the year to the delight of tens of thousands of fans.  The show drew professional and amateur photographers from around the world, as it usually does, hoping to take advantage of the spectacular scenery and wide assortment of airplanes on display in the air and on the ground.  Photorecon was well represented here, including myself and fellow New Englander Ken Middleton, looking for some unique opportunities for photos and to network with other like-minded photographers and aviation enthusiasts. The 2012 Aviation Nation offered some unexpected opportunities and drawbacks… and some great technical puzzles for photographers to solve.

Weather conditions can make or break a great photograph.  Good lighting makes a photo “pop”, bad lighting doesn’t allow proper contrast or color to catch one’s eye. Even windy conditions, when holding a large lens, can make capturing a crisp photo challenging.  During the three day weekend, the weather changed dramatically, with a plethora of situations making the going tough.  Wind gusts to 30 miles per hour or more on Friday, blowing dust and sand into the air, made sharp photos difficult.  The dust can be harsh on equipment as well as the eyes of the photographer too.   Not too many pictures were taken on the practice day while the wind was whipping around, unless the activities were indoors in on a shaded ramp.  Luckily the air began to calm down as the afternoon went on, and some decent opportunities for airborne photos of the Thunderbirds and the Horsemen in their three F-86 Sabre Jets were produced, as they flew their practice routines.

Saturday morning dawned clear and cool.  Arriving at the show on the first bus from the parking area at the adjacent Motor Speedway, my partner Ken and I rushed down the expansive static line, trying to get photos of many of the aircraft in bright sunlight before other spectators got too close to them and cluttered up our compositions.  Even then a bit of artistic license was needed, with timely cropping and close ups to avoid background distractions.  As we reached the other end of the static park, over a mile from where we started, it was time to turn around, retrace our steps, and get close-up photos of details we wanted to record or take better photos the same airplane with different lighting.  Warbirds were in abundance here, including Mustangs, a Bearcat, three Sabre Jets, an SNJ/T-6, two A-4L Skyhawk and an L-39 operated by Draken International used as airborne aggressors, a British Jet Provost, Spanish SEATA jet, a pair of T-33 trainers, and a two-seat MiG-15 (or was it a Lim-2 or CS-102?).  There were Air Force Aggressor jet fighters parked under a shaded canopy,  producing a lighting problem for photographers to solve… overexpose the shadows or underexpose the outside sky?  To this and many similar challenges, individual taste and composition made the answer arbitrary… there was not just one correct way to do it.  There were gray aircraft out in the open, white aircraft in shadows, and a score of other color and lighting combinations to consider when taking a picture.

The flying portion of the show was to begin at 10AM or so, and a large mass of clouds began to build to the south as the morning went on… by noontime the sun was gone, replaced by thick high clouds.  Some of the higher-flying aircraft were just silhouetted against the gray, but the low flying performers were bathed by ambient light reflecting off the surrounding mountains and lighter sky conditions to the north.  A B-1B bomber gave one of the best “banana passes” (if one looks down on the ground track of the jet, the pass resembles a banana’s curve, with the spectators within the curve) by the type seen in recent history.  Any jet in afterburner had their flames seemingly magnified in the subdued light.  And then, it happened… during the two versus two (2 v 2) air to air demonstration of a pair of F-16 Aggressor fighters teamed against a pair of F-15 Eagles, the four began to loose infrared decoy (IR) flares as they flew away from the crowd.  Thousands of shutters clicked in unison and memory cards fought to save the images of the bright comets and their thick gray smoke trails that fell from the rear of the fighters, trying to detract from engine exhaust infrared energy and throw off the sensing of any infrared-seeking missile.  A normal training event and a needed tool in the modern air-to-air combat world, IR flares are seldom seen at American air shows, and many photographers had hoped this feature would occur in 2012.  In some respects, the overcast magnified the lighting effects of the flares.  A later series of flares set off by a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles illuminated their bellies in a fiery  glow too.   As the afternoon wore on, the sun got lower on the horizon, and broke through some of the clouds, allowing for some well-lit photo opportunities of the F-22 demonstration, the Heritage Flight, the Horsemen, and the Thunderbirds as the show ended.  After the flying ended, the sun got below the overcast deck, and for a few moments before the show grounds closed, the  superb “sweet” warm orange light of the sunset bathed the ramp as we were herded off of the base by security police just doing their job.  We caught the last bus to the parking lot as the sun went behind the mountains.

I had to go back home Sunday morning, and by all accounts I missed the best weather of all three days… unlimited sunshine and warmer temperatures.   Luckily for Ken and most of the other photographers, they returned and got some (more) superb photographs, with the same flying schedule but with better lighting.  And the jet fighters used even more IR flares too!  There were decisions to be made… like whether to take photos from the same spot as the day prior, or perhaps from the other side of the ramp for a different perspective.  Or, after previewing the prior day’s photos at the hotel room overnight, could one capture a better photo of the same maneuver the next day.

From Friday’s dusty and windy conditions, the challenges changed to overcast skies on Saturday, and finally cleared for an easier day for photographers on Sunday.  Aviation Nation offered a number of photographic challenges for us, but some wonderful surprises too.  It turned out to be a mother lode of photographic opportunities, some good and some not so good, but with some gold and silver linings thrown in too.

Article by Ken Kula

Photos by Ken Middleton and Ken Kula

Some photos from other members

Ken Kula

Assignment and Content Editor, writer and photographer A New Englander all of my life, I've lived in New Hampshire since 1981. My passion for all things aviation began at a very early age, and I coupled this with my interest of photography during college in the late 1970s. I spent 32 years in the air traffic control industry, and concurrently, enjoyed my aviation photography and writing adventures, which continue today. I've been quite fortunate to have been mentored by some generous and gifted individuals. I enjoy contributing to this great site, and working with some very knowledgeable and equally passionate aviation followers.

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