Spotting at Nellis
Story and photos by Del Laughery
I didn’t realize, until I travelled to the UK a few years ago, just how embraced aviation spotters are over there. For instance, the perimeter fence at RAF Marham is a very spotter-tolerant 1.5 meters high. No need for a ladder, just a comfortable portable chair along with the typical big glass attached to your camera body, and you’re in business. The land around the base is primarily farmland, but the owners are also very tolerant of respectful spotters who don’t damage crops or leave garbage behind. While spotting, base security may stop by and say hello, and only ask that you let them know if you see something unusual, which is often followed by the delivery of a business card with the guardroom phone number. You literally become an extra set of eyes of which security forces take full advantage.
Once done at Marham, drive on over to RAF Waddington, where there’s a north-facing dedicated viewing enclosure complete with food for purchase, and take in activity which often includes aircraft from numerous visiting militaries including Germany, Italy, and Israel. Not only will you find opportunities for terrific photographs, but also like-minded photographers who love to talk about their experiences and share their favorite photos.
On the morning of the next day, park along the A1065 near the northwest corner of RAF Lakenheath, where most of the photographers congregate at a north-facing wide spot on the road’s shoulder, and you will see some significant differences in the look and feel of this primarily USAF-operated base. The first thing you’ll notice is the irritatingly tall perimeter fence. If you’re foolish enough to erect a tall ladder near it, you’ll get the attention of base security who will engage you in a decidedly different conversation than that which you experienced the previous day at RAF Marham. It’s not that this USAF base is intolerant, I mean there’s a south-facing viewing area easily visible from where you’re taking pictures for heaven’s sake, but even there you’ll deal with the same tall fence and that large bright flaming ball in the sky responsible for the back-lit nature of your photos.
Right about now you have to be asking yourself why an article about spotting at Nellis AFB, NV has, so far, been focused on bases in the UK. The answer lies in the similar keep-spotters-at-a-distance-and-behind-a-tall-fence approach at Lakenheath that you’ll experience at Nellis. As such, you need to be aware of where you can, without getting close to the base (and garnering the attention of security forces), snap some worthwhile photographs.
Spotting at Nellis is all about timing. The two primary locations available to photographers, both along public roads, experience varying sun angles throughout the day that either make photography fairly easy or quite challenging. Let’s take a look at each.
At the corner of East Cheyenne Avenue and DeVry Lane, you’re situated between the extended centerlines of runways 3L and 3R. In the morning, landing activity on 3L will be well lit, while the same approach to 3R is very backlit. The situation is the exact opposite by the time the sun transitions to the west in the afternoon. Regardless, though, of the time of day, this area suffers from numerous power lines which make photography difficult until the aircraft are nearly on top of you. It’s not that you can’t get a good photograph. You can. But you’ll have to pick and choose when you press the shutter release button or delete some photos once you’re involved in editing the images you did capture.
When you get tired of the challenges along East Cheyenne, drive around to the other side of the base along Las Vegas Blvd and look for gate 7 of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway above which aircraft climbing away from runway 3L will often pass as they execute the flex departure procedure to the northwest. This area is, really, not good at all until mid-afternoon, but it says great until the sun goes down with the final 60 minutes being quite spectacular as the golden-hour sunshine illuminates the top of left-banking A-10s, F-15s, F-16s, F-22s and F-35s headed toward one of the various weapons ranges.
During my visit to Nellis, I captured these aircraft, as well as an occasional UH-60, at both locations but also managed to get a shot or two of some interestingly equipped F-16s lugging around a full complement of live air-to-ground weapons. This is worth mentioning since most of the aircraft you’ll see at Nellis, unless you’re there during Green Flag, are loaded with air-to-air weapons and range telemetry equipment. So, if you have the opportunity, travel to Las Vegas, drop your non-photographer spouse off at one of the many casinos along the strip, and head north to Nellis for a day of great photography. If you’re lucky, you’ll hook up with some locals who know far more about field operations than this insignificant article provides, just as I did.