Paul Dunn's2013 blogGAR Entries

MAR 07 2013
blogGAR: Return to Phoenix - Part One: Luke AFB

Recently I had my first visit to Phoenix for over a year. As it was a fairly short notice trip, I didn’t have a chance to prearrange a visit, so I decided to have a fairly relaxed day of shooting and not stray too far from the city. I began the day with an early start, arriving at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport before dawn, in the hope of catching some of the early morning cargo movements in nice early morning sunlight.

Unfortunately for me, the first of the aircraft I was hoping to catch, a FedEx A300, departed early, well before the sun had properly risen. The next aircraft on my list was a FedEx MD-10, which was supposed to depart at the same time as the sunrise; in fact this too went early, and I was initially slightly disappointed with the conditions, but once I looked at the photos on the computer later, I was much happier, with the first rays of sunshine catching the belly of the jet nicely as it climbed away.

Less than 10 minutes later, a DHL schemed 767 departed; by now the sun was above the horizon and the light was very nice on it and the subsequent airliner departures.

Pleasant though the light was by this point, I decided to head west to Luke AFB, in the hope of catching some F-16s. I hadn’t actually visited Luke since January 2009, when a rather unpleasant encounter with base security rather put me off the place! This time around I had no such problems, but stayed at the approach end on the south side of the base for most of the day.

The airfield is home to the 56th FW, the unit responsible for training all active duty USAF F-16 pilots. This makes it an extremely busy base, and with around 170 based aircraft, it is said to be home to the largest number of F-16s in the US, and probably the world. The 56th OG consists of six flying squadrons, all of whom were active on the day of my visit.

Luke AFB has two runways (03/21 L/R) and most days see 03 in use in the mornings. This was true on the day I visited, meaning that from where I was I could see plenty of traffic departing in the distance, and it was clear that it was going to be a busy day.

In amongst the 03R departures, a pair of F-16s launched in the opposite direction from 21R. The reason for this non-standard departure appeared to be the carriage of live weapons – both aircraft carried what looked like three live 500lb bombs under each wing.

The location I picked was great for shooting aircraft landing on 03L, but not so good for 03R. Aircraft conducting touch and goes tended to use 03L, while 03R was often used for full stop landings, unless there were aircraft waiting to depart. This lead to some moving around to try to catch as many aircraft as possible, but the angle on shots of traffic onto 03R was rather less favourable, but did make for a little bit of variety.

One visiting aircraft which caught me out by landing on 03R was this C-130 from the 910th AW at Youngstown Air Reserve Station, Ohio. This aircraft has been seen operating from Luke AFB lately, and is equipped with spray bars at the rear.

Once the F-16s started to return, the airbase got very busy indeed. The 21st FS ‘Gamblers’ are responsible for training F-16 pilots for the Republic of China Air Force (RoCAF). The squadron consists of ... Block 20 F-16A/Bs, part of a batch delivered to Taiwan in the early 1990s. The aircraft carry USAF markings, and are the only A/B models at Luke, readily identifiable by the extended fairing under the fin.

The 62nd FS ‘Spike War Dogs’ trains new USAF F-16 pilots, to prepare them to serve with active duty USAF squadrons.

The 308th FS ‘Emerald Knights’ also teaches some brand new F-16 pilots, but in addition is responsible for training experienced F-16 pilots to be instructors on the aircraft.

The 309th ‘Wild Ducks’ is another squadron mainly concerned with training brand new F-16 pilots.

Final USAF element to the 56th OG is the 310th FS ‘Tophats’. This squadron conducts advanced training for pilots who are assigned to units specialising in Forward Air Control (FAC) and it is also responsible for training pilots in night time combat operations using Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) and the LANTIRN system.

The final squadron assigned to the group is the 425th FS ‘Black Widows’. This is a joint USAF and Republic of Singapore AF (RSAF) training unit which provides advanced training on the F-16 to RSAF pilots, WSOs and maintenance personnel. The aircraft in use is the Block 52 F-16C/D, with the D-models sporting the distinctive bulged spine of the latter versions of the Viper.

Also operating during the morning was this KC-135R from Grissom AFB, seemingly conducting refuelling training with the 56th FW.

After a busy morning (I counted around 38 departures before lunchtime), the sun had come around to be almost straight down the runway so I left to find some lunch, before heading back to the airfield to try to get some shots from the other side of the airfield, where opportunities are somewhat more limited. I saw another pair of tooled-up jets departing from runway 21R and shortly afterwards ATC “changed ends” for all traffic.

With the change onto runway 21L/R, I decided to try to shoot some aircraft turning from base to finals on the north side of the airfield. I only managed limited success due to the distance involved, and also lack of a suitable place to stop and shoot from.

I finished the day at Luke by heading back to the south west side where I caught this ‘Tophats’ jet breaking smartly into the circuit.

With the sun sinking quickly and the circuit getting very quiet, it was time to get over to Goodyear Airport to pick up Chris and head to Sky Harbor to meet Joe for some night shooting. The previous night I had seen the moon rise spectacularly so I was hopeful of getting a shot of an aircraft on the approach with the moon as a backdrop. It turned out to be a little frustrating and not entirely what I had planned, but I did manage to shoot a Southwest Airlines 737 passing in front of the full moon, even if it was rather distant.

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