Paul Dunn's 2009 blogGAR Entries

DEC 28 2009
Paul Dunn's 2009 Review

My first year with GAR has been very much of an international flavour. In fact, most of my free time for photography seems to come down route whilst working, and this year the job has taken me as far as India, Switzerland, Japan and South Africa and of course provided regular trips to the United States.

Throughout the year I have always strived to find unusual and different locations or operators. This has led to visiting many places which are slightly off the beaten track. I’ve been very grateful for satnav on several occasions - the suburbs of Johannesburg are really no place to stop and ask for directions!

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some excellent people throughout the world too, all of whom have been extremely patient and accommodating. It never ceases to amaze me how far people will go to help someone with a common interest out, and it has been extremely pleasant to meet some wonderful people – I won’t mention names here as I’d be sure to miss someone out and I don’t really want to do that, but to all who have taken the time to show me around their cherished aircraft, patiently answered questions and generally gone out of their way to help, I would like to say a huge thank you.

There have been several highlights that stand out from my first nine months of writing for GAR. The features which take large amounts of organisation and coordination are always very satisfying when they come together. I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about some of my key moments from the year, and supply a bit of background information on how they came about.

Back in June, while Karl and Gareth were visiting RAF Benson to learn about the RAF’s Merlin helicopter force, we heard that the force was to prepare for deployment to Afghanistan with a detachment to NAF El Centro, California. As a regular visitor to the south western US, I was determined to get out and visit while the Merlin force was in residence.

I’d intended to visit El Centro while on a trip to Phoenix but this proved impossible, however after a bit of trading of trips I was able to organise a visit to the El Centro detachment via Los Angeles. I was fortunate to be able to visit whilst my good friend MACR Gareth Attridge was attending the detachment, and (not for the first time I should add) was hugely grateful for his help and support in organising a visit.

There had been some fairly derogatory (and extremely inaccurate) things written online and in the press about the Merlin detachment to California, suggesting that the crews were having what amounted to a “holiday”. My experience there suggested that this view was way wide of the mark, with the tempo of flying being intense and with several challenging new skills being taught to all the crews on the force in a demanding environment, which closely resembles Helmand province.

The impression I came away with was of a highly motivated group of people who were keen to put what they had learned into practice when the time came for them to deploy to Afghanistan to support Operation HERRICK. The preparation work at El Centro was by all accounts invaluable and helped the team who deployed the first aircraft to theatre to declare the Merlin Force ready for combat operations ahead of schedule.

I felt the resulting article I produced for GAR was the most complete and satisfying piece I have produced to date, and I hope it went some way to debunking some of the negative publicity the Merlin Force received at the time. There is no doubt that the HERRICK deployment is the biggest challenge yet faced by the still relatively “young” Merlin Force, and I would like to take the opportunity to wish the team all the best for a safe and productive deployment.

When I first joined the 747 fleet at work, I seemed to do an inordinate amount of trips to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. As crew we stay in the town of Narita itself, with little to pass the time except Asahi and Karaoke, but it had long been an ambition of mine to visit the Japan Air Self Defence Force base at Hyakuri, home to the majority of the surviving F-4 Phantom fleet. The base is just over an hour away from Narita by car, but the stories I had heard about driving in Japan quite put me off hiring a car and heading up there! Most of my colleagues were certain that I would not be able to navigate as “all the road signs are in Japanese” and “no one speaks English” etc...

When I was rostered a Narita in November, I felt that I had to at least try to get to Hyakuri, so took the plunge and rented a car and planned the journey. On arrival at Narita, I headed to the rental car office and was pleasantly surprised to receive personal service, including a bow as I drove off! The car was fitted with satnav, which was hugely helpful despite being entirely in Japanese. Fortunately all that was needed to select a destination was to enter a telephone number, so that was navigation taken care of!

I was to discover that driving in Japan is actually a pleasure, albeit an expensive one. The roads are quiet and well maintained and the other drivers considerate and polite. After a decidedly uneventful drive, I reached the airfield at Hyakuri and joined a large, friendly group of Japanese “air fans” gathered at the threshold of the runway, with the welcome whine of J79 engines in the distance. Within a few minutes of my arrival an F-4EJ started to move, followed by another, then another and another! A four-ship of lovely Japanese Phantoms – I was so excited I nearly fell off my step ladder!

Despite only two and a half hours of daylight being left, the movements kept coming – F-4EJs, RF-4s, F-15s, even a T-4 and a YS-11. The next day proved to be a washout due to persistent heavy rain, but I had come away with so much in my brief afternoon at the fence that it had to rank as one of my best days outside a base – the closeness of the runway to the fenceline means spectacular images are possible, and I hope to make a return early in 2010.

As satisfying as these well organised trips were however, my proudest moment of the year occurred as a result of simply being in the right place at the right time. During July, work took me to Phoenix, Arizona, one of my favourite destinations on our route network. On the last day of the trip, I was whiling away time at a very quiet Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, with the only military movements being a T-38 Talon and a T-45 Goshawk. One of the regular local photographers arrived late in the day and revealed that a “contact” had informed him that a flight of T-37 Tweet trainers were due in, en route to their final resting place after being retired from service.

With my time running out before having to return to the hotel to fly home, we waited for the aircraft to arrive, and eventually they appeared in the circuit. Three of the diminutive trainers arrived and shut down for refuelling. I was very glad to be able to shoot them, as the T-37 was a type that had eluded me up until that point, but it wasn’t until I got home and read a message on an internet news group that I realised that the aircraft I saw were flying the final ever USAF T-37 sortie after 50 years of service! Feeling that this was a newsworthy story, I quickly put a tribute piece together for GAR, including the images I’d taken at Mesa-Gateway, along with images by my GAR colleagues and we had the piece online within a couple of days of the final flight taking place.

As a courtesy I emailed a link to the article to the PAO at Sheppard AFB and got a very enthusiastic response, with photos and contact details exchanging hands over the next week or so. Although the PAO asked me for my address, I didn’t hear anything for a couple of weeks before one day I got home from work to find a small envelope bearing the postmark of the US Air Attache in London. Inside was a handwritten note from the base commander at Sheppard AFB - a Brigidier General no less – complimenting me on a great tribute to an aircraft in which he and a whole generation of USAF pilots cut their teeth. In these days of instant communications, we tend to forget the impact that such a personal note can have, and I was really quite touched that someone of his rank had actually taken the time to contact me in person.

And so ends my first calendar year with GAR. I have been extremely proud to be associated with such a great group of people, who without exception I count as good friends as well as colleagues. I’ve also been proud of the product which we have delivered, and feel very lucky that I have been able to contribute in the way that I have. I am thoroughly looking forward to building on what has been achieved already, and I hope to add a couple more countries to our list in 2010 – I already have plans to add at least one new continent!

All that remains is to say thank you to all the people who have assisted me throughout the year and been so accommodating – there are far too many to name here, but their support is much appreciated. I would also like to thank my fellow contributors at GAR – it’s been a fun year and great to be associated with such a dynamic site. I have learned so much from working with such capable people, and I’m really excited about what we all have in store for the future.

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2010-01-04 - Paul Dunn
The lucky winner of the Eastbourne DVD competition has now been decided - congratulations to Jorge Manuel Antăo Ruivo.

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Best wishes to all GAR readers for 2010,

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