2011 Articles

MAR 08 2011
Getting a real buzz from the Baltic Bees

When I wandered along to the Flying Control Committee’s office at the hotel at 0800, I still didn’t know for sure if our trip would even be taking place, but I soon learnt that the two elements of the formation had briefed the previous evening and everything suggested that we would indeed be going flying.

The two elements involved? The Baltic Bees and the Turkish Stars!

The plan was for us to be airborne at 1015, fly a route taking in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and recover at 1100, just in time for the show to get underway.

I, along with Major Mohamed, Marie-Louise Saghbini and an Italian photographer, Andrea Pozza, would each be flying in the L-39s of the Baltic Bees.

We left the hotel at 0915 and arrived at the military base at around 0940. Andrea and I were shepherded into Marie-Louise’s office and told not to move. 1015 came and went without us receiving any updates at all. I was certainly beginning to expect the worst, knowing, as I did, how keen Dave Walton had been for us to be back on the ground prior to the commencement of the flying display.

What Andrea and I were blissfully unaware of was a massive issue that had just been dropped on the FCC and one that would prompt a significant change to the day’s running order. The airport would be hosting a VVIP movement mid-afternoon that would necessitate a 90-minute lockdown on any other movements – including flying display participants – and it was the replanning for this that had caused things to grind to a temporary halt.

Eventually we were summoned to the sun shelters where our steeds lay in wait, and it was only at this point that I actually allowed myself to get excited about what was going to be happening next!

The plan was briefed and I learnt that I would be flying in YL-KSS, in the #3 slot, on the right hand side of the formation, with Anatolij Perekristov. The only slightly disappointing thing was that it sounded as if I would remain in the formation for the majority of the trip, while Andrea would have plenty of opportunity to move around outside the formation.

A helmet was issued and strapped on and I was shown how to get into the aircraft; three cunningly positioned strips of black tape indicating the locations of the foot-holds. Having successfully completed the ascent, I lowered myself down on to the seat and couldn’t help but raise a smile. I was going for a ride in this!

Anatolij strapped me in and provided a brief on the use of the ejector seat, in the unlikely event that I should need to use it, and before I knew it the canopy was being closed around me. Somewhat disconcertingly, no sick bag had been offered and, not really knowing what to expect, that mildly concerned me!

Attached to the helmet was an oxygen mask, although for our purposes it would simply serve as a means of communication. Rather than have it fitted tightly, it hung lose and meant that should I need to talk, I had to physically pick it up and place it over my nose and mouth. From a picture taking point of view, I suspect this probably made things a tad easier.

With the engine spooling into life, Anatolij asked if I could hear him OK. I placed the mask over my mouth and, in my best Royal Air Force voice, responded with “Loud and clear”.

As we taxied out to runway 19, it struck me that the air inside the cockpit, while nice and cool, wasn’t especially nice smelling. I couldn’t help but offer a wave to the chap shooting video next to the pilots’ tent. I later learnt that this was Adrian from PlanesTV.

Lining up on the runway I still didn’t really know what to expect. As we began our take-off roll in formation, the acceleration was very smooth but certainly didn’t force me back in my seat. We rotated and soon began a climbing right-hand turn to track north-west towards Dubai.

The smell had gone, the temperature was perfect, and the whole thing was just thoroughly enjoyable! Off to our left appeared the Turkish Stars and it all felt a bit surreal.

I’d already realised that for some reason, my head movement was restricted when my mask was hanging completely lose, and trying to look through the viewfinder whilst wearing a helmet presented its own problems too. It was very much a case of trying to line up one extreme of the aircraft with the same extreme of the frame and just hoping that it all fitted! In an ideal world, I’d have taken two bodies, but I didn’t think it was entirely appropriate. The 24-105mm lens was, in hindsight, just a bit too big, but equally, the 10-22mm would have been too small for all eventualities. The other issue I had to contend with was that of canopy reflections. I was, as you would expect, secured pretty damned tightly to my ejector seat, and leaning forward was impossible. Square on to my shoulders the reflections really weren’t an issue, but anything further forward than that they became impossible to avoid, at least without shooting totally blind.

Visibility, while considerably better than it had been earlier in the week, still wasn’t great. The radio was buzzing with plenty of Baltic Bees chat, often interspersed with the English language voice of the Dubai controller who seemed totally at ease with what we were doing.

Our initial photo location would be Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest manmade structure at 828m (2717ft) high. The top of it soared above the height that we were flying at, and the water features and smaller skyscrapers in the locale provided some wonderfully different backdrops.

After an orbit, we headed to the Atlantis Hotel, passing the magnificent Burj Al Arab – the second tallest hotel in the world at 321m (1053ft) on the way.

The Atlantis Hotel sits at the head of the spectacular Palm Jumeirah, the smallest of three manmade archipelagos that extend into the Persian Gulf. As the name suggests, from above, the island looks like a palm tree, surrounded by a crescent breakwater. The scale of it was emphasised by the fact that it was (albeit only just) impossible to fit it all in at the 24mm end.

Complete at Atlantis, we transited towards Abu Dhabi, and finally I would get the opportunity to leave the formation to get some different shots of my own. We dropped out and flew beneath the Baltic Bees initially before sitting off the port side of the Turkish Stars formation. Ducking down below the formation, you could actually see the bluey-greenness of the sea below reflecting off the whites in the Turkish Stars colour scheme.

Pulling high and wide to the starboard side of the formation, I was able to fit both the Baltic Bees and the Turkish Stars into the same shot, with the backdrop provided by the brightly glinting waters beneath. The picture got even better as we passed back to the port side and descended. What incredible colours!

There was just enough time to get a few more shots in the bag of the Baltic Bees before it was time to slot back into formation as Abu Dhabi approached. The most recognisable sight that I managed to spot, airport aside, was the Ferrari World theme park with its impossible-to-miss bright red canopy standing out from the blue, green and gold surroundings.

It was at this point that the Turkish Stars reported a fuel issue and headed back to Al Ain, with us in tow. With displays ongoing and the need to get the Turks in first, we entered a hold for a short while, which provided, for me at least, some of the most special shots of the whole trip. The rippled sand dune backdrop as we performed a 45 degree bank to the left was nothing short of stunning, and the light was perfect.

With Al Ain now ready to accept us, we lined up for a run and break to runway 01, with Anatolij telling me to expect a +4G break. It was literally the only time I’d strained at all during the flight and, as we lined up to land as number four, I started to reflect on what a great opportunity it had been.

As Anatolij brought us in over the piano keys, Team Viper waited to line-up. The landing was a greaser and, as we taxied to the end to vacate, the smell that had prevailed as we’d made our way to the runway earlier returned. I suddenly realised that my backside was rather numb, but that aside, I felt really good! Definitely no need to have been even vaguely worried about the lack of a sick bag!

After the seat had been made safe and I’d been unstrapped, I made my way back out of the cockpit and handed my camera to the guys to show them what I’d captured. Both Andrea’s and my cameras then had to go off to security to make sure we’d not inadvertently photographed any palaces.

The ride had probably been the perfect introduction to fast jet air-to-airs for me. Nothing strenuous, a first taste of shooting with a helmet on, dealing with (or at least trying to) canopy reflections when you can’t lean forward to minimise their presence, and all while photographing two fantastic looking display teams over some truly spectacular scenery!

If you get the chance, check out Andrea's gallery featuring shots from outside the formation taken over Dubai – they’re rather special!

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2011-03-11 - Mark Rouse
Great article. Really enjoyed reading about the whole thing.

2011-03-09 - Guy Westgate
Wow - flight of a lifetime and photos that just capture the magic of being in the middle of it all....
I am jealous as hell, but glad it was you that had the flight so you could share it with us - nice one Karl!

2011-03-09 - Mike Jorgensen
Lovely shots Karl. Every flight is a learning opportunity, and I'm glad to see that you've experienced (and realised) some of the limitations. It will get easier for you ;)

2011-03-09 - Damien Burke
That last one is an absolute cracker mate.

2011-03-08 - Alan Longstaff
Fantastic images Karl!

2011-03-08 - Steve Coe
Great opportunity, great shots, great article. Well worth the wait. Any chance we'll see the Bees in the UK this year?

2011-03-08 - Peter Fleetwood
Just like you, Karl, I expected to feel sick... in my case with envy, but I'm not - I'm just amazed what a great time you had, and what fabulous shots you got, too. The one of the Turkish stars over the water is simply superb, and I have to say your narrative is very engaging. Lots of questions I'd love to ask, but that's one of the signs of a good article. Many, many thanks.

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