Late August saw the Erickson Aircraft Collection at Madras, Oregon, hosting an air-to-air photography workshop. Held over four days, the Madras A2AX allows photographers to learn about the planning and execution of air-to-air photo sessions, whilst working with some rare vintage aircraft. Rob Edgcumbe writes.
Photographing aircraft is a popular pastime and there are many opportunities to do so. Whether you are at an airshow, a major airport or your local airfield, there is an opportunity to photograph the movements of different types. However, the most unique images are often gained when photographing an aircraft from another aircraft. Seeing the aircraft in their natural element and doing so in such close proximity means that you can show angles and dynamism in your images that can’t be replicated from other locations.
Undertaking air-to-air shoots is not something to be done by people without some training. Having aircraft in close proximity is something that has inherent risk and needs to be managed carefully. This includes deciding who to pilot the subject aircraft and camera ship since experience flying in formation is important. It also includes some clear ideas of who is in control of the various aspects of the mission. To provide training on this approach, two primary instructors were involved in leading the course – renowned aviation photographers Scott Slocum and Lyle Jansma provided the training on how to carry out photo missions and supervised the flying programme.
Scott not only provided instruction but also piloted one of the camera ships using his Beech A-36 Bonanza. The Bonanza is one of the few types that is certified to operate with its rear doors removed and it was the primary aircraft in use over the weekend. The original plan to have two Bonanzas was thwarted by a serviceability issue. Lyle spent the duration of the programme tweaking the schedule to make sure the lack of the second aircraft did not cause any significant problems. A T-6 from the museum was also drafted in to provide an alternative camera ship when required, to keep things moving.
While Scott and Lyle led the programme, they also brought in some support to provide additional perspectives on carrying out photo flights. In this case, the experience of the support staff was hard to beat. Paul Bowen has been photographing aircraft for decades, both for commercial customers and for warbird operators. Whether it is a Citation business jet or a P-51 Mustang, Paul has shot it. Phil Makanna was the other advisor to the programme. Phil has travelled the world photographing all manner of vintage aircraft. Both men brought great experience, solid advice on all aspects of the process and numerous humorous tales from their years in the business.
Fun was a big part of the weekend. The weather did not always cooperate and the schedule was updated a number of times to compensate for this. Fortunately, the group that had gathered were ready to have a good time. Whether it was comparing notes on previous shoots, sharing experiences from the flights during the programme or just joking around, everyone was ready to have a good time. This made the whole programme so much more enjoyable.
There were three main flying phases during the programme and not everyone flew every mission. Attendees had the choice to fly three missions, one mission or to only shoot from the ground. The pricing varied accordingly. The target aircraft were predominantly drawn from the Erickson Air Museum’s collection. These included the P-38 Lightning ‘Tangerine‘, the PBY Catalina flying boat and the Nakajima Hayabusa “Oscar”. However, the team also managed to include the Commemorative Air Force’s Zero from the Camarillo base, which was provided as an option to those already booked to fly.
The first mission was focused on the P-38. The early flights had the P-38 paired with the Zero. Rob “Lips” Hertberg flew the Zero while Brent Conner, Chief Pilot for Erickson, took control of the Lightning. Lips accepted his role of being the one being shot down by the Lightning with grace. He then returned to base while the remaining flights shot the P-38 alone. Quick changes were set up for the various participants so the Bonanza could land, unhook the two photographers to allow them to get out, get the next two people on board and hook them in to the safety mounts, and get the plane back airborne. Once airborne, the two photographers would reposition with one sitting on the floor by the open door and the other sliding across to shoot above the first. This approach afforded both photographers basically the same view of the target aircraft.
The mission had been briefed ahead of time, covering both the formation aspects and the creative goals for the flight. This included some tools that had been developed by one of the attendees, Matt Booty, which provided pre-visualisation of the mission. Graphical representations of the intended shots were created along with the view as it should appear to the target pilots. This assisted them in understanding what was required. Pilots used to flying formation are familiar with formations that are not necessarily ideal for photography purposes. Being able to explain to them what things should look like for them when in the right place was a big benefit. Even so, it is necessary to call changes to the formation during the flight and the photographers were able to call their own position updates throughout the flight, communicating these through the photoship pilot to the formation.
The second target was the PBY Catalina. This provided a very different target and many different challenges. The aircraft is far larger and, therefore, can result in very different shot types. More importantly, the aircraft is large, slow and not particularly manoeuvrable. Getting it where you want it requires good coordination and great skill on the part of the pilots. Brent was joined by Mike Oliver in the PBY and both of them were working very hard coordinating throttle and control inputs to achieve the needs of the photographers. By the end of the mission, they were quite exhausted.
The final flights were delayed until the Sunday by weather issues. This was a rare opportunity, with the Oscar flying in formation with the Zero. For some of the flights, Erickson also brought in their Wildcat to provide an additional target. However, the pairing of the Zero and Oscar was the highlight. The weather for the final flights provided a combination of some of the best light of the weekend and some of the worst turbulence. It was a great example of the trade-off in conditions such flights involve and getting images while experiencing some big bumps that made shooting difficult and formation hard for the crews provided some good learning opportunities.
The whole course was an excellent opportunity and one that, while not cheap, is certainly something I would recommend to someone considering it. Erickson Aircraft Collection was a great host and the staff took excellent care of everyone. The museum collection was available to tour whenever there was free time. Meanwhile the content of the training was excellent, the experience gained was invaluable and the quality and variety of photo targets was hard to beat. Add in a great group of people determined to have a lot of fun while learning a lot and you have an excellent combination. Each day started very early and there was something to do until late each evening as a result of the Wings Over the Cascades airshow that coincided with the program so, by the end of the weekend, everyone was pretty worn out. Even so, no-one seemed to be anything other than happy with the experience.
Flying air-to-air photography is a complex task that should only be undertaken with the appropriate level of preparation. Madras A2AX is one of the training programmes that introduces people to safely and thoroughly carrying out these missions, and it proved to be a great experience. If you are considering such a programme, this is certainly one to consider strongly. My thanks go to Lyle Jansma, Scott Slocum, Paul Bowen, Phil Makanna and all at Erickson Aircraft Collection for an excellent few days.