The Story Behind an Image, Part Three

For the past 14 years, I have had a love affair with photography. I love images that comes with a story. Over the years, I have shot a few images that has a story. Here is part three in a series I call “The story behind an Image

Part 3: My 11 years and over 16 Airshows/events shot

Ever since I started my love affair with aviation photography, I have  formed a list of images I wanted to capture. One of them is a ¾ front shot of a F/A-18 Super Hornet during its high-speed pass with a full vapor cone in a cloudless blue sky. Not a full cone from side view, but a nice full round vapor cone from ¾ front. And on a cloudless day so you can see the contrast from the white of the vapor cone and the blue of the sky.  This is a shot I chased for 11 years and at 16 different events and airshows.

For those of you who do not know what a vapor cone it is, go and hit up Wikipedia.

There’s a huge misnomer about the elusive vapor cone. When people see it, their think that the aircraft is breaking the sound barrier. This is not true. A vapor cone can form (if the conditions are right) at transonic speed just before reaching the speed of sound. Demo pilots meticulously rehearsed a precise routine showing off the aircraft performance without breaking the supersonic speed limit set at an airshow and other aviation events.

Now on to just how difficult this shot was for me. 16 different airshows and events in 5 states and one in Canada over 11 years. Yeah! Here’s 3 YouTube videos I found that showing just how quickly the vapor cone forms and disappears during the Super Hornets high speed pass.

Pretty amazing right!? Now imagine shooting it with a heavy 400mm or 500mm telephoto lens hand held. Yeah! For me, the trouble was not being able to keep track of the Super Hornet during the high-speed pass or not being able to get images in focus. It was having the right condition for it to happen and for me to be shooting from the right location to be able to capture it the way I want. The main ingredient for a vapor cones and any other forms of condensation is humidity. One of main features of the shot I wanted to capture is having a cloudless blue sky to showing off the full cone of condensation. And having a humid and cloudless blue sky the day of an airshow is a weather oxymoron. Clouds in the background can take away and or make the cone look deformed. Our eyes are very sensitive to circles and can quickly pick up on things that do not appear to be round. Another feature of this image I envision is the position of the Super hornet and the vapor cone. I want to shoot the Super Hornet as it is heading toward me in a ¾ front view so it looks like it is punching through a little cloud. There is no way of knowing where the cone is going to form, if it even happens or not during the high-speed pass. But I do know during the demo,  it does it’s high-speed pass from the right to the left. Knowing that, I want to be farthest left of show center. So, if it forms I can capture it in the position it in that front 3/4 view.

Below are 4 interesting failed attempts at capturing the Super Hornet high speed pass I had shot over the years. Each showing different combination of wrong factors. The images are as they are out of the camera, no skipped images.

The first one is from Battle Creek 2006. The Super Hornet was from VFA-106 known as the “Gladiators” based at NAS Oceana. A nicely painted 206 bird, nice blue sky but no vapor. The night before the show, a front came through and dried the air out.

Battle Creek 2006
Good Position, Good sky but no humidity Link to view full size


The next high-speed is again from VFA-106 performing at the 2008 NAS Oceana airshow. The sky was partly cloudy, blue on one side and cloudy on the other. This pass I was in the wrong location and with not the best weather conditions.

NAS Oceana 08
Poor position, Poor sky but great humidity! Link to view full size

On to the APPA Gold Cup Hydroplane race on the Detroit river in 2011. VFA-106 came up from NAS Oceana to perform the demo each day of the race. Found a good shooting location on belle isle, an island park on the Detroit river, at the end of a fishing pier that jets out into the river. The pier did not interfere with the event airshow box and it did get me closer to the action. This time I was shooting my trusty 400m F/5.6. Close but not the the shot I was looking for. Poor position, great sky and OK humidity.

APPA Gold Cup Detroit 2011
Poor position, Great sky and OK humidity. Link to view full size

And the last of interesting failed high-speed passes is from Cleveland National airshow in 2012. That weekend I had rented Canons new 500mm F/4 MK II from (amazing service). The whole weekend was overcast and there was a ton of moisture in the air. I had no question that Super was going to cone. The trouble was that it overcast and that there will not be enough contrast in between the cone and the overcast skies. In this series of images,these nine images are a testimony to just how good the cameras auto focus system capabilities are at tracking a gray object traveling near the speed of sound on a gray background. Great position, crappy sky but great humidity.

Cleveland 2012 film strip
Great position, crappy sky but great humidity.  link to view full size

Fast forward to late spring 2015 and the Gary South Shore Airshow was approaching. It is a beach show on the southern shore of Lake Michigan in Gary, Indiana. This was first of two beach shows during my 2015 show season. Beach shows has its pluses and minuses. Let start with the good, a very good possibility for vapor. Water evaporating for a body of water into the air equals humidity. And you need a lot of humidity for a good full cone. Also, your background will most likely be uncluttered.

For me, the biggest drawback of a beach show is the location of the airshow box. The air space where aircraft are permitted to perform during a show or aerial event. The show line, a visual reference line to aid pilots with orientation during the performance, runs down the center of the airshow box. At most aerial events, one of the active runways is the show line. FAA rules state that the crowd must be 1500 ft. away from the show line. That does not mean the performers are always 1500 ft from the crowd. So, how do you establish a show line at a beach show? With a ship, of course. At the Gary show, I think it was a US Coast Guard ship. Not 100% sure, but it was a ship. Most of time the water 1500 ft from the shore is not deep enough for a ship. Remember, it must big enough for pilots to easily spot. Like a big white Coast Guard ship. That means the show line is farther away from the shore, which means one needs more focal length. Because of this I stayed away from beach show until I got my 500mm F/4.5.

I had planned on going to the Gary show with the intent of crossing two images off my list. I wanted to get an image of Warbird Heritage Foundation(WHF) Skyhawk during its photo pass. The Gary show give me yet another crack at get my elusive front ¾ cone shot with the Super Hornet. At the time I was living in Naperville, Illinois and the morning of the show it was straight and solid overcast at home and the weather for the show did not look promising. With questionable weather, I was seriously considering not going until my good friend called me to ask if I was going. He told me he was going and he felt that we would be OK weather wise. I was not too thrilled about the weather but I pack up and headed off to the show. If anything, I get to hang out with friend despite the weather.

During the drive over I was hoping for better weather but it wasn’t looking any better.  But as I got closer to Gary, the overcast started to breaking up and had a few patches of blue sky here and there. By the time I reached Marquette Park, where show was being held, I was shocked to see the sky was clear and blue. Now excited about the show, I scrambled to find parking and call my buddy. Who had gotten there before I did and told me where to find him on the beach. He had pick a spot to the left of show center. The show opened with the US Army Golden Knight parachute team jumping in with the flag as the National anthem with being sung. After a few other acts, the WHF A-4 Skyhawk did its demo but due to the where the show line was, the tiny A-4 looked even smaller in view finder during its photo pass.

Up next was the Super Hornet demo. After seeing the Super Hornet demo countless times, the routine become very familiar. The demo starts with the dirty roll. During the roll, the landing gear are retracted followed by a vertical reposition for the next pass. At the bottom the repositioning, there is a hard pitch up and is a good chance to get some vapor coming off the leading-edge extensions. Back to level flight, lite the afterburners for the tight, fast and loud minimal radius turn. Exiting the minimal radius turn, hard nose up and to the tail stand. At he top of the tail stand, the stick is shoved forward and the ass of the Super Hornet abruptly rises and returns to level flight. Exiting right to reposition for the high-speed pass. THIS IS IT! Quickly double check setting, look around to check if there is anything that going to get in the way of the shot. Other photographers, people walking by, anything that could screw up the next 10 seconds. All clear! Lens up, focus on the Super hornet as it rapidly approaches, take a breath, get calm and start shooting. I hate the saying “spray & pray”. For me, mindless shooting away, hoping to capture something is stupid. Instead stay calm, focus on what you are doing and shoot you subject. The funny thing is I did not see the vapor cone form at all. Not a single frame. Remember when shooting, the mirror swings up and blocks the view finder so the sensor can exposure the image.

11years and 16 shows

Here’s 9 frames from the West Coast Super Hornet demo, VFA-122 “Flying Eagles” Based at NAS Lemoore, High-speed pass during the Gary South Shore Airshow.

Great location, Great sky and Great humidity. Link to view full size

Be sure to check out

The Story Behind an Image, Part four >

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