Part 3: My 11 years and over 16 Airshows/events shot
Ever since I started my love affair with Aviation photography, I have a list of images I wanted to capture. One of them has been a ¾ front shot of a F/A-18E or F Super Hornet during its high-speed pass with a full vapor cone in a cloudless blue sky. Not a full cone from side view, not on a cloudy day that hides the vapor cone but a nice full round vapor cone from ¾ front. I tried for years, 11 years to be actual and God knows how images. But after 11 years and 16 different events and airshows, I finally did it.
For those of you who do not know what a vapor cone it is, go and hit up Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vapor_cone
There’s a huge misnomer about the elusive vapor cone. When people see it, their think that the aircraft is breaking the sound barrier. WRONG! 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. I’ve been to countless shows and seen so many high-speed passes from just about every US fighter and not one of them has ever excessed the speed of sound.
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, Holy Fuck! Here’s 3 YouTube videos I found that showing how quickly the vapor cone forms and disappears during the Super Hornets high speed pass.
Pretty amazing right!? Now imagine shooting it with a 400mm or 500mm 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 wanted. 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. The other feature of this image I envision is the position of the Super hornet with the vapor cone. I have seen many images of aircraft with cones and most of them are profile or side shots along with a few rear shots (I like to call butt cones). 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 it just formed. There is no way of knowing where the vapor cone is going to form, if it even happens or not during the high-speed pass. But I do know during the Super Hornets demo, it does the high-speed pass from the right to the left. If it is possible, I want to be the farthest left of show center. So, if it forms I can capture it in the position I’m looking for.
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. I nicely painted 206 bird, nice blue sky but not vapor. The night before the show, a front came through and dried the air out.
The next high-speed is of VFA-106 performing at home at the 2008 NAS Oceana airshow. The sky was partly cloudy, blue on one side of the runway and cloudy on the other. Another pass in the wrong location and with not the best weather conditions.
Next on to the APPA Gold Cup Hydroplane race on the Detroit river 2011. VFA-106 came up from NAS Oceana to perform the demo each day of the race. Had a good shooting location on belle isle, an island park on the Detroit river, at the end of a pier that jetted out into the river. The pier did not interfere with the events airshow box but it did get me closer to the action. That time I was shooting my 400m F/5.6 and that little bit closer helped full the frame. Since the demo was flown over the Detroit River, I chose to shoot from Belle Isle so that the sun was at my back. And being on opposite side of the in which the demo was being flown, the high-speed pass was from the left to the right. Close but not the shot the shot I was looking for. Poor position, great sky and great humidity.
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 lensesrental.com (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 gray, that there will not be enough contrast in between the cone and the background clouds. Here in this last series of images, these nine images (in a row) is a testimony to just how good the cameras autofocus system capabilities are at tracking a gray object traveling near the speed of sound on a gray background. It’s amazing to see how the vapor cone forms, disappears and how quickly it reforms again. Great position, poor sky and great humidity.
Enough about how I struggled with this shot. 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. The second was Milwaukee Air & Water Show 2 weeks after the Gary show. 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 to form. Also, your background most likely will be uncluttered. The horizon and sky makes for a simple and clean background along with shows a sense of location.
For me, the biggest negative 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 1,500ft. away from the show line. That does not mean the performers are always 1.500ft from the crowd. Some maneuvers, are closer than others. But at a beach show, the performers take off and land at a nearby airport. So, how do you have 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. 9 times out of 10, the water 1,500ft 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. So that means the show line farther away from the shore, farther away means one needs more focal length. Because of this I stayed away from beach show until I got my 500mm.
Weeks before the show I had planned on going with the intent of crossing off a few images from my list. The Warbird Heritage Foundations(WHF) A-4 Skyhawk and the US Navy West Coast Super Hornet Demo team from VFA-122 “Flying Eagles” based out of NAS Lemoore were my main reasons for going. I wanted to get an image of WHFs Skyhawk during its photo pass. The Gary show did give me yet another crack at get that front ¾ full cone shot during Super Hornets high-speed pass if conditions were right.
I almost don’t go to this show. At the time, I was living in Naperville, Illinois and the morning of the show it was straight and solid over at home along with the weather for Gary, Indiana 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. Being not too thrilled about the weather, I pack up my gear and headed off to Gary. If anything, I could see and hang out with buddy doing what we both enjoy despite the weather conditions.
The drive over I was hoping for better weather but the farther east I drove but it wasn’t looking any better. And was disappointed with mother nature. Come show day, its overcast time! But as I got closer to Gary, the overcast was breaking up and had patches of blue 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 for the show, I scrambled to find parking and call my buddy. Who had gotten there before I did and told me where to go to find him on the beach. He had pick out a spot to the left of show center to shoot from. The show opened with the US Army Golden Knight parachute team jumping in 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. Was a little bummed out about the Skyhawk’s photo pass but I did finally cross that shot off my list later in the season at NAS Oceana.
So, after seeing the Super Hornet demo so many times, the routine become familiar. The demo starts with the dirty roll. During the roll, the landing gear is 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 on the leading-edge extensions. Back to level flight, lite the afterburners for the minimal radius turn. Exiting the minimal radius turn, hard pull into the tail stand. Top of the tail stand, the stick is shoved forward and the ass end of the hornet abruptly rises and the aircraft levels out. Exit right to position for high-speed pass. You know what’s coming. So, quickly check setting, looking to check to see if there anything that going to get in the way of the shot. Other photographers, people walking by, anything to screw up the next 10 seconds. Quickly move if needed, lenses up, focus on the Super hornet as it approaches, take a breath, get calm and focused and start shooting. I hate the saying “spray & pray”. For me, its mindless shooting away, hoping to capture something, instead having the mindset and skill to stay calm and shoot you subject when it is suitable. Yes, you have to shoot in continues shooting to capture any fast action and be able to keep the auto focus point on your subject all the while panning. The funny thing is I did not see the vapor cone form at all. None of it, not a single frame. Remember, when shooting the mirror sways up and blocks the view finder so the sensor can exposure the scene.
Date: 7/12/2015 11:35am
Model: Canon 7D Mark II
Len attached: Canon 500mm F/4.5L USM
Exposure program: Aperture priority
Shooting modes: High-speed continues @ 10FPS with AI Servos
ISO speed: 100
Exposure time: 1/1600th second
F stop: F/4.5
Here’s the 9 frames from the West Coast Super Hornet demo, VFA-122 “Flying Eagles” Based at NAS Lemoore, High-speed pass at the Gary South Shore Airshow in 2015.