Saturday, October 31, 2009

Phantom Phollies, part 1

The F-4 Phantom II Society held it's annual convention at Holloman AFB, NM, this past week. Holloman averages 360 days of sun a year, or so they say. We had about 20 minutes of sun on Wednesday, the first day of the convention, and lots of clouds. It rained in nearby Alamogordo and the surrounding mountain ranges were dusted with snow.

Thursday was better, but very cold. Showers and clouds occurred most of the day, but we did have some sun.

The above image of the QF-4 Phantom was taken on Wednesday. The opening in the clouds on the right is the so-called "sucker hole." A sucker hole is what fakes the photographer into believing his subject will be bathed in glorious light if he only just waits a little bit longer. More often than not the crossing light never appears where you need it to or the hole closes up and it disappears entirely. In this case I decided the sucker hole would make a very nice atmospheric image rather than the more documentary type that I was originally trying to take.

This is also known as "making lemonade." I am quite pleased with the result.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Bone Tired

The last in the triumvirate of current U.S. operational strategic bombers is the Rockwell B-1B Lancer. This sleek, powerful swing-wing aircraft began life as a series of studies dating all the way back to 1961. The long gestation produced a number of program acronyms, but no hardware, for many years after, the most notorious of which was AMSA (Advanced Manned Strategic Aircraft). This was soon perverted by North American (later bought by Rockwell) engineers as "America's Most Studied Aircraft."

Even after four prototypes of the supersonic B-1A were ordered, the program troubles were not over. First flown in 1974, it was canceled under President Carter then restarted as the B-1B under President Reagan. A hundred aircraft were built.

The B-1 gave up its nuclear strike role several years back under treaty obligations and has become a very effective conventional weapons carrier. However, its days appear to be dwindling down. Several have been retired already due to budget shortfalls and the remaining 60 or so aircraft in service are hampered by spare parts shortages. It is rumored the rest of the fleet will be retired by 2012, leaving only the B-52 and the twenty B-2s as America's long-range manned strike force.

I shot this rather tired looking B-1 as it took off at the recent Edwards AFB open house. Incidentally, while "Lancer" is the rather dull official nickname of the B-1; Bone is the unofficial nickname. That, according to an apocryphal story, occurred when a news reporter wrote B-one instead of B-1 and referred to the airplane as "the Bone." Thus a name was born.

Or so they say.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Buff Chute

The venerable Boeing B-52 Stratofortress made its first flight in 1952. The last of the 744 production airplanes rolled off the assembly line in 1962. This is an old airplane. Even so, it's still an effective combat aircraft, although I wouldn't want to go penetrating any heavily defended airspace in it. That's the B-2's job these days.

I always thought the drag chute on these bombers was cool. It added a touch of color to the otherwise camouflaged Buff. The NASA NB-52 had a white chute, thought, so they must be color coordinated to some degree. Regardless, it was fun to get this H model at Edwards last week with its chute out during its landing roll on Saturday.

Some folks are probably wondering why I used the word Buff in the title of this post. Buff, or more accurately "BUFF," is an acronym for the B-52 that was bestowed on it by the crews and maintainers. It stands for "Big Ugly Fat F...," well, in polite society lets just say the second F is short for "Fellow." We all know what is really meant. Yes, it is a term of endearment. Crew loyalty to this airplane is legendary. There is even an apocryphal story that says airplanes are handed down from father to son to grandson. I suppose it is possible, but probably not the same serial numbered aircraft - at least not to grandsons.

But you never know. It is an old airplane; one scheduled to serve perhaps another 20 years or so. Maybe great-grandsons will fly in it?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Pedal to the Metal

The Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor flew a demo program both days. This shot was from the Saturday performance. The original aircraft had a mechanical problem and was replaced by the aircraft that was supposed to fly in the AFFTC "Pass in Review." Needless to say, the demo (and heritage flight) was deemed more important.

The Raptor performance was nothing short of spectacular! I have never seen a large fighter do the moves this one did! And they have added new twists to the routine since I last saw an F-22 demo at Pt. Mugu over a year ago. It was absolutely breathtaking.

The advantage of being on the South Base media area is three-fold: proximity to the main runway; having the sun at your back instead of in your eyes and having the aircraft fly close and overhead during some of their maneuvers. The photo above is one such example. I absolutely love catching fighters in full afterburner! The twin spikes of flame with their shock diamonds are cool looking.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Spirit of New York

The 2009 Edwards AFB open house was yesterday. I went to the media day event on Friday and then yesterday's show. Part of the media experience is the opportunity to go to the edge of the main runway along South Base and be away from the crowds and blaring music and announcers and enjoy the roar and proximity of really impressive jets! Here's a sampler shot, more will follow later. This is B-2 "Spirit of New York." Yes, we were that close! I finally got decent taxi, take-off and landing shots of the Stealth Bomber! Yee-haw!!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Voice From Beyond

I think most photographers, including me, harbor a secret fantasy of taking an iconic image. I'm sure it's part of that immortality drive that I've touched upon in earlier posts. I mean, how cool would it be to be linked to a particular photo like Ansel Adams is to "Clearing Storm" at Yosemite's Inspiration Point?

But the reality is that connection very rarely happens. Even photographers fortunate enough to capture something special tend to fade to anonymity even if the image lives on. How many people, besides serious students of photographic history, remember who shot pictures like the marines raising the flag on Iwo jima, the sailor kissing the nurse on V-J Day or the Afghan girl that was on the cover of National Geographic? (Joe Rosenthal, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Steve McCurry, respectively.)

If we're lucky we are able to capture shots that please a few people in the here and now, which is especially important if one is making their livelihood as a photographer. Even then, it's difficult to really know how much your image touches someone.

But every once in a while....

I shot the above image as an afterthought. I was at the 2002 Edwards AFB Open House watching this glider perform an aerobatic routine for the crowd. I rarely shoot gliders, but the graceful patterns the pilot made with his wingtip smoke intrigued me, so I took a couple of quick snaps.

Later, as I prepared to enter the 2003 Aviation Week photo contest, I asked Tina what my tenth entry should be. She chose this one. I sent the slide in and out of the ten I submitted it was the one picked for an honorable mention that year.

After the photo issue was published, I got congratulatory calls from people at work. One of them said, "was that Dave Lazerson flying that glider?" We quickly deduced that it was indeed Dave as his routine was a fixture at the Edwards show for many years. It turns out Dave was Deputy Director for the Joint Strike Fighter Combined Test Force, which is why so many folks at work knew him.

It was only a few days later that Dave was killed in a mid-air collision over the Tehachapi mountains.

Almost immediately I got the request from his Northrop Grumman friends and co-workers to use my photo as part of a memorial gift for Dave's widow. That was one request I could not refuse. As soon as I could get my slide back from Aviation Week we set out to create a fitting tribute. Our shop was given the job and this is what we designed and made.

I find it so ironic that this spur-of-the-moment shot became one of the most emotional photos I ever took. But I guess that's how it is sometimes. All I know is that it made me appreciate the power of photography. That one simple image, that one simple throw-away image, became a means of comfort and commemoration for a man who was obviously respected and loved by his family, friends and co-workers. It was an honor for me to contribute that photo, and I shall be forever humbled by it.

There is also a surreal element to this incident. A couple of days after we learned Dave was killed, and before the people at Edwards and Palmdale finalized their decision to make the gift using my photo, I got a call from an Aviation Week representative. It seems a reader had seen their photo issue and liked my entry. He wanted my contact information to see if he could get a print of my shot. Aviation Week was calling to give me his name and phone number so I could get in touch with him. The name of the reader was Dave Lazerson.

I like to think that somewhere he's smiling.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Reprising a Moment in Time

The beauty of photography, and the feature that gets harped on to the point of cliche', is the fact that every shot captures a moment in time. While it can be debated that a lot of moments are imminently forgettable, and preferably so, there is no doubt that many of those images become as universal and timeless as any petroglyph or pictograph on a rock wall.

I first realized that quality in pictures when I was engrossed in reading about the American Civil War and World War II as a kid. The old Matthew Brady photos of Yankee soldiers during that terrible war are just as poignant as those of American troops on landing craft heading for Normandy or the German paratroopers preparing to jump over Holland. What struck me was a recurring series of expressions in many of their faces: apprehension, fear, resolve, courage, resignation and above all impossible youth. The dread realization that many of those staring back at me through the lens did not survive the coming battle or the war was sobering. It certainly affected my understanding of war and mortality as an impressionable pre-teen. That same quality affects me still when I look at current images from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Every once in a while, though, we get an opportunity to revisit those past images and celebrate both the passage of time and survival. So it was with Bob Goebel, a young U.S. Army Air Force pilot in World War II. Bob became a fighter ace in the P-51 Mustang and had his achievement commemorated in the above photo by an unknown Army photographer. Almost 60 years later, Bob attended the 2003 Hawthorne Air Faire as a guest, selling copies of his book about his exploits in World War II. Also in attendance was a P-51 warbird in the markings of his aircraft. I was volunteering as a photographer for the Western Museum of Flight that weekend and took the opportunity to shoot Bob in the cockpit of the Mustang. I had seen his old photo and tried to replicate the shot. While not perfect, it was close enough. It made a nice bookend to an eventful part of his life.

Indeed, through the power of photography, we all can look back over our lives and see images of ourselves locked forever in time. From the mundane to the extraordinary, photographs mark our existence in the world. It is a small measure of immortality for future generations to ponder when they stumble upon our traces.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Images Past

I've had some fascination with prehistoric European cave art for many years, but I never had as much interest in American petroglyphs and pictographs for some reason. I suspect it's because I never really saw any in situ until our trip to Moab. That changed my appreciation for it very quickly.

Spread throughout the Canyonlands and Arches National Parks are several sites of well preserved examples of Native American art, some dating back a couple thousand years or more. Like the better known cave paintings in Spain and France, there are some fairly accurate representations of local animals that were hunted by the indigenous peoples. But also like the European art, there are fascinatingly surreal figures interspersed among the recognizable fauna.

I mentioned in the previous post how humans were subject to wild flights of fancy. These images seem to confirm that. Technically called "shamanistic figures," they certainly look like the results of a fevered dream or trance. Indeed, I can relate to those grotesque visions.

When I was very little I had a couple of bouts of bronchitis and fever. I distinctly remember the hallucinations I got when I was very sick. Objects and people grew ponderous and distorted and everything moved in slow motion. A sense of confusion and even fear became palpably real and very little could be done to calm me down when I was caught in the throes of those images.

Could it be that these ancient etchings represent very real emotions rather than just shamanistic symbolism? I would venture it was a combination of both: a very real attempt to explain our fears and put them into concrete form. Indeed, how very different are the two, really?

At the same time it makes me acutely aware of the universality of our human experience. Gazing at these figures and what they might represent makes me wonder how much has really changed over the millenias. The attempt to explain our world is as old as humanity itself. Our quest to do that, our ability to reflect on the past and to project into the future - in essence to dream - is both a gift and a curse.

At the same time, those rock images were, in a very large sense, an attempt by their makers to create something beyond themselves and their fragile lives. Whether through the cave paintings and rock art of the past or through the fine art or pop art or even the graffiti of the modern age, the urge for some form of immortality is still very much alive and part of the human psyche. We each, in our own ways, want to leave our mark on the world. Why else do so many of us make art, take photos and write blogs?

And perhaps, like the annoymous artists of the past, we will do just that, becoming in the process the annoymous artists of the future, whose immortal marks will be nothing less than the continuation of the human spirit.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Goblin Valley Reprise

Here is another look at the weird formations at Goblin Valley State Park, UT. As I mentioned in the previous post, walking among the eerie shapes would have to be an other-worldly experience at night. Humans are prone to wild flights of fantasy at the slightest provocation to begin with. Imagine what those fantasies would be like in the flickering moonlit shadows of the valley floor. The silent pillars with their helmeted caps would surely come alive and glower at every turn. And what could we mere mortals do then but stand in awe at the power of the mind in the face of untamed nature. A little humbling would be good for us.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Goblin Valley

Goblin Valley: the very name inspires wild imaginings of weird and wondrous things. The reality does not disappoint. Spread out in a modest valley are some of the most bizarre natural formations to be found anywhere. Hoodoos and goblins abound in dazzling number and everywhere you turn strange sights greet your eyes. The photo above shows a small portion of the valley, looking to the south-southeast from a knoll in the midst of the formation. One can almost see the ranks of the Goblin army assembling for battle.

At ground level the illusion is even more striking. The mushroom-like pillars stand about 12 feet tall. It is truly impressive to walk among the stone ranks. Goblins are an apt name, but visions of the little Chinese mushrooms from Disney's Fantasia also intrude into my consciousness, with Tchaikovsky's energetic score from his "Nutcracker" ballet riffing in my brain. Both work for me, but goblins are more...romantic. It would be fascinating to stroll among then during a full moon.

The tall, twisted spires - called Hoodoos - are equally impressive. This must have inspired much of Disney's Frontierland landscape. I remember thinking when I was little how outlandish and unbelievable those formations looked. Little did I know they paled in comparison to the real thing. This is alien landscape at it's most surreal.

And speaking of alien landscape, this is the location for the Beryllium Sphere mining scene in the movie "Galaxy Quest." Right in the middle of the shot above is where the mining camp structure was erected. The cast rolled the spheres past the goblins on their way back to the shuttle and Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) fought the rock monster amongst the hoodoos and mushroom pillars.

Galaxy Quest was probably one of the most accurate portrayals of science-fiction fandom and incredibly spot-on homage/parodies of the Star Trek phenomenon ever made. And it was absolutely hysterical, too.
Some of the best lines in the movie occurred during this sequence at Goblin Valley (MINERS, not MINORS! - Did you guys ever WATCH the show? - Let's get out of here before one of those things kills Guy!).

Unfortunately it probably only spoke to a limited audience as it apparently did not do that well at the box office. Too bad, because it was really well done. But it has become a cult classic, which is reassuring, and is one of our favorite movies.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Little Wild Horse Slot Canyon

Slot canyon photos, especially of the Antelope Slot Canyon in Arizona, are classic landscape icons - almost to the point of being cliche'. But there is an allure about them that makes people continue to shoot them.

I finally got my chance to visit a slot canyon in April of 2008 during a family vacation in Moab, Utah. One of the side trips our friend Roy and I took while we were all there was to Goblin Valley State Park, also in Utah. Unbeknown to us until we got there, about 7 miles to the west of the Goblin Valley is Little Wild Horse Slot Canyon, in the San Rafael Swell.

Slot canyons are carved by flash floods and are deadly in the rainy season. Fortunately we were there in good weather, so we made the trek up the lower third of the three linked sections. It's not a difficult walk, but it did have its challenges.

As you can see, the canyon got real narrow in spots. Footing was tricky at times because the floor wasn't wide enough for our shoes. More than once I had to lean over to the side to walk. At one point I got wedged between the walls and had to take my camera pack off and turn sideways to squeeze through.

Even though it got claustrophobic, it was amazingly beautiful. The swirling patterns in the rock were gorgeous and the color incredible. Even though we were there around two in the afternoon not much light was getting in. Setting up the tripod was a challenge in spots, but well worth the effort.

Naturally, on a couple of shots, a whole group of people started coming through the canyon heading back the way we came just at the same time I was ready to press the shutter release. It was like Grand Central Station there for a few minutes. It never fails. It's like that shooting planes at air shows, too.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Legendary Lost Rhino Graveyard - Found

"But wait," you say, "These are just junky airplanes!" Well...yes; and no. Let me explain....

The mighty McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, affectionately called "Rhino" by ground crews and air crews and all fans of Mr. Mac's "phantastic Phantom." was one of the best fighters of its day. Ungainly looking but powerful, the airplane was capable of Mach 2+ speed in a clean configuration (which wasn't often - a lot of ordnance can get loaded on this bird). Over 5,000 F-4s were built and they served in three branches of the U.S. military and in several foreign air forces. Some are still in active service, but most have been retired. Those in the U.S. inventory that haven't been turned into target drones are parked here, in the expansive grounds of Davis-Monthan AFB, outside of Tucson, AZ.

I got to visit DM for the first time last October as the F-4 Phantom II Society held its annual convention that year in Tucson. DM is legendary among aviation aficionados as the last stop for most military aircraft types. If you are shooting the entire career and life-cycle of an airplane, a trip to DM is a must as it represents the end of the line.

Personally I don't normally shoot dead airplanes. I find it too sad. I prefer planes in active service; full of purpose and alive - and a Phantom in full roar is indeed alive! Unless there are specific types I'm following or a certain unit or serial number I'm after, I usually pass on getting slides of mothballed or junked aircraft.

But it is truly amazing to behold acres and acres of America's finest resting quietly in the desert sun. Cocooned against the elements in case of further need or just to preserve them for parts until they are finally cut-up and disposed of, they stand as silent sentinels to the dedication and ingenuity of the U.S. aerospace workforce. One of the great untold stories of our age is the cost and sacrifice made regularly by the engineers and assembly line mechanics during the course of the Cold War and beyond. Perhaps one day people will know.

Or perhaps not. As time passes, both aircraft and builder become more and more forgotten by the public at large. Hence my reference to the "legendary lost Rhino graveyard." Whether we admit it or not, we are in some way duty-bound to preserve and remember the past - or to at least learn from it. For how else will we know what path to take in the future if we don't know where we've been?