Behind the Scenes

An insider’s perspective on the equipment and personnel required for a unique form of “high-speed photography”
aviation, art
Written By Randy S. Bolinger

Aerial photography is unlike any other photography. It requires an eclectic mix of man and machine, a tremendous amount of piloting skill and a bit of cooperation from the weather. And not surprisingly, aerial photographers are a rare breed. So if you’ve ever wondered what it takes to snap those stunning Gulfstream images and capture high-definition video while boring a hole in the sky at Mach point something, strap in—it’s going to be a fun ride.

SELECTING THE WINGED EQUIPMENT

Like most jobs, having the right tools at your disposal makes the process much more enjoyable and the end product all the better. In an aerial photo shoot, the need to capture images of a Gulfstream aircraft in its natural habitat (high-speed flight) requires a unique photo platform, meaning aircraft. And it becomes increasingly complicated and expensive to find just the right platforms to match the speed of the target aircraft in different configurations.

The air-to-air photo shoot is complicated because ideally you want to be able to shoot the target aircraft in three dimensions, from all angles and in all phases of flight—something you simply cannot do flying alongside another aircraft shooting out a side window. Expensive because you need to identify a variety of photo platforms capable of matching the desired speeds of the subject aircraft in the environment and phase of flight where it is being photographed. And then one needs to find those unique aircraft, rent them for a few days and pray that the weather gods will be benevolent when you arrive on station.

Before any aerial photo shoot, generally perceived as the fun part, a tremendous amount of logistic gyrations transpire to marshal the various photo platforms, company aircraft, equipment, photographers and flight crews, along with selecting and coordinating site locations, ground and air logistics, accommodations, permits and clearances. One thing is certain, whatever happens, no matter how nominal the cost or menial the task, you can’t afford to have all your assets sitting on the ground when the key word in your stated photo shoot objective is “aerial.”

PHOTO PLATFORM: NORTH AMERICAN B-25J

Shooting one aircraft from inside another can prove to be problematic for any number of reasons. The primary issue is that flying in echelon formation alongside another aircraft severely limits the available shot angle, thereby limiting the creative freedom of the shooter. About all you can safely accomplish alongside the target aircraft is capturing the broadside of the ship and the underbelly as the aircraft banks away from the platform. Is it possible to complete a photo shoot this way? Yes. Does it produce dramatic and jaw-dropping imagery? No.

What one really needs is a completely unobstructed view of the target aircraft— the freedom to safely shoot the target aircraft from a variety of angles. Obviously this is not something you can accomplish from inside just any photo ship. Odd as it may seem, the ideal photo platform for Gulfstream’s recent air-to-air photo shoot turned out to be an unlikely set of wings that plane spotters would recognize as a WW II-era medium bomber, known as the B-25 Mitchell. One of the unique features that make the B-25 a perfect photo ship is that the tail gun turret can be removed, allowing photographers to snap pictures out the back. As we would soon discover, the B-25 we rented was aptly named Photo Fanny.

The final piece of Hollywood magic in this photo shoot equation was solved years earlier by Gulfstream aerodynamicists. The extraordinary aerodynamics of the Gulfstream wing allows the aircraft to maneuver impeccably at the slower speeds needed to synchronize with that of a vintage warbird. During the war, when the B-25 was young and virile with an expected life span of only a few months, the B-25’s top speed was pushing 275 knots. However, like most things 70 years old, it’s lost a few steps. Photo Fanny now cruises at 180 knots in her hard-earned retirement years.

Even while matching WW II airspeed (as opposed to typical Gulfstream cruise speed), the tremendous handling characteristics of the G280 and G650 were well inside the safety margins, allowing them to fly slow enough for the photographers in the B-25 to shoot them without the need to lower flaps to generate extra lift during the lower speed photo do-si-do.

With the tail turret removed, Photo Fanny was transformed into the perfect platform for photographic rather than ballistic target shooting. In this configuration, the triggerman sits on a small wooden stool facing out of a gaping hole in the rear of the empennage. Granted, this was the best and most coveted seat in the house for anyone on the shoot, but it definitely was not for the faint-hearted.

Photo Fanny also provides camera perches at her waist and on her nose, where the 70-year-old superstructure and Plexiglas had long since been replaced with an optically perfect, blemish-free transparent cover. The bubble, the only one of its kind in the world, is so flawless that photographers can shoot through the glass without any distortion. This feature enabled our shooters to get unusual shots from below and behind the Gulfstream aircraft in addition to rear-quartering shots.

With her genetically altered nose and removable tail, Photo Fanny was an excellent photo platform for our milk run. Perhaps her least flattering feature was the deafening noise that resonated through the sexagenarian’s uninsulated airframe from the two massive 1,700-horsepower Wright Cyclone R-2600 supercharged 14-cylinder radial engines belting down 150 gallons of 100-octane fuel per hour (per engine). Thus another unique talent of the venerable B-25 was revealed—its unequaled and somewhat legendary reputation for converting avgas to noise.

VIDEO PLATFORM: LEAR 24A

If you’ve ever seen an airline commercial on television or watched the Hollywood blockbuster Top Gun (among hundreds of films with aerial footage), you’ve already seen what an aircraft-mounted video system can capture. The innovative video system that transforms this 1960s-era microjet into a high-tech, world-class airborne film platform boasts two periscopes—one protruding from atop and another distending below the tiny fuselage.

This innovative system is designed to allow each camera to rotate 360 degrees in any direction and tilt upward and downward with no airspeed or altitude restrictions. Such capabilities make it almost effortless to capture the full grace and elegance of the sleek Gulfstream aircraft in flight from virtually any angle, orientation or flight configuration—flaps up/flaps down, gear up/gear down, climbing, banking, etc.

Learjet flying chores were managed by a highly proficient pilot choreographing every maneuver between the video ship and the Gulfstream crews, while a cameraman in the Lear flew a joystick at a console to coordinate efforts with the pilot. Collectively, the team performed an aerial ballet in three dimensions to capture breathtaking video.

The Lear 24 platform played a very different role than the B-25 bomber in the photo/video shoot process. While the B-25 provided the platform from which shooters could work from a bevy of perches in the nose, waist and tail, Learjet art direction came at the hands of the Learjet pilot, none other than Clay Lacy.

Legendary in aviation circles, Lacy is a 50,000-plus hour pilot. That’s right, 50,000 hours. If you care to do the math, there are 8,760 hours in a year (8,784 in a leap year). Meaning Lacy has lived more than five years of his life aloft— that’s a long time to shake your fist at gravity. Lacy has logged more hours in turbine-powered aircraft than any other pilot in history and has likely more hours orbiting the earth (albeit at suborbital altitudes) than any astronaut. It’s difficult to even mention the name Clay Lacy without wanting to share some anecdotes of his mind-boggling aviation career.

At age 12, Lacy piloted a flying machine for the first time and slipped the surly bonds to log hour number one. While the thought of a sixth-grader taking off and landing an aircraft via a flight simulator on a laptop computer today likely seems somewhat pedestrian, Clay’s experience was much more visceral. Since then he’s flown more than 300 types of aircraft, including airliners from the Douglas DC-3 to the Boeing 747-400, experimental aircraft and warbirds like the North American P-51 and active duty military aircraft (for their era) such as the North American F-86 Sabre. He also participated in the Berlin Airlift, set 29 world records, has flown more than 2,000 aerial photography missions, and competed (and yes, won) the Reno National Air Races prestigious unlimited class—the world’s fastest race of any kind.

Truly Lacy is a living legend in aviation. Fittingly, in 2010, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame for his achievements. Working with him in the air in any capacity is an excellent experience. Having an opportunity to be in Lacy’s presence to share a meal and hear incredible accounts of historic events, interactions with famous personalities and celebrities and witness the passion in his eyes and fire in his belly for all things aviation is nothing short of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

FINDING A SHOOTER

Fabulous photo/video platforms aside, there is no substitute for the eye of a world-class photographer behind the shutter. And Paul Bowen is that guy.

Shooting the beauty and symmetry of aircraft in flight since 1972, Bowen is credited with nearly 1,000 magazine covers and ad imagery beyond measure. If you’ve picked up an aviation magazine in the past four decades, chances are you’ve seen his handiwork.

Relatively speaking, the aviation industry is a small one. Smaller still is the global pool of full-time aviation photographers who can make their living doing this highly specialized work for a discerning clientele. Bowen has built his brand on an uncanny ability to bend and capture light and freeze a nanosecond of time. He leverages the assets of surrounding terrain below and cloudscapes above to craft and extract images by choreographing the movements of tons of flying metal through the ethereal weightlessness of vaporized water.

Often, the sun itself becomes a willing partner in Bowen’s photographic creations. He’s learned that the best shooting time is during “sweet light”—the first hour of sunrise and the last hour of sunset.

“Every tree, every building, every boulder is casting a shadow on the ground below,” Bowen says. “That makes the ground darker, but in the air, the sun is hitting the whole side of the aircraft, which makes the plane brighter and the contrast against the ground darker. As we fly alongside, we get a variety of shots as the light changes.”

Bowen creates his signature shot by coaxing the aircraft to skim the top of a marine cloud layer, leaving a wake of vortices that churn and swirl, lingering for a fleeting moment only to be captured in a digital memory for eternity as Bowen sits precariously perched in the tail of the beast.

As Bowen is buffeted by the frigid, high-altitude winds, he talks by headset to his pilot, who relays how the pilot behind needs to position his aircraft. All aircraft leave a trail of swirling air rolling off the wings, Bowen explains, but the rippling effect isn’t obvious without the dense, smooth marine layer, which Bowen calls “the whipped cream.”

“Eventually that falling air, just by gravity, settles into the whipped cream and causes the swirling,” says Bowen. “We know we can set up the shot, we know we can find the marine layer, but we can’t quite control how the air will swirl.”

Collectively, Bowen, Lacy, their crews and a cadre of Gulfstream pilots, photographers and videographers have perfected an unequalled ability to capture the grace of an aircraft in flight and translate that into art.

While the photo credits go to the shooters, “The pilots are the heroes of the photo shoot,” Bowen says. Because of their military training, they are accustomed to working at all hours, in any condition, flying tight formations with rock-solid precision. Perhaps best of all, they are most definitely not accustomed to saying “No sir” or “I can’t.” They can and they do (almost) whatever is asked, plan it tenaciously so there is absolute safety and no surprises, execute flawlessly and make it look easy. And if one attempts to lavish praise at the end of the day for a job well done, often the reply is simply, “I’m just happy to be here!”

beauty shots 101

In an extremely well-organized, tightly planned and precisely executed photo/video shoot, the air-to-air team captured 9,430 raw images and three hours and 40 minutes of unedited video over a wide array of terrain including open water, coastline, desert, mountains and lakes. The various shoots typically occurred in the hours around sunrise and sunset and clever route planning helped simulate both summer and winter landscapes.

a well-grounded team

Anyone who has ever attempted to organize a multiday trip for a dozen or so people arriving from different time zones understands the mind-numbing logistics labyrinth it can be. Now factor the complexity of including three aircraft ranging in age from 2 to 70 years. Add a variety of locations and attempt to execute something that is largely weather dependent and you’ll begin to have an appreciation of the ground effort behind the scenes. Clearly the unsung heroes in this photo shoot were ground personnel.

For example, every time the B-25 landed, immediate care and feeding began, consisting of copious intravenous fluids of high-octane fuel and engine oil by the gallon, and a seemingly endless list of adjustments, tweaks, squawks, checks and repairs were lovingly managed by the aircraft’s crew who keep the vintage warbird earning its keep alongside more youthful steeds. The Learjet team spent much less time working on their aircraft on the ground but invested other would-be downtime uploading the day’s video catch and briefing the next mission.

And, as fate would have it, our photo shoot turned out to be just one more opportunity for the award-winning Field and Airborne Support Teams (FAST) to shine. No, this is not a shameless plug but a real-life example of why Gulfstream is the perennial favorite among business jet operators. Upon landing at Page, Arizona, to prepare for the following day’s shoot over Lake Powell, Monument Valley and Bryce Canyon, it was discovered that the G280 cut a main tire (likely due to runway debris at the remote site). As you can imagine, having so many people queued up, with the meters running on rental aircraft and other demands for the G650 and G280 demonstrators, there was considerable pressure to get the G280 serviced and back in the air despite the fact that the local FBO provided only cursory service and fuel.

Fortunately, after one FAST phone call, a new wheel assembly and aircraft jacks were winging their way across country to our location. You just can’t put a price tag on the service and quality ground personnel provide when you absolutely have to be somewhere other than where you are.



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