Thursday, August 27, 2009

Egret on the Hunt - Huntington Gardens

We went to the Huntington Library and Gardens last Saturday. Three or four times a summer they hold a "members only" series of evening events and this was one of them. While most people flock to the free concert, we made a beeline for the Chinese Gardens. Our journey was worth it; not only was the Golden Hour in effect, but a beautiful white egret decided to go hunting for dinner near our location. I managed to get several shots of him with the 75-300mm zoom telephoto (rough equivalence of about 420mm with the digital). These are some of the results. Hopefully Tina will be inspired to make some paintings from them. I especially like the back-lit image above. It really glows.

The flight shot is a crop, but the rest are full-frame images from the camera. I was quite happy with the results.

More Huntington pictures to follow in the next few days.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Towing Darts - California Style

Probably the second most memorable End of Runway experience I had involved the Convair F-106 Delta Dart, similar to this Dart that I shot at Edwards AFB in 1997. But before I go into that, a couple of words on this particular airplane.

Back in the mid-1990s, the first of the great hunts was on for the successor to the Space Shuttle. Not only was NASA involved, but smaller companies began the first steps into looking at a low-cost private enterprise launch system. Kelly Space and Technology advanced the idea of a towed two-stage-to-orbit format. The greatest amount of energy is expended in vertically lifting a rocket and its payload off a pad and into the heavy, lower atmosphere before it gains enough speed and altitude to achieve orbit. Kelly proposed using a conventional runway to tow a rocketplane to a high enough altitude where it could cut loose from the tow aircraft, ignite it's engine(s) and go into orbit with less expenditure of on-board fuel. This would allow use of a smaller, lighter vehicle than would otherwise be needed.

The F-106 pictured above was the guinea pig proof-of-concept airframe. The tow aircraft was the C-141 Starlifter, seen behind the 'Six. Tests were successfully conducted, but the concept went nowhere - like most of the replacement ideas between the shuttle Challenger accident and the present day. Regardless, the Dart achieve one more distinction in its long and glorious career. The F-106 still holds the official closed-course single turbo-jet engine aircraft speed record at 1,525.95 mph (Mach 2.31) at 40,000 ft over an 11 mile straight course ( The airplane was a thoroughbred of the highest order!

Which brings me to my second most memorable EOR. I should note it is second only because the Red Flag experience related in an earlier post had considerably more aircraft involved. But I digress....

The California Air National Guard flew the F-106 for many years out of Fresno (194th FIS - Fighter Interceptor Squadron). For a period of time in the late 1970s and early 80s, the squadron adorned their tails with the very colorful California flag motif, complete with Grizzly Bear. A sample of the tail is show below.

Chong collection - photographer unknown

In 1978, Van Nuys Airport held an airshow. Since it was also a Cal Air Guard base, the 194th sent down one of its aircraft for the event. I was participating in a model display with IPMS (International Plastic Modelers Society) Space Park, the chapter I belonged to at that time, in one of the hangars. Among the models I brought was a 1/72nd scale California flag-tailed F-106. The pilot happened to wander through the hangar, saw my model and proceded engage me in a long conversation. It turns out he was a modeler, too, and he was building Soviet aircraft to display at the squadron ready-room as identification tools (nice excuse). After our chat he went on his way.

When the show closed, we stayed after the crowds were dispersed to pack our models and clean up our area. The pilot showed up again and asked if I wanted to sit in the cockpit of his airplane. It took me all of a New York-second to say "Yes!" So out we went and I got to sit in a live jet (see photo below - yes, I was thin once and hadn't grown the mustache yet).

Photo by Craig Kaston

I realized in retrospect that I was sitting on a live ejection seat as well. It's a good thing I knew enough not to pull any funny yellow-and-black striped handles. Ejecting out of a parked airplane is considered bad form.

Unfortunately, I was shooting negative film in those days. Even more unfortunate, my camera decided to jam at that moment as I was taking pictures from inside the cockpit, so I have nothing of my own as a record of the moment. My thanks to Craig for getting a shot of me with a Cheshire Cat grin so I can prove it did happen.

The view from the cockpit looking forward was not as good as I thought it would be. That large center frame makes a big difference. Also, I was impressed by the fact that I had to really turn my head to see the wings. The sensation must be like sitting out on the tip of a spear. I imagine it's a really neat feeling!

All too quickly, the moment was over. But the best was yet to come. In those days the show aircraft could launch out of Van Nuys that night to transit to their home base. We got to stick around to see that, and from the EOR.

It was twilight before the Dart lined up for take-off. Apparently there was a problem with the control tower or the airplane, but the pilot was behind schedule and getting miffed about it. When he got the green light, he wasted no time. He spooled up his Pratt & Whitney J75 engine and kicked it into afterburner. Afterburning is where raw fuel is sprayed into the exhaust flame, where it ignites, giving the aircraft a powerful boost in thrust. Normal military power on the J75 was 17,200 lbs static thrust; it becomes 24,500 lbs s.t. with afterburner. In short, you can go instantly much faster, but at a huge cost of fuel consumption, limiting your range. But it is really cool to see up close!

When the pilot lit his burner, blue flame roared out of his exhaust nozzle like a 20 foot long blow torch. It glowered in the twilight like an angry beast as he held his brakes for several moments. Then he began his roll. He shortly rotated his nose up, but kept his main gear on ground. He continued forward in that attitude while the tongue of flame scorched the runway behind him for several long moments before he finally lifted off. He leveled out, picked up speed until he reached the end of the runway, then pulled into a vertical climb. We watched that fireball all the way up to about 10,000 ft before he cut off his afterburner. It was loud and spectacular! We only hoped he had enough gas to make it to Fresno after that display.

Not to be outdone by a Air Guard ADC guy (Air Defense Command), two TAC (Tactical Air Command) crews in their McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs did the same thing, but in a tandem take-off! That's two G.E. J79s per airplane, for a total of four 17,845 lbs s.t. engines roaring down the runway and torching it even more thorougly than the F-106...but for some reason, the Phantoms, while exciting to watch, didn't match the "wow" factor of the Dart. (It's probably because they didn't go vertical and climb to 10,000 on AB.)

It was impressive enough for the local population, though. We overheard some tower to airport ops radio traffic after the launch of the Dart and Phantoms. It went something like this:

Tower: "We're gonna get some noise complaints on that one."
Ground: "Roger that. Tell 'em it was a Lear Jet."

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Circle is Now Complete

Photo by Chad Slattery

"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...."

As you all know by now, Chad Slattery did a nice article on the Northrop Grumman Display Model Shop for the September 2009 Air and Space Smithsonian magazine. Along the way, he did this neat photo of me surrounded by many of our recent projects. (Incidentally, Chad has informed me that he is now the first person to have both a major article and the cover photo in the same Air and Space issue - congratulations, Chad!)

The reason I bring this up is this whole process has been a serious case of deja' vu for me, with a profound sense that life has indeed come full circle. Let me explain:

A long time ago, in the winter of 1983, about 17 months before I hired into the then-Northrop Corporation, I bought a magazine. It was the January/February issue of Airbrush Digest. Featured in that issue was a nice long article on Dick Guiselman and the Northrop Display Model Shop. The lead photo in that article was this:

Photo by Steve Steckly (?)

A bit more formal, but the similarity is eerie.

When I read that issue, I was working as a model maker for a small defense contractor based in Irvine, CA. While what I was doing was really neat (more on that another day), airplanes were my first love and seeing what these guys were doing absolutely floored me. In my wildest imagination I could not conceive of the possibility that I would ever work for Northrop, especially in that cool looking shop. Yet less than a year-and-a-half later, I would be there, working for Dick and with all those people I saw featured in the magazine.

And now, here we are - twenty-five years later, and I'm the one running the shop and getting my picture taken with lots of neat models. I cannot begin to describe the feelings in me when I look at those two photos. The sense of symmetry is powerful; and yes, a bit of irony is there as well. Who'd a thunk it?

There is something else at work here, too: the symbolism of continuity. The wide-eye young man who stared and drooled over that amazing article in Airbrush Digest is now the one being photographed as his shop gets featured in a national magazine. What new crop of wide-eyed young people are reading this latest story and seeing for the first time the possibilities? Will I inspire somebody to give it a try? Will they one day take my place and be written about in a future article of their own? Given the state of the industry today and the dwindling demand for our services, I don't know.

But I'd like to think so.

And yes, I still have that old magazine.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Chong's Law and Hierarchy - Part Deux - Red Flag

Several people have responded to my last post with interesting comments of their own. Indeed, Lin's Corollary is a good example ("the more abstract the image, the less visceral the response but the more cerebral"). I would agree with that.

At the same time, another friend wondered if I should have added a tenth point to the Hierarchy: The feel of the power of an aircraft in flight. I believe the ninth point covers that, as the above example shows.

I have been fortunate enough to stand at the Last Chance / End of Runway (EOR) spot at various airbases and airports many times. By far the most memorable was the International Society of Aviation Photographers (ISAP) convention event at Nellis Air Force Base in 2004. The convention coincided with one of the base's Red Flag exercises. Red Flag, for those who do not know, is a six-week long advanced aerial combat training program that involves many different aircraft from representative squadrons from all branches of the U.S. military and selected foreign allies. Daily exercises involve several dozen aircraft from the "blue" team (good guys) facing off against the "red" team (bad guys) in a variety of tactical scenarios. When a Flag is up, the aircraft launch and recover in a simulated operational wartime tempo. What that means is lots of powerful, noisy military aircraft taking off and landing almost continuously throughout the course of the day. It is an aviation photographer's heaven.

The ultimate expression of the ninth point is an extremely complex and tactile presentation. That comes for the viewer (e.g. photographer) at the EOR. There, most, if not all, of the five senses are forcefully engaged by some of the most complex pieces of machinery ever created. Not only can you see and hear the aircraft (indeed, "mouse ears" hearing protection is a must), but you can feel the whine of their engines in your gut and the blasting heat from the exhaust plume on your skin. The smell of combusting jet fuel is ever-present and, at times, strong enough to taste. When the pilot lights his afterburners for take off, like the British Panavia Tornado above, the concussion waves push you back and the roar vibrates in your chest with pure, unadulterated power. It is simply glorious. The only thing better is to get a ride in a fighter, and that, I am told, is off the chart.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Chong's Law and Hierarchy

The Air and Space Smithsonian magazine article on the Northrop Grumman Display Model Shop (where I work) just came out in their September 2009 issue ( There is a nice photo of me surrounded by some of our models. There is also in the article a reference to "Chong's Hierarchy" and a partial description of what it contains. For the record, here is the official unveiling of the full version of:

Chong's Law and Hierarchy of Visceral Impact

Assuming all things to be equal in subject and quality:

The more complex and tactile the presentation, the more visceral its impact will be on the viewer.

1) A 3-view line drawing has more impact than a verbal or written description.

2) A black & white drawing or photo has more impact than a 3-view line drawing.

3) A color photo or computer rendering has more impact than a black & white drawing or photo.

4) A painting has more impact than a color photo or computer rendering.

5) A desk-top display model has more impact than a painting.

6) A floor-stand display model has more impact than a desk-top display model.

7) A full-sized mock-up has more impact than a floor-stand display model.

8) A real vehicle on static display has more impact than a full-sized mock-up.

9) A real vehicle in dynamic motion has more impact than a real vehicle on static display.

'm sure many of you are wondering why I bothered. It does seem fairly obvious in retrospect, but what got me thinking about the law and hierarchy was the observation that most people don't know why they respond the way they do the different levels of presentation. Since I had to articulate why the models we make have the impact they do, I had to figure out the reasons behind that impact. My conclusion: the more the five senses are engaged, the more memorable the experience will be to that person; the more visceral the impact it will have.

Unlike drawings or photos, models are tactile by nature. They engage not only the sense of sight, but touch. They are like people magnets, because everyone from the littlest kid to the oldest adult wants to pick them up. They want to feel them, to caress them, and yes, to play with them. Part of the joy of model making is the experience of getting to know the shape of the airplane (or car, or ship) you are working on. The very act of sanding makes the modeler intimately aware of every curve and contour of their project. It is a very sensory and sensual experience and is one of the most successful ways to capture the attention of participant and viewer alike. It makes the most impression at the fraction of the cost of the real thing - and it can fit on a desk top, too. Life-long passions for a particular vehicle are formed by this simple act.

It's one of the reasons cars, ships and airplanes are so anthropomorphized by their makers and owners. Most people don't name their washing machines. But many people name their cars, while ships and planes are called "she." The act of building those vehicles or waxing them down or riding in them engages more senses than most anything else and the passions they arouse are legendary. Grown men wept at the cancellation of the YF-23 (the photo above) because they spent several years creating her and watching her fly in the high desert at Edwards Air Force Base. The plane became alive, and when we lost, it felt like we lost a member of our own family. I felt that way and I only built models of the YF-23. The people who really worked on the project felt even worse. And so it is with most every aircraft program and ship I've heard of.

Perhaps the clearest example I can present of the Hierarchy is what happened at the recent 50th anniversary celebration of the T-38 Talon's first flight. The ceremony was held at the El Segundo facility. We had speakers talking about the airplane, we had posters with T-38 black and white art being given away, one of our models was in a nearby room for the VIP luncheon, and the podium was in front of an actual T-38 that was recently returned to Northrop Grumman for preservation and display. Of course, the full-size airplane got the most attention - that is until the flyover by another T-38 drew every eye into the sky and electrified the crowd. Why? Because it was something we as a company built and it was alive; and we could feel it! All other representations of her paled in comparison.

The Hierarchy is real. Remember: you read it here first. :-)

The photo of the second YF-23 Black Widow II, PAV-2 "Spider," was shot at the 2002 Hawthorne Air Faire at Hawthorne Municipal Airport, Jack Northrop Field, CA.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Reflections become Electra

I really love shooting pictures of highly-polished natural metal aircraft. The myriad images that get picked up and distorted by the reflections on their skin fascinate me with their abstract quality. When coupled with a classic airframe, like this pristine Lockheed Model 12 Electra Junior, with its snazzy red cowlings and lightning bolt cheatline, you can almost feel yourself drawn back to a more romanticized era of aviation. Despite the Great Depression, or maybe because of it, this airplane, and the other glorious designs of the era, imbued a generation with a passion for flight. That decade was truly a golden age.

This image was shot in November 2007 at the Western Museum of Flight grand opening at its new facility at Torrance Airport, Zamperini Field, California.

Friday, August 14, 2009

In the Spirit of the Moment - Tina's Wild Ride

Now it will be Tina's turn to kill me; but again, I couldn't resist. This was taken with the same camera a couple of years later than yesterday's post (September 2008 to be exact). We were waiting for the Tea Cups ride to start and I was taking some pictures of Evie as this was her first time. This was one of Christie's favorite rides, so of course she wanted to introduce her daughter to it. In retrospect, I'm not sure Evie felt the same thrill Christie did (and still does), as a then-22 month old baby probably doesn't have the same inclination to the pleasures of sustained, self-induced vertigo and nausea as an older child would. And so it was this night, but Evie was game to go again the next evening, so maybe it worked. Regardless, the look of absolute joy in Christie's face during this inaugural ride was worth it.

It was at this calm-before-the-spin that Tina got silly and threw herself into this pose of whirling abandon. It so impressed one of our friends that she had the image imprinted on a mug and gave it to Tina for her birthday. It really is a classic silly photo.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Timing is Everything - Christie Style

She will probably kill me, but this is one of my favorite shots of Christie, for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it is a wonderfully silly picture caught at the perfect moment. I did not realize that she had stuck her tongue out at me until I looked at the image after the ride. And that leads to the second reason: I was in a moving tea cup when I shot this, as well. If you are familiar with the set-up, there are several circles of tea cups that rotate within a rotating main floor. Within the spinning circles the several tea cups rotate independently from each other, spinning fast or slow or maintaining some semblance of non-motion by the application of human power to spin the cup from a central post. Tina was trying to maintain a minimum spin while Christie and Mike were having a great time spinning wildly. I was tracking with the Canon A80 Powershot, which has a time-lag in shutter depression to image capture. In short (reason three), I had to "lead" the target and anticipate the right time to take the shot to get a good image, all the while moving night. Amazingly, I got several decent shots, but this one was great. Not only did Christie perfectly frame out Mike, making her the uncluttered focus of attention, but the blurring of the rest of the image, with the colorful paper lamps, also emphasized the motion while zeroing in on the subject. Add to that Christie's spontaneous burst of silliness and the image is complete. Not bad for a little A80!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Time Flies - Christie in Color

On the flip side of yesterday's post, I did do some shots of Christie in the same costume and set in color. Her pose is similar, but the attitude is different. This just has a more whimsical feel to it, sort of a White Rabbit moment as she looks at her pocket watch. A lot of that sense of lightness is conveyed by the use of color rather than black and white, and in the vibrancy of the tie and suspenders - mine, incidentally - and the contrast of the white shoes and dark background. I thought she and Tina did a very good job in picking out clothes for the shoot. It certainly added a lot to both the column images.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Contemplation - a portrait of Christie

I do like portrait photography. Unfortunately, it's not an aspect of the profession that I get to practice too often, although I'd like to do more. There is something so incredibly powerful about seeing a subject's personality emerge from the facade people usually put up between them and the world. Of course, there is a bit of facade-building in any good portrait, but some part of the inner person shines through in the really memorable ones.

I shot this when Christie was 18 or 19. She and Mike came out for several weeks that summer and we got a chance to play at our friend Roy King's studio (Esperanza Studios) for a day. We did several costume changes and scenes, many with a bit of role-playing involved in the staging. But this one is one of my favorites because it catches Christie in a very pensive mood. I like to think something of her true self came through here; that it was not all acting in this shot. There is that old cliche' about still waters running deep. That is the feeling I get when I see this portrait of her.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Walking the Line - Last Chance, Luke AFB

I confess that this shot is a favorite of mine. I like the line up of Viper tails with their heat plumes flowing out of their exhaust nozzles, set off by the solitary walk by the airman in his "mouse ears" (ear protectors) as he performs his last chance inspections. It is an unsung job, but a critical one. In amongst the muted roars and heat of the F-16s, he and his team circle and examine the waiting beasts, the power of "go / no-go" in his hands - the human element in the mechanized zoo of modern aerospace. It is fascinating to watch.

As with the previous post, this was shot last October at Luke AFB, AZ.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Viper at Last Chance

One of the more coveted spots for the aviation photographer is the "end of runway" location known as "last chance." Last chance is the final groundcrew inspection area where all final "remove before flight" ribbons are pulled off the airplane and the weapons are unsafed (not necessarily armed, but the safety is removed so they can be armed then or later). The neat thing about last chance is the coordinated ballet of the groundcrews, the traditional salute by the crew chief to the pilot, and the sense that the airplanes are alive. In a very real sense they are: growling, screeching, menacing and full of raw, barely controlled power. It is a very visceral experience, especially if the planes line up and light their afterburners for take-off with you in a rear quarter position. Then you can not only see, hear, smell and taste the aircraft, but you can feel its power vibrate in your gut and chest. It is glorious!

This was shot last year at Luke AFB near Phoenix, Arizona, as one of the pre-convention events held by the F-4 Phantom II Society before the main event in Tucson. The Lockheed Martin (nee General Dynamics) F-16C "Fighting Falcon," more informally known as the Viper, is spooling up it's engine as it pulls away from last chance and taxis to the hammerhead at the end of the runway. The heat plume from the exhaust is visible as mirage-like distortions behind the airplane.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Timing is Everything

This is another instance of what is known as good timing and "situational awareness." Basically it's picking a good step-up and taking note of what is going on to make a good shot better. I knew the Lockheed C-130J would cross behind and above the F-22 Raptor. I just didn't know how high up the frame it would be. I estimated where I thought it would enter the image and waited. Sure enough, there it was and it made for a more interesting shot. One of the things I particularly like about it is the green glow off the F-22's HUD (Head Up Display). It adds a nice touch of color.

This picture was taken at the 2007 NAS Pt. Mugu open house.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Smoke and Thunder - B-52H Stratofortress

There is nothing quite like take-off of a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress. This 1950's designed, eight-engined bomber has survived far longer than imaged, outliving three attempts to replace it. While better than they used to be, the smoke coming from those eight engines as they spool to a full power, maximum take-off is impressive. Just the thought of a wing launching all their planes during Minimum Interval Take-Offs (MITO) exercises during the Cold War, in which one after the other of these behemoths take off 12 seconds apart, is mind-boggling. It must've been something to see and hear in person - assuming you could see much after the first two or three aircraft rolled as the smoke must've obscured everything. I don't think I'd like to be the last ship in line. Between the zero visibility and turbulence from everyone else's aircraft, the pucker factor must've been high.

This shot was taken at the 2005 Edwards AFB open house.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Yosemite Fall - Springtime

On my 3 June post I had a shot of Yosemite Fall in winter. That February image showed mist in the valley and an ethereal ground fog. This particular shot was taken from about the same spot as the 3 June image, ironically on the same Memorial Day weekend as my 27 April post. It was a nice, warm day in the valley that morning, but as I recounted in April, a snowstorm closed Tioga Pass that night, so the weather was volatile.

In any event, the colors were gorgeous that day. Yes, the grass was really that color of green. It was amazingly vibrant; it almost hurt your eyes to look at it. With the wind blowing the water of the Upper Yosemite Fall and the blue of the sky nearly covered by clouds, it made for a very nice shot.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Blue Waters and El Capitan - Yosemite

El Capitan is an incredible presence in Yosemite Valley. Imposing as it is from Inspiration Point, the closer you get to it the more massive and overwhelming it becomes. No wonder it is a magnet for rock climbers and dare-devils! But not me. I prefer my appreciation of El Capitan from a secure location - well, moderately secure.

This shot was taken at one of the last turnouts on the valley loop before the exits out of the valley. Here the Merced River reflects the deepening blue of the sky as the day reaches the Golden Hour. I'm out on the rocks by the river's edge. More secure than the face of El Capitan, but not as safe as solid ground or asphalt path. That's about as daring as I like to get. This is a favored location for many photographers. It's not hard to see why.