The Ghost Squadron

It all started with José “Fuji” Ramos - a great photographer I “met” over Facebook – announcing of a photo workshop where he was going to be a guest speaker. It was the workshop run by the 3G Aviation Media at the Commemorative Air Force’s Dixie Wing, at Peachtree City in Atlanta. He would be talking about speed lights and stuff about flash photography. That caught my eye – since I always wanted to get some form of formal instruction in the speed light world of photography. Plus the program included planning, and executing a photo shoot with static aircraft and working with models.

The Commemorative Air Force (CAF) started off as Confederate Air Force – a group of four guys investing in a P-51 Mustang some time after the war and then getting a couple more warbirds in 1951. They were based out of Texas and slowly and steadily this group has grown into a nation-wide effort and is a non-profit organization ensuring to preserve and honor the military history with the rallying cry to “Keep them flying”. The CAF today is the premier Warbird organization, operating 156 vintage aircraft in Honor of American Military Aviation. A non-profit educational association, the CAF has approximately 9,000 members operating this fleet of historic aircraft, distributed to 70 units located in 28 states. For more information, visit

I had to clear my calendar of any business trips and personal trips. That was done – and the day came to travel. Started off at 0400 in the morning since I had to leave my car at the Long Term Parking in San Jose for catching a 0615 flight out of San Jose to Houston – and from there onwards to Atlanta. I reached Atlanta at about 1630. Atlanta is one huge airport – need to catch a train to baggage claim, and then another train to get my rental car. Inspecting the rental car, I found that the left headlight did not work – again another wait till they sorted out another car for me. Atlanta traffic is funny – it was dark by the time I made it to the highway – and there was accident in the right lane ahead – but the right lane was faster than the normally fast left lane. I missed my hotel while driving around in the dark, my iPhone battery was dying, and I was dependent on the GPS. After finally I found where my hotel was relative to where I was, my phone went dead – but at least I could figure out where it was. By the time I made it to my room, it was 1830 – and we were meeting for a short introduction and flight safety briefing at another hotel at 1900. I was starved the whole day and I barely made it to a nearby Starbucks to grab something when Fuji pinged me on Facebook as to where I was. Finally I was in the right place – and was greeted by the 3Gs – Tony Granata, Doug Glover, and Matt Genaurdi – and Fuji was there as well. Moreno or “Mo” and Pam were from the Dixie Wing’s volunteers and would be our hosts for the duration of the workshop. After introductions we got right into it with Tony spending the time with us explaining planning a photo shoot with aircraft – shared with us the tools that they use for planning. After that Doug took over with a flight safety briefing till around 2100. After which we had some drinks at the watering hole and then off to sleep. I was up since 0300 PST and was raring to go to sleep after spending the day in an aluminum tube :)

The schedule was packed for Saturday and Sunday. We had to hit the road by 0545. It was cold and foggy. We made our way to Peachtree Airport and to Dixie Wing’s hangar. The hangar was a nice cozy place for us to set our gear. After explaining basic stuff, we head out to capture some nice images. The subjects were: a F4U Corsair (below center), a SBD Dauntless (below left and right), a Japanese Zero replica and a Japanese Kate replica. Tripods and bodies out, we headed eagerly out on the field. The SBD and Corsair were nicely lined up with some sodium lamps of the terminal in the background.

  The foggy morning can be a nightmare for photography but it can be converted to something – hence you make use of the available light to shoot. Sometimes just the lamp lights being diffused adds a nice mood to the picture – and that is exactly what I did. I clicked a couple nice shots with those – and then headed over to where the Kate (left) and Zero (right) were lined up.
I was also trying to get some raised angle shots (SBD to the right, and Corsair to the far right) by converting the tripod into a monopod and putting the camera on timer and taking pictures. Tony also suggested taking multiple shots that could be done with a cable release or a remote, but without that one needs to get creative – - it was simple but I never knew it existed – It was all like the things you don’t see under your nose ;)

After the early morning shoot, we all headed back to the comfort of the hangar for breakfast. Recharging ourselves, then we had another session by Tony in post process using Lightroom and Photoshop. The other thing unique in this workshop was the help the instructors provided processing one’s own shots. I have been to other workshops about Post processing techniques and all what I have seen is the instructors provide their own image, and tells folks to edit it according to the explained way. The thing is I cannot relate to the picture if its not shot by me. I would rather work on my own shot picture and have some one guide me through the workflow for that using LR and PS. And that was a really good point for someone who wants to learn LR and PS as well.

Next on, Tony explained some of the detail shots that we can take with the aircraft. He explained that some aircraft might have unique parts that identifies them immediately, some others might not be so visible, etc..So after the breakfast, we again headed out and the friendly “Warning” given to us was, if any one is found taking shots 5 feet away from the aircraft, those shots will be deleted ;) But that was good since it forced us to find some details standing close to the aircraft – noticing different things.

Based on my hanging out with other aviation photographers, I have seen that sometimes the numbers or stencils can be candidates for interesting shots on especially a book, if you are publishing one. I had never thought about it that way earlier, but hey every day you learn somethings new ;) As seen above left, is the tail code of the Kate from the Japanese carrier Hiryu, a small bomb carried at the ventral centerline station by the Zero (above middle), and a stencil mark for maintenance on one of the aircraft (above right).

   I got some good shots of the fake ammo rounds (far left) that were out by the SBD Rear-gunner, and then the Corsair wide-angle shot (left middle) from below with the VMF-312 Checkerboards insignia on the nose engine nacelle. The perfect case in point about unique identifiers of each aircraft was the SBD Dauntless – that had perforated split flaps (left) that used to open in flight while diving on to the target – that was the signature of the SBD. So even if I do not get the whole aircraft and just get the perforations on the wing, that was enough for a warbird geek to id the airframe.

And then if you can get some other things with the unique identifier is nice as well.As seen below left, is an artsy shot of the split flaps on the SBD with the fuselage out of focus, the bomb in the foreground on the centerline ventral station of the SBD, with the perforated flaps forming the background (below center), and the strike camera connected to the inboard hard point of the wing (below right).

The interesting aircraft of the four, were a couple – the Japanese ones. These were in fact heavily modified versions of the T-6 Texans, Harvards or Valiants. After the end of WW-II all Japanese aircraft were destroyed barring maybe one or two specimens. Veteran 20th Century Fox executive Daryl Zanuck at Hollywood wanted to make an epic film on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor – like “The Longest Day” that detailed the invasion of France – the turning tide of WW-II. They needed aircraft to film the Japanese Imperial Navy aircraft. Lynn Garrison working with Jack Canary were responsible for modifying the above aircraft to look like Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighters, Nakajima B-5N Kate torpedo bombers, Aichi D3A dive bombers that took part in the attack.
  Lots of minute changes were made to the T-6s to make them appear as their counterparts – including fuselage lengthening, and other small modifications details were made. The Kate is painted as the one that flew from the Japanese carrier Hiryu complete with the tail code of BII-310. The Kate replica can be seen in other movies as well – like “Ba Ba Black Sheep”, “Midway”, “Flying Misfits” and “War and Remembrance”.   The Vought F4U Corsair was painted in the famous VMFA-312 “Checkerboards” Squadron from the US Marine Corps that flew it back in time. The Checkerboards today fly the F/A-18 Hornets and are based at MCAS Beaufort, SC. The Douglas SBD-5 Dauntless dive bomber is one of two operational aircraft flying in the world today. Known as “Slow But Deadly”, the Dauntless was rugged in the days of the Pacific War and is known to be one of the main contributor in sinking Japanese ships during the War. Delta Airlines has sponsored the paint on the SBD that closely resembles that of its earlier operational days.

After that it was the class I was looking forward to. Speedlighting introduction by Fuji. He introduced us to the different speed lights, tripods, stands, cold shoe mounts. Also explained was the Nikon Creative Light System (CLS) solution – on how to set the groups and channels on the flash lights as well as using PocketWizards and the advantage of the latter over the former. Fuji had setup a demo on one of the hangar aircraft situating speed lights around different points and then playing with the power outputs of each. After that was the session on working with models by Matt Genaurdi. Planning, executing, working with flash lights and all the stuff was talked about. Then we all headed out to work with the models and the aircraft. For me, my brain went dead when a model was placed in front of the aircraft – and I guess the conflict for me was, do I get the model only, or part of the model and the aircraft, or the whole aircraft and the model ;) Well, things got much more clearer when a debrief was held after the model shoot the next day in the morning :)

  When we headed out the one thing that struck me was how beautiful the evening sky looked like – we were going to have an awesome sunset. There were wisps of clouds in the sky, and the West was more clearer allowing for some nice sun light to get on the aircraft. The aircraft were swapped since the morning – since one of the guys got a flight in the SBD, so they placed the SBD on the other side of the Corsair, looking into the Sun, while the Corsair was placed, looking more to the North. Seen at far left and left, is the Kate and Zero and an interesting thought came to my mind – the Rising Sun to the East on the aircraft meets the Setting Sun to the West :)

  While everyone else was working with the models and the aircraft, I found out that the SBD (right) and Kate (far right) were kind of sitting there alone by themselves. So went around spreading some love to “those girls” :) I just could not sit back and have this glorious sunset go to waste – especially since Mother Nature had cooperated so awesomely since the foggy morning of the day.

I got some glorious shots of the aircraft with the sunset lit skies – I guess the results speak for themselves, and I will shut up on that subject!!!
The SBD (above right) was perfectly lined up with the setting Sun in the front, and the moon peeking up from behind the trees for its rise.

I walked over to the tarmac where the LT-6 Texan, the P-51 Mustang of the Museum, and a C-47 of a private collector were basking in the Sodium-light of the lamp. Caught some blue hour photos with those aircraft. One of the museum folks explained the blue hour phenomena.
As the sun sets over the horizon, the sky nearer to the horizon stays crimson, while the sky above turns deep blue and the reason behind is the Earth casting its shadow in the direction of the Sun. Hmmmm – had never thought about it that way before :)

Then it was the turn of painting the aircraft with speed lights. Doug joined me in my quest for that effort. I had taken the shots of the Zero, and the Kate and went on to get the Corsair. The first attempt was marred by the green light off of the speed light making a ghostly impression in the image. The second attempt, I carried the small flashlight in my hand so it casted its glow.
On the third attempt, we got it right – but due to some reason we always were getting a line of light across the Corsair fuselage near the tail section. Fuji realized that it was the shape of the fuselage of the Corsair in the tail section that was doing the continuous light effect. Doug suggested to not paint it in a line – instead paint it in broken sequence, with some light on the tail, then shift to mid-section and then come back to the tail section – and that was cool.

After that it was the end of Day-1 – my legs were sore from the constant squatting with the tripod, and getting up and walking the length and breadth of the field. We retired from the field into the hangar – gathering our gear for the night and made the quick drive up to a eating place near the hotel. The “rum and coke” really helped to get a good night’s sleep. But the next morning was brutal – I got up to my leg muscles being sore and in pain. Again it was hitting the road at 0545 and getting to the airfield.

 All of us again headed out of the hangar with our gear in order to get some more shots that we might have missed. This morning it was clear, no fog and low clouds, so the sun rise would not be as spectacular as the evening before. It started drizzling a little bit as well. I did get a couple shots, one is an artsy with the taxi light and the SBD. The next time round, I will give it a shot as to what Fuji suggested – might get some interesting results – guess we’ll have to wait and watch for that one ;) We headed in for another presentation by Doug – and he shared his workflow that he uses for editing shots. After that, Fuji reviewed my shots and gave critique to improve the composition, and post-process.

  After that, it was wrap-up time. The Dixie Wing volunteers got on their tow vehicles and started towing all the warbirds in the hangar. Slowly and steadily all the warbirds went back to their nests – the P-51 Mustang, the SBD Dauntless, Corsair, Zero and Kate. I managed to get a shot of the Mustang while other warbirds were being parked. Its not the conventional shot, but I like what came out of it. We thanked everyone, including the Dixie Wing’s Angel flight for hosting us and making some good meals for us. We bade each other goodbye – reached out to folks over Facebook ;) I came back to the hotel and worked on my projects at work since I had a next-day early morning flight to catch. So it was wake-up time for me the next day at 0300. I worked on a couple of pics and shared them with Fuji, and the 3Gs, had an early dinner and off to some well-earned sleep. My legs were killing me and it won’t be almost till two days after that I got some rest that the soreness went away.

 All in all, it was a fantastic workshop for me – the little tips and tricks that help much. Getting to know Fuji personally was awesome – he is a fantastic photographer, eager to share his knowledge and experiences. The 3Gs are equally great as well – they shared a lot of info, in the workshop – and are a great bunch of guys to hang around as well. Their next workshop is going to be at Kissimmee Florida and if anyone is interested, they can browse for more details. Moreno “Mo” Aguiari was as usual great supporting us. Some long time friendships were made from the workshop as “birds of a feather, flocked together” for the weekend :)
Other photos from the shoot can be found by clicking here –


Something tells me I will go back for doing something totally exciting with these old warbirds and the men who keep them flying :D So long folks – till next time – be safe :)

One Response

  1. harshad says:

    hi kedar, read ur blog n was amazed 2 c ur photo shoots, gud goin and nice clicks. really u r providing all d bird lovers a more reason 2 love these metallic birdies even more. hope u get 2 point ur camera towards modern US warplanes again.