Sheer luck with bad weather and an Air Traffic Control decision

I had arrived from a business trip from London on Friday evening. Saturday was catch-up day with home things and stuff. One of my friends Raj Mazumdar pinged me that there was an inaugural Air India flight from Delhi to SFO starting Wednesday the week I was out. I had looked up the information and knew that it operated three times a week on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays and that it arrived SFO at 0630 in the morning and left 1030hrs.

This is a first time a carrier from my country was starting service direct to SFO so thought it would be cool if I can get arrival as departure shots of it. Accordingly I set the alarm to wake up at 0430 and another one at 0445 as backup. It was good because I got up when the backup alarm triggered. Then it was a rush to get out since I had to hit the road at 0530 to get to the place by Millbrae Park by 0615-ish to setup. I was late finishing up things and I just threw the shoes and socks in the car, and hit the road at 0640 – 10mins later than I thought. I looked at the fuel indicator – holy crap – I need to put gas in the car – so I pulled at the nearest gas station, put enough fuel that will get me to and back from SFO and finally hit the highway. I was constantly looking at my watch and it was going to be super close.


Screenshot 2015-12-11 15.30.05As I neared SFO airport, I saw an aircraft taking off what seemed to be towards San Jose – and I double-checked to see the green navigation light on the starboard (right) side of the aircraft – Damn Damn Damn – they were using 10L and 10R runways (in the direction to the right bottom corner of the map) for departure so that meant they would be using 19L and 19R (from the top center to bottom center of the map) for arrivals. Just for reference, this is the Maps view of the runways. Normally all arrivals are on 28L and 28R (in the direction from bottom right corner to top right corner of the map) coming South East over the Silicon Valley and then heading North West towards SFO. All domestic departures are from 1L and 1R (in the direction from bottom center towards top center of the map) as they takeoff towards Oakland. All international and heavy departures are from 28L (in the direction from bottom right corner towards the top left corner in the map). This threw me off my normal expectations. Obviously the way they choose the runways are dependent on wind direction and weather. In inclement weather they use the  former plan.

Anyways as I pulled into the parking lot, it was around 0615 and I saw an airliner landing on 19L. I shut the car engine, put on my socks, tied the lace – and the reason I am being this detailed is every second counts when you are this close. Open the trunk, open the bag, get my camera, do the right settings – it was pitch dark so up the ISO, aperture mode wide open – and holy shit – it was Air India 173 arriving at that moment. Took couple shots – damn the shutter speed was still slower than what I needed – up the ISO 4-5 clicks take shots again as she rolled out on the runway – and then some more as she made her way to the terminal gate. The next order of things is obviously – start chimping and see what I got – I could walk away with one shot of her against the SFO Tower – which is decent I think :)


Then started the long wait till 1030 when she would depart SFO for DEL (Delhi). It started to drizzle a bit – it was cold, freezing and no sign that the Sun would break through. I reclined the seat and caught some much needed sleep. By around 0830, some other photographers started to come by – there was a guy from Vallejo, and couple of school-going kids and then couple families with maybe 8-10 year old kids showed up.

There were some delays at SFO airport itself as well since an arriving United 787 Dreamliner, a United Star Alliance Boeing 777, a Singapore Airlines Boeing 777, a Air New Zealand Boeing 777 and a Air China Boeing 747-8 landed and were waiting on the taxiway beside 19L to taxi to their gates. They were almost waiting there since 45mins to an hour after landing :( I wouldn’t want to be a passenger on those aircraft at the moment ;) I was amazed at these small kids who already knew the difference between a 747-400 and a 747-8F, Airbus A319, A320, A321, etc – I reflected on my childhood when I knew this and more geeky stuff on military aviation and up to some point civil aviation. Of course during my time there was no internet or smartphones so you scrounged for magazines at old paper and book shops.


There was some other nice action going on at SFO. I tried to get some low-light stuff like the United Boeing 737 seen here – it was mostly dark at the time with just some light peeping through the clouds in the South East. There were some interesting arrivals like the China Southern Boeing 787 Dreamliner arriving on 10R instead of 19L. Interesting arrivals like the China Eastern Airbus A330, ANA Boeing 777-300ER, Air New Zealand Boeing 777-300ER, United 747-400, and a Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300ER. It was like the Boeing 777 season all along ;) The controllers were also doing a nice job with what is called “Shooting the gap” – the time between when an aircraft that is already given the takeoff clearance, takes off and an aircraft that is given the landing clearance touches down at intersecting runways – as can be seen here – where the Boeing 777 of Jet Airways (actually an Etihad Airways) flight to Abu Dhabi takes off from 10R, and a United 787 Dreamliner is already on short final for 19L. This results in smooth movement of air traffic at congested airports. Kudos to the ATC guys in SFO Tower.

It was almost 1030 and the terminal where Air India parks is not visible from Millbrae plus I had no scanner to know what was going on, on the ground. But I hoped that the AI Boeing 777-200LR had pushed back and was on the taxiway. Since they were operating from the alternate runways I hoped to get some wing flex and vapor action as it took off. 1030 became 1100, then it became 1130. Out of frustration I installed the FlightRadar24 app on my iPhone to see where the AI was. And then I saw her on the taxiway headed in the other direction – not towards Runway 1R but towards 28L – Damn, they decided to change runways again since the winds had shifted.

Pretty soon, we saw AI174 taxiing out towards 28L, followed by the ANA Boeing 777-300, and a United 747-400. As you can see in the shot, a SouthWest Boeing 737 is on short final to 19L – ATC was still vectoring landing traffic on the 19L runway. But it all stopped as Air India flight AI174 taxied out to 28L. They started re-directing departures out 1L and 1R soon after the SW 737 landed. It was a great to see the AI taxi out to 28L and then start the takeoff roll. And WoW – as she rotated, you could see the vapor action start to build up on the wings, and as she made her way upwards, at one point, the center fuselage was all enveloped by vapor – that was so coooooool to see!!  One could almost hear everyone cheer as the vapor formed as she rotated. The same thing happened to the ANA Boeing 777 as she took off.

I hung back to catch the United 747 as it was already there. As she started her takeoff roll, she went way past the SFO Tower and then slowly rotated off – enabling me to catch this shot. We were not seeing any vapor formation earlier as the airliners took off towards the South so apparently it was sheer luck that the ATC decided to change the runway directions and restore operations to the normally used runways.

A combination of Nature and a decision by the SFO Tower ATC to change runways at the right time – had finally delivered – dramatic shots. :) :) :)

After that it was a quick trip to the gas station for a pit stop and then drive back home and begin the other chores of a photographer – download the shots from the cards, into the hard drives, import them into Lightroom and so on!!!

Thats all for now folks – Have fun-filled holidays, safe New Year celebrations and last but not the least, have an exciting, prosperous and peaceful New Year ahead!!