The ‘Canyon’ experience with a Nikon

Imagine yourself miles inside a desert with rocky canyons, ridges, mountains and valleys and nothing but wilderness and desolation. Your routine for the two to three days you are inside is going to be like this. You get up early, have some breakfast, and then head out to a trail in the middle of nowhere and arrive at your spot on a ridge overlooking the canyon from 0800 till a bit after sundown which might be 1700 or 1900 depending upon the season. And all this so you can get shots of aircraft with ground in the background, than the usual blue sky with puffy clouds ;) You camp out the entire day with the hope that you get at least one pass from an aircraft – the more the better, but at least one is self-fulfilling enough. And obviously there are no guarantees. There have been some days when there were zero passes – no aircraft – while there are some other days when you are not there that someone else gets fifteen to twenty passes – twenty frigging passes :P The amount of time you get visual and take your first shot to the time you take your last shot is around 15-20 seconds only. So if you were caught pissing, SORRY ;) And that is not all.

All through out the day, the weather plays havoc with you. On most days it gets brutally windy – so much windy as you can feel the wind  blowing over the opposite ridge and pushing your body with it as you stand or sit with your back to it – covering the ears, and your face from the wind and the gravel that is being blown continuously with it. You protect your camera gear with your body or your bag against the fine-grained continuous assault. You can hardly hear the roar and thunder of the jet engines in the valley above the roaring wind in your face and so you are constantly wincing at any movement or a black dot popping from your right, and left – hands twitching and at the ready with any doubt that your mind plays on you.

On some other days, it will be moderate winds, and all those eight to nine hours that you spend up there on the ridge, the mind is always playing tricks on you – thinking that the wind noise is a rumble in the valley and you dash for your camera gear. On other days, it is totally silent and there is absolutely no wind – and then you realize why they say “deafening silence”. You hear stones and rock being crunched under the pressure of moving tires from a couple of miles away and that makes you think it is the jet engine’s song. You can hear people talking or coughing couple of miles away as well. But at least you get ample warning if the aircraft do show up for their  pass through the canyon. And then there is the rumble of a pickup towing a motorhome or an RV vehicle passing through that creates a false alarm of a jet engine and everyone pricks their ears to the entrance to the canyon. Also sometimes there are jets that pass through the valley in the distance or even overheard and their jet engine sound reverberates through the valley and hills. All this makes for an interesting day ;)


If you are alone the whole day that I had been once, I usually take work along with me – and one can follow-up on some stuff offline of course. But the company is what makes the whole experience all the more fun – the more the merrier as they say. I had the fortune of meeting some other folks from NorCal and SoCal on my second trip and that turned out to be awesome. You can kill time sharing stories and experiences and making of yourself and others. The most interesting stories are those where all of us and come on admit it, we do – all of us have our own special Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) on the slush funds for our camera gears – and those stories can be enlightening as well ;) Depending on the appetite, one carries some amount of food and snacks and water since there is nothing – and I mean nothing, nearby.

But its all worth the effort and the pain once you get the passes. As you hear the rumble, the adrenaline kicks in – your ears prick up, neck on the swivel, trying to get the visual from the multiple directions that the aircraft enter the canyon – and once you sight them, its like “Holy shit”, camera gear at the ready, trying to get a focus lock and then start panning with the aircraft as they turn and burn their way through the canyon. The whole experience lasts about 12-15 seconds – and obviously the next order of things as the aircraft exit the canyon and go about their way – is to face the LCD screen on the camera, and hit the display button and start “chimping” on what you got – and what you missed :)

Depending on the luck of the draw, you might get the usual suspects like the Hornets/Super Hornets from VX-9 Vampires from NAWS China Lake, or the West Coast Hornet Squadrons from NAS Lemoore. Seen below left is a F/A-18E Super Hornet from VFA-147 “Argonauts” from NAS Lemoore as he aggressively enters the canyon in a left turn tearing the surrounding air by the wingtips and putting coal on the engines as seen by the heat-haze (or popularly called jelly) at the rear. Below right is a legacy F/A-18C Hornet from VX-9 Vampires heading back home to NAWS China Lake.

Above left is a F/A-18E Super Hornet and a Carrier Air Group (CAG) jet from VX-9 Vampires – triple nickel jet – 111 aircraft number and a good color bird. Above right is another regular squadron F/A-18E from VFA-137 “Kestrels” from NAS Lemoore. Below left is another Jason – Argonaut’s call sign – flying the F/A-18E Super Hornet from VFA-147 “Argonauts”. Below right is a F/A-18F from the famous VFA-154 “Black Knights” squadron (BKR – Black Knights Rule) flying through the canyon against a nice background.

Below are the Vipers from the South Dakota Lobos flying their Combat Air Patrol (CAP) missions with live Air Interception Missile (AIM) AIM-9M Sidewinder, and AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile) on their weapons stations. The live missiles can be distinguished from the inert rounds by the yellow bands on the live missiles, while the inert rounds have blue bands or are blue in color.

One might also get some aircraft like the AV-8B Harrier II of the US Marines flying through sometimes; or the Carrier Air Group (CAG) color birds of some of the local and or East Coast squadrons; F-15C Eagles from Fresno can also be captured if you are in luck. Aircraft like the Vipers, and F-35A Lightning II from Edwards AFB also make an appearance sometimes. F-16 Vipers from the 64th Aggressor squadron from Nellis AFB also transit the canyon on their way to their Military Operating Areas (MOAs). I have not been lucky to capture either an Eagle or a Nellis Aggressor in the canyon ….. YET ;)

And if you have been brave enough to face the elements and given up some other comforts of the day, and have been a good boy, God might smile and throw something special at you, like aircraft of foreign countries on deployment to the US. On one occasion, our group had braved the winds and gravel from 0800 to 1400 and we did not have much to come away with, we decided to go to a different spot and suffer less than the previous spot. Then some guys heard over the scanner “Apollo, going low level in two mikes” with a Brit accent – and that got everyone excited and we all scrambled to get to the edge and Lo behold!

Two Royal Air Force Tornados from 41 TES (R) Squadron came our way – the lead Tonka (as the Tornado is called popularly) with medium sweep of the wings, and the wingman entering the canyon with full sweep – that was F-ing Awesome – Sierra Hotel – or shit hot!!! That more than made up for the day we did not get much passes from the other usual suspects :)

Then on some days, there are the folks who do not feel the inclination to fly through the canyon, and just skim the ridge line on their way home or out to the ranges. As you can see the Massachusetts Air National Guard F-15C Eagle (below left) from 104th Fighter Wing observing the canyon as he skims above us. The Eagle was a surprise since it is based at Barnes Field on the East Coast, and was in town at Nellis AFB. Below right is a F/A-18F Super Hornet from VFA-122 “Flying Eagles” from NAS Lemoore. VFA-122 is the West Coast Fleet Replacement Squadron (FRS) that trains students on the F/A-18E and F variants.

Below left is a F-16 Viper from Edwards AFB on its way home. Below right is again a F-16 from the 175th FS “Lobos” from South Dakota. This F-16 was part of a two-ship formation that entered the canyon. The Lead was flying low in the canyon, and as any good wingman, this one was giving high cover and to the left of the Lead, following Lead’s every move through the canyon.


Also, as the aircraft make their runs in the canyon, there are different rock formations, colors in the canyon that they pass by and form different backgrounds as seen here. Depends on where the Sun is, the lights create shadow and light regions in the rocky outcrops for some spots. Above left is one such example as a F/A-18E from VFA-147 makes the pass. One gets different angles of the aircraft as seen above right – where a F/A-18E from VFA-122 makes a pass in the canyon. Below left you can see the yellowish color interspersed with black stone as this F-16 Viper passes through the canyon at high speed. Towards the egress of the canyon, as seen below right you can see the color changes to a deep red background to a F-16 Viper egressing from the canyon. Continuing below left, one can see the rugged terrain formed by the rocks in the canyon as a F/A-18F Super Hornet CAG bird from VFA-154 makes a run in the canyon. Below right is the F/A-18F Super Hornet from VFA-154 as it turns hard right to get to the exit of the canyon – again the background being more red-brownish in nature.

Different drivers egress the exit of the canyon in different fashion – some might level out and go low, while others might turn and go high as seen below left and center where the Super-Bug drivers from VX-9 and VFA-154 are more higher and the mountain ranges in the distant valley form the background for these shots; while below right, you can see a F/A-18F from VFA-122 against the valley floor as it egresses in a right turnout and keeps a low profile.

The Sun lights up the canyon differently as it progresses through the day. As you can see above left is an Edwards Viper exiting through the canyon at early sunrise – the light creating a dark background to the aircraft – whereas you can see the one above right where a VFA-147 F/A-18E Super Hornet comes screaming out of the canyon just at sunset. I was the only one up there on the spot and nothing had come through for a long time and I was contemplating leaving and going back to the hotel – and I forced myself to stay up there for at least another half hour. Well, that was up and I still forced myself for another 30 minutes since the light was there. And voila 15mins into those 30, this F/A-18E came blazing through the canyon. Below left is another example of a F/A-18E from VFA-137 “Kestrels” blazing through at last light. Below right is a bit interesting as clouds in the day had masked off some part of the Sun, hence the left background has shade, while the background to the right is basking in sunlight, while the Super Hornet itself has no Sun on it.

The other thing is playing around with camera settings – increasing or decreasing the aperture varies the shutter speed and the ability to freeze or blur backgrounds. Seen below left, is a F/A-18E from VFA-122 at a slower shutter speed thus blurring the background – its not enough but the background is not sharp either like the earlier shots. Same thing happened with the RAF Tornado (below right) with the swept wings – for some reason the camera metered that exposure where for this shot, a shutter speed of 1/250 was selected – if I remember right, thereby blurring the background on this shot of the Tornado.

With all the action happening in a 15-second window, the selection of lens or even zoom if you have variable telephoto, can be tricky. For me fortunately, I had mated the 600mm prime to the Nikon D810 – so I had the reach and the pixels to play with if I had to crop. And as it happens with panning in with a tight lens, you miss some parts of the aircraft as it flashes by in the blink of an eye – well in that case, one needs to get creative with cropping angles. Below left, I missed an inch off of the pitot tube in the nose of this F-16 Viper – and the photo was sharp – so in order to save it, I had to resort to some acceptable crop of the picture, and thanks to my D810, I could safely do that ;) In this crop, the focus is more on the pilot and his kneepads, and the secondary object of interest is the Sniper targeting pod carried on the right engine intake strongpoint, just below the green light. In the other case, below right, I had some parts cut off of this F/A-18F Super Bug from VFA-154 “Black Knights” and so here was a crop focussing on the pilot in the front and the WSO (Weapons Systems Officer pronounced as Wizzo) in the back, and the shape of the Super-Bug fore fuselage looking more like a manned V-2 rocket ;)

Shifting spots and going to different locations along the canyon yields different stuff of the same aircraft. Case in point, was this shot of the RAF Tonka – one day before, we had moved from that location to escape Nature’s wrath ;) and we got the belly shots of the Tonka – the next day things were a bit better so we moved to a different spot, and along comes Apollo (Tornado call sign) (below left) and this time we get to capture him on the top side as he turned hard right to exit the canyon.

Sometimes its the things that you don’t expect turn up. Instead of spotting a black dot popping from above the opposite ridge line this time it was a big frigging C-17 Globemaster II transport aircraft (above center and right) that turned over the canyon and we almost thought if he is going to make a run in the canyon, when it turned level and dove down into the valley to go home. This next thing happened on my first visit to the canyon, early last year. I was the one guy out over the perch, and along comes this F/A-18E from VFA-137 “Kestrels” (below) and I take the shot. Only while post processing I realized that I had captured the Schlieren effect – light diffracting through the pressure variations happening at the certain boundaries of a fast-moving aircraft.

IF you notice the visible disturbance in the areas close to the left wingtip by the inert Sidewinder round, the right wingtip below, and just a tad bit of disturbance above the pilot’s helmet above the canopy – thats the Schlieren effect.



And to wrap up in the end, of all the things that fly down the canyon and of all the photographers that have successfully shot some exotic military stuff out there, I might be the only photographer son-of-a-gun ever to capture a General Aviation aircraft in the canyon. When I saw him near the entrance, I felt “Guess he is kidding” but nope – the Piper Arrow (below left) flew in fair and square in the canyon and flew out on its ‘high speed pass’. :D The ‘high speed pass’ – as I enclose this in quotes I can almost imagine Dr. Evil doing the quote thingy in an Austin Powers movie – seemed like an eternity compared to the 15-seconds of pure excitement when the fighters blaze through there.

There is a similar place in the UK – Mach Loop, Cad East, Cad West, etc – where the jets fly over lush green hills, and the weather is consistently changing throughout the day ;) That is on my bucket list – but I will save that entry for another day.

Of course one other word of caution, though this stuff might seem hairy to some of you, it is actually part of essential training that the strike fighters need to master in order to ingress and egress out of heavily defended target areas and is a perishable skill – hence the need for practicing it almost every time there is an opportunity. Flight safety is always paramount and overrides everything else.

I hope you have enjoyed the pictures and the read, and now am heading back to that chilled beer I have waiting for me – I suggest you do the same – Take care folks until next time, enjoy life and be well – sayonara for now :)