My ‘Fast-Jet-Action’ Fix
Talking about coincidence – While I was confirming dates for an office trip across the pond, Eric Coeckelberghs with the Aviation PhotoCrew reached out to me with dates for photo-mission in Wittmund, Germany and the RNLAF Open Days in Leeuwarden, Holland. And for the first time the stars were aligned and I was able to extend a work trip for pleasure – for that I would be living like a gypsy – or in other words living out of a suitcase – for a couple weeks. To friends, I mentioned I will be extending my work trip and if you mention you are spending some time in Texel, no one knows about it but when you mention Amsterdam and that conjures images of ‘Weed’, ‘Red Light District’ So instead of trying to tell them where exactly I am going or what exactly I am going to do, I just let ‘sleeping dogs lie’; and go along with ‘their idea of a vacation’. Its funny but thats the way it is. That reminds me to share this image with you guys and gals and which is very apt and summarizes the ‘my idea of vacation’ and ‘your idea of vacation’ and drives it home
After spending the work week talking to different customers, and partners, and internal folks, Saturday dawned and I boarded a flight to Amsterdam. On Sunday, my friend Michael (part of the Aviation PhotoCrew) picked me up from the airport and we set course to the island of Texel, North West of Amsterdam. After crossing the ferry, we came by the small grassy airport of Texel. We waited for Eric, and others to arrive via the Skyvan who had taken off from Belgium earlier. Plan was to leave my baggage in Michael’s car, take essentials for one night, and board the Skyvan carrying other equipment and land in Wittmund AB, spending the night over there. I just flew from Germany to Amsterdam, to go back to Germany, ha Met Geert, Eric and Peter who drove up to Texel, and then met Tony, Bob, Alastair and Slater who arrived with the Skyvan. Tony and Bob would be our pilots for the air-to-air session with our beloved Shorts Skyvan registered as G-PIGY
Geert and Michael were up to their usual antics during the flight to Wittmund, as you can see above (left). In the center picture above, they are pointing to Eric who has passed out just kidding – he was unavailable temporarily as he went into his dreamland for sometime. Of course, Eric got his revenge on Michael sometime later – as you can see in the third picture, where Michael is off to La-La land. If you see above Eric, is me sleeping on the flight with my cap down to cover my eyes. I fell asleep quite soundly reinforcing the fact that I can sleep anywhere – even on a noisy Skyvan transport with bucket seats for paratroopers. It was roughly one-and-half-hour flight to reach Wittmund.
I woke up feeling the jolt of the Skyvan touching down on the runway at Wittmund. Reaching Wittmund, we met with other members of the COAP team led by Rich Cooper and Steven Comber and Uwe, and Garrick from Discovery Air Defence (DAD). DAD is a defense contractor based out of Montreal, and provides defense related services like advanced threat simulation, Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) or Forward Air Controller (FAC) training, target tow to the armed forces of the United States and Germany, under the terms of Contracted Airborne Training Services (CATS). They have a fleet of 16 Alfa jets, 7 A4N single-seat and 2 TA-4J dual-seat Skyhawks and a couple IAI Westwards.
I don’t know what the deal is going on between Michael and Eric (above left) but both seem ecstatic at something. After that it was getting our stuff from the Skyvan and loading them on a small bus of the Luftwaffe and we were dropped off at the hotel where we would stay for the Sunday night. After getting to our rooms, the plan was to do a small meet-and-greet with the other guys, and pilots of DAD at a nearby restaurant (above right). Of course when in Germany we had to have some Bier and then off to sleep with getting out the door on Monday by 0645.
On the base met with other old-timers – Bogdan, Stefan, Peng and Jakub (whom I had met couple days ago in Prague). Met couple of new guys, Ron and Mark on the DAD ramp. The morning was pretty lazy – we had the pilots briefing (seen left) for the video and the photo shoot, the do’s and the dont’s, checking up on weather that was not looking nice. The plan was that the first flight will be a flight for a video that Discovery Defence wanted, so we had some opportunities for some ground shots. We went on the Discovery Defence ramp of Wittmund AB.
The one reason I had made the trip was for getting shots of operational Scooters – well that is what the A-4 Skyhawk is called in military aviation circles. I had only one shot of the Scooter – and that too it was on static display at Nellis AFB Air show. I wanted to go to the Houston show since they had a A-4 flying there at the air show but last year they cancelled all the jets. It would be great to catch them in action on the ground and in the air as well. There was going to be a morning QRA – Quick Reaction Alert – launch with the TaktLwG 71 ‘Richthofen’ wing Eurofighter Typhoons of the Luftwaffe.
Peng was busy doing the video shoot of the Scooter – and asked me if I wanted to try the 800mm he had brought along – Daaaamn – so why not? Put it up on the Nikon D500 I had, to give me a whopping 1200mm zoom. Well the results are not worth sharing because of poor light but it was heavy as hell. Just a iPhone pic comparing the two lenses – the 80-400 on the left, and the 800mm on the right.
Air-to-Air photography is always a serious – very serious business – but who said that we cannot have fun as long as we are safely doing it Seen here is Peng in the Skyvan cargo bay manning the video gear for the DAD shoot, with Bogdan giving him some extra antennae and Geert unaware of what is going on. Two Eurofighter Typhoons taxied towards the active. The one nicely painted A-4N was started and as we saw the pilot and the ground crew go through the motions it looked all was not well – As it happens with these old jets something was broke and the pilot and the crew quickly switched to the standby A-4 that was prepped earnestly. The morning QRA launch of the Typhoons was away from us but this time the Luftwaffe pilots had a surprise in store for us. As we saw the first Eufi take off, it stayed low and turned over the area all of us photographers were standing – yielding some great shots and some vapor off of the Eufi. The second pilot did the same as he banked over us. Uwe Weber of DAD was with us and he mentioned that the Skyhawk wont be able to do what the Eufis did and he would climb away docilely. Well, once a fighter pilot, always a fighter pilot – as they say – the DAD pilot not to be outdone – took off – and to our surprise did the same thing as the Eufis did – much to our amazement. I still remember Uwe brushing it off as ‘Yeah yeah he is a pilot so ….’ The result is obviously seen below. From the left to right, are the two Eufis, and to the right is the Skyhawk.
The morning saw one Skyhawk go broke and it was not going to be fixed in time. So we were thinking of getting two Eufis and one Skyhawk. There was one sortie during the day of two Skyhawks that was going to be a customer flight so we had our chances of watching the Skyhawk crews start the aircraft and then taxiing them to the active and taking off. We saw the weather progress during the day from worse, to bad, to good, and then saw another cloud bank moving in. We were supposed to get two Eufis and two Skyhawks for our shoot. The time came near and I checked and re-checked all my camera settings, applied tape over the controls so as not to mess with them in the heat of the moment upstairs, and then applied tape where the lens mates with the camera to avoid any accidental release. As in aviation ops, Flight Safety overrides everything else. Soon we received our orders to get strapped in, to the Skyvan for our photo mission. Excitement rose as we taxied to the active, and took off. As we took off, some of us saw the second Eufi taxi back to its hangar – as happens in aviation we would get one Eufi and one Skyhawk – I was happy to get one Skyhawk fly Small expectations lead to double the fun and longer the hangover Once you get airborne, its all eyes and neck on a swivel as everyone tries to scan their view to spot the incoming fighters. And then you see someone’s hands make the motion of ‘there they are’ and you forget about everything and just focus on the shoot. With some expert flight directing by Steven Comber from the ramp, and Rich Cooper from behind, we landed a huge haul of pictures.
I guess we were up in the air for half-an-hour and it was time to head home back to Wittmund as the two fighters broke away from us and made their way back. We landed at Wittmund – Some were heading home and some of us were to head back to Texel on the Skyvan, and some like Stefan, and Peng drove to Texel. I bade goodbye to Rich, Steven, Jakub, Bogdan, Ron, Mark, Uwe, Garrick and others and went back again on the Skyvan that was ready to head to Texel. Again sleeping on the flight of around an hour and fifteen minutes saw us landing back at Texel on the Monday evening. Day-1 of the photo mission was over. Michael drove me to back to my hotel and we all crashed, with plan of gathering back at Texel airport the next day at 0900. ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’ so when in Texel, ‘Have a Texelsebier’ – which was refreshingly good after a end of a long day
The next day Michael picked me up from the hotel and off we went to languish at the airport. Tuesday was a slow day. I met Björn in the morning – that was a nice surprise running into him after 2012. We met a few other new faces – Avgar and Nir were from Israel who had made the trip. There was a guy from Brazil too – sorry cannot remember his name since he was a very quiet guy And then there were the father-and-son Kevin and Stefan Wright – I had met them first in 2014 on a similar air-to-air hop. There was some talk about catching some Lakenheath-based Strike Eagles that had booked the nearby Vliehors range for target practice. Unfortunately that didnt happen, and when they did arrive all we could do was just watch the Mud Hens diving and pulling up over the targets on the range. We watched the cows graze in the nearby meadow – Alastair had an interesting theory – if cows sat down while grazing that means its going to rain – so Stefan, Alastair and I counted the # of cows sitting compared to standing and calculating the chances that it might rain Some folks caught up on their much-needed sleep in the cafeteria at the airport.
On Wednesday we decided to go on a short hop and catch an assortment of helicopters flying in formation en route to Leeuwarden AB for the air show. The Wildcat formation consisted of 1 Apache, 1 Cougar and two Chinooks of the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF). Off we went flying in the Skyvan over the formation – putting the formation behind us, and then parking off to the side, abeam of the formation to get some side profile shots of the choppers as they flew on. After that it was back on the ground at Texel to catch up on some breakfast.
Towards the afternoon, we had another hop – this time the targets would be not one, not two, but three Eurofighter Typhoons from TaktLwG 31 ‘Boelcke’ based out of Nörvenich; followed by a flight of two Austrian Air Force Pilatus PC-7 trainers from Zeltweg. The weather was looking a bit iffy with a large low cloud ceiling sitting right over us. There is always a way out if there is a will – so we went up above the cloud layer – so we won’t get the great backdrop of the Wadden Zee and the beaches but that meant making the best of what I got So off we went on another hop. It is a great sense of excitement and a bit of a tension – on one hand the mind is excited, on the other hand, you just hope you get some good shots from the hop and nothing else goes bad. As Tony and Bob, started the engines, you are engulfed by the ‘sweet’ smell of kerosene – the jet fuel inside the cabin. Slowly you taxi on the grass taxiway and onto the grassy runway. The pilots hit the breaks, rev the engines up – that makes the Skyvan buckle and heave under the thrust generated by the engines. The rear end of the Skyvan that was drooping when taxiing, suddenly kicks upwards, and as the brakes are released, you feel the push as the aircraft hurtles forward on and after a brief roll, you are up in the air. Its the same drill as before, as we reach our station and scan out for the Eufis. And there they were – three dots pointed towards us and coming in fast. As they neared, the pilots of the Eufis started to slow down in order to formate with the Skyvan. And then you lose the sense of time, and suddenly your mind, body and the camera is one – muscle memory comes in to play to adjust the controls on the camera – changing between two bodies for wide and close-up shots. The Eufis gave us great angles and formations – right echelon, left echelon, behind the Skyvan to the left, to the right, center; and then abeam the Skyvan.
And as soon as the adventure had started, it was time for the Eufis to peel off and land at Leeuwarden AB. Tony and Bob passed the vectors for Leeuwarden AB to the Eufis and off they went on their way to land. It was surfing the clouds for sometime, when the flight of the two Austrian Air Force PC-7s showed up – and the two birds that showed up were wearing the special paint scheme – celebrating 22 years with the Green Snake scheme on one, and celebrating 30 years with a high-vis orange and blue paint scheme on the other. It was different this time – I needed to up my game since now I was shooting props – so that means going lower on the shutter speed to blur the prop. Tony had drilled holes in the side windows from where we could stick our lenses out or at least bring them near to the hole – That arrangement proved great to get the shots of aircraft abeam since we were shooting through clear air so wouldn’t have to shoot through layers of plastic glass that are there normally for the windows.
Same order as before and after a few minutes, they were off, and we flew inbound for landing at Texel airport. That was pretty much the end of the day’s hop and we all relaxed in the cafe at the airport. Another day over, and we all met together for dinner at a nearby hotel.
Thursday would bring the major bulk of traffic and we were looking at two long flights on that day. It turned out to be a nice day with puffy clouds hanging low but plenty of sunshine. It would be my time to sit on the ramp this time – and we would be up for a couple of hours for the hop. We took off and then established contact with ‘Cornfield Tower’ – that was the name of the Control Tower on the Vliehors range. We got into position and were ready to receive our first customer First up was a lone Czech Air Force Gripen. I got some good shots of it as seen below.
Then we received word that the Spanish Typhoons (seen above) were inbound and we would exactly get 5 minutes with them. As they showed up behind the Skyvan, time ‘literally’ flew by and before we could realize, they were gone After that two small Italian Blackshape BS-100 Prime flown by Patrick Tuit – who flies the Dutch restored Hunter as well – and another pilot from Air Combat Europe – a unique company that gives a brief experience of how air combat feels like, with complete debrief at the end of it. Michael was directing the flight and after some initial maneuvers he changed the lead aircraft with Patrick in the lead, and called ‘as close as comfortable’ to which Patrick displayed his exemplary flying skill in coming really close and tight to us – some guys in the back felt it too close for comfort – but of course it was just the illusion Check their website out for more details.
After they peeled off, it was the turn of the Polish Air Force Viper – this Viper was a two-seater variant of the Block 52 with the dorsal spine and CFTs (Conformal Fuel Tanks) flown by Lenny and Crypto. I got some great shots of this Viper as Michael expertly directed the flight – since the weather was awesome, we got some great backdrops like shimmering water, hues of green and blue, with the yellow of the beaches of Vlieland and Texel, as seen below. The closeup photo of Lenny and Crypto (below center) is a good sharp one I got – you can read almost all the stenciling on the fuselage
We got the Belgian Demo Viper flown by Gizmo up next. With the smoke winders on the wingtips, there was ample opportunity to try some wide angle shots and so I went for it. We planned for a flare drop over the Cornfield Tower – and as the Viper followed the Skyvan from the water over the beach inbound for the Tower – I waited for the right moment and then hit the button and the result is for all to see!!
We had the RNLAF Apache demo team next. This was going to be a tough one – trying to get the rotor blur in a bucking Skyvan is tough – but still somehow I managed them somehow. The middle shot below was shot at 1/15s yielding the perfect rotor disc seen above the Apache. I still don’t believe I got that shot handheld without any gyro assist.
Then it was back on the ground for a brief respite. The last flight we would go up and the targets were one Belgian Air Force NH90, two Italian Air Force Aermacchi M346 Advanced Jet Trainers, and two Armée De L’Air Alfa Jets. Below are the shots of the Belgian Air Force NH90 – same with as the Apache shot, the third one was shot at 1/25s
When the two M346s (above) pulled up to the Skyvan, I started going up, close and frontal on them and looking at the sloping shape I realized that it was kind of a design that incorporated the frontal look of the Sukhoi Su-30 aircraft. The two M346 and then the Alfa jets were nicely flown by the pilots. Especially with the Alfa jets (seen below) we got some mellow light towards the end of the day rather than shoot in late afternoon.
And as soon as we were done with the Alfa jets, I realized that, that was the last of it – my fix of fast flying jets for this year – was done. I have had my ‘new high’ and already looking for the next one As soon as we landed, folks began packing up and going home. For the guys in Europe it was just a drive away. Some were attending the Leeuwarden AB Air Show and extending their stay. I was thinking of attending the show, but that would mean extending my stay until the end of Sunday – and that meant getting back home Tuesday – I was already hating living out of a suitcase and being a gypsy – I was looking forward to get home and sleep in my own bed. Michael dropped me back to Amsterdam where I stayed one night. I had a flight from Amsterdam next day to Frankfurt and a direct one onto SFO.
The interior of the Skyvan as seen above left, before we took off to fly to Wittmund – from L to R are, myself, Mark Slater, Bob, Alastair and Peter. Above center is the Skyvan being prepped for the morning video flight with ropes and harnesses out to secure everything aboard the Skyvan. Michael acting as a speed bump to get a low angle of the A-4N Skyhawk (above right).
Many smiling faces after the Wittmund shoot. From L to R are, Geert, Michael with a big smile and thumbs up, one German dude whose name I cannot remember, Ron, Mark Slater behind them, Alastair, Jakub, Steven Comber in front, Rich Cooper, Mark Sutherland, myself, Tony, Bogdan, Bob, Peter and Stefan. Another shot by Bogdan of the Skyvan being prepped (above center), and of me, talking something with Stefan and Garrick (above right).
Tony and Bob – our dynamic duo pilots of the Skyvan – eating lunch at the Texel cafeteria. Bob, Michael, Eric, Geert and Peter discussing photo ops at the Skyvan. Eric (far right) presents the Skyvan pushing crew All of us pushing the Skyvan onto the parking area, including Nir, while Stefan (by the strut) and Peng (at the back) just pretend to push the Skyvan
The view from inside the Skyvan – above left the Air Combat Europe team formates on the Skyvan with their Italian-made Blackshape Prime aircraft; in the center above is the green-snake PC-7 of the Austrian Air Force Flying School; and above right are the three Eurofighter Typhoons from TaktLwG 31 ‘Boelcke’ out of Nörvenich, Germany.
Shot taken by Avgar at left – somewhere over the Wadden Zee – it is not what you think – these days need to clarify that – I am masked up since the air sometimes gets cold and chilly and freezes your fingers – its always better to be comfortable in a long hop air-to-air than be miserable and miss shots To my left is Stefan Wright, above me is Stefan and to his left, is Mark Salter. Above center is a shot I took of Mr. Kool aka Geert – after a serious briefing – he asked a rather plain question ‘Everyone kool??” and so the name stuck – he is Mr. Kool from now on Geert’s shot featuring Peter Van Loey busy ‘working’ on the computer, and to his left, at least Michael is being honest about it
Eric modeling for Avgar while directing the last photo flight of the event (above left). Tony de Bruyn’s Skyvan G-PIGY was star of Texel airport that week since the biggest aircraft they have seen is the Caravan that takes the skydivers from the local jumping school. The crowd was asking him a lot of questions on the aircraft. To the right above, Peng Chen manning the video gear and pretending that it is heavy enough, when its clearly not – I mean how heavy does a video camera of the iPhone get?
It had been a great experience and an opportunity to meet up with old friends, make new ones and just hang out, have few laughs and drinks. I had flown on a non-commercial aircraft (read commercial civil aviation) from one country to another for the first time – landed at a regular Air Force base instead of an airport for the first time. And then flown out of the Air Force base and landed back on a grass strip near a beach. A big dream of mine was accomplished in the process – from having one single A-4 Skyhawk shot on a static display, I went to capture some amazing moments capturing the ‘Kiddie Car’ on the ground, taxing out, taking off and then got a fantastic opportunity to snap her in the air – in her natural element. The last time I had gone shooting air-to-air with the Aviation Photocrew was 2014 in Kleine-Brogel and that was a blast and what I call a ‘Viper Fest’. We had Vipers from four or five different countries at the time – this time it was more balanced between Eurofighter Typhoons and Vipers – and getting some unusual aircraft such as the different chopper formation, Aermacchi M346 Trainers, and Alfa Jets. Plus this time we got different backdrops of just white rolling clouds, or the green/blue water off of the beaches around Texel and Vlieland – something different than the grassy meadow-kind of land which is inland.
Obviously pulling off something like this, requires a lot of legwork, and coordination with the respective authorities and without those efforts and perseverance, nothing takes off. Hats off to Rich Cooper and Steven Comber from ‘The Centre of Aviation Photography‘; and Eric, Michael, Peter, Geert, from the ‘Aviation PhotoCrew‘ and Bob and Tony – pilots of our beloved Shorts Skyvan G-PIGY.
Until the next time, have fun and be safe.