Blue Angels come to Pease

Wheeeoooooo! Boom!

Jim Cerny, story and images

Formation of four planes overhead. Click for larger.
(Jim Cerny photo 1/320, f/8.0 ISO 200)

This is my illustrated report on the Blue Angels portion of the air show held at Pease International Tradeport (former Air Force base) on the weekend of August, 28-29, 2010.

Thoughts on the event

The official Blue Angels Web site will answer most of the questions you may have about their history, the aircraft, the personnel, action photos, and more (look to the bottom right of that page to turn off the annoying sound). For example, the support team numbers about 110 with a Lockheed-Martin Hercules used for transportation under the nickname "Fat Albert Airlines."  For example, the biographies of the pilots show their extraordinary qualifications Commander Greg McWherter has over 4,200 flight hours and 950 carrier landings. For example, the smoke is created by pumping bio-degradable paraffin-based oil into the exhaust nozzle. About the only information I could not find there, or anywhere else, is the annual budget of the Blue Angels. Given the super-massive size of our total military expenditures, it is doubtless a miniscule fraction.

Formation of four planes approaching with landing gear down. Click for larger. (Jim Cerny photo 1/1000, f/8.0 ISO 200)

Formation of six planes passing. Note that plane 4 is a two-seater (F/A-18B instead of F/A-18A). Click for larger.
(Jim Cerny photo 1/800, f/8.0 ISO 200)

Formation of six planes passing with smoke on. Click for larger.
(Jim Cerny photo 1/800, f/7.1 ISO 200)

Reactions to an air show vary widely. Many enjoyed the atmosphere and action, undeterred by the traffic and the cost to see the ground-based activites, while many others found a good viewing spot near Pease for the aerial parts of the show, perhaps without the need to even leave their backyards. Others are more put off by the whole thing, such as this skeptical and cranky reaction by Dennis Robinson. And the officials who sponsor and manage the show are now examining what went right and wrong in handling 70,000 visitors.

Formation of six planes at the top of their loop, with smoke on.
(Jim Cerny photo 1/1000, f/8.0 ISO 200)

Formation of four planes looping over after the climb, with smoke on.
(Jim Cerny photo 1/1250, f/7.1 ISO 200)

Formation of six planes splitting at the end of a dive.
(Jim Cerny photo 1/1000, f/8.0 ISO 200)

Thoughts on aviation photography

This was my first try at photographing an action aviation event like the Blue Angels. Photography for planes performing in the air probably divides into these categories: (1) people with simple point and shoot cameras who will be lucky to capture much, (2) people with SLRs who can get results similar to mine or better, and (3) experienced photographers on the Blue Angels team who are able to fly with the team and plan shots (such as this).

We see some amazing shots on the Web, such as an inverted pair of Thunderbirds from the perspective of the planes. An interview with Justin Pyle, who photographed for the Air Force's Thunderbirds, explains what it takes.

Back to my weekend. I did not try to brave the crowds at Pease, especially given the uncertainty of where I might be able to position myself. Instead, knowing the glide path for the Pease runway from years of living in the area, I decided to station myself off Lafayette Road on the sun side of the southerly glide path (think of the runway as aligned approximately north-south), i.e., with the sun behind me. Checking afterwards, I was about two miles from the end of the runway and a mile or less (perpendicular) from the closest part of the glide path. Sky conditions were cloudless and a beautiful blue on both performance afternoons.

Commander Greg McWherter's plane. Click for larger.
(Jim Cerny photo 1/400, f/8.0 ISO 200)

To be successful you need several things: (1) a reasonable zoom capability in this case I shot with both 250mm and 300mm zoom lenses on a Sony A100 camera, though the 300mm proved too much for framing some passes at full zoom; (2) to pre-focus and lock settings to prevent the camera from trying to focus during the shot, which can be done either by manual focus or pre-focus and holding the shutter half-way just before the shot, with the latter giving somewhat better results for me; (3) to get a shutter speed at least in the 1/500 to 1/1000 second range (though I sometimes got away with less), which I did by shooting in aperture priority, opening the aperture until I had the speed I wanted. Finally, there is tracking the plane, which is a matter of anticipation of the flight path, very doable for slower passes, but on high-speed passes I didn't have a chance.

Do some Googling to find other discussions, including issues such as whether to shoot RAW or JPEG, whether to shoot selected shots or continuous sequences, and how the camera buffer size and write speed of your memory card will matter. The Fence Check site is particularly good.

Plane 4 (Major Chris Collins) coming in to land at the end of the show. (Jim Cerny photo 1/400, f/7.1 ISO 200)


September, 2010