Desert adventures

At COAP we joke about our ops being “Epic”. This is probably over-used and we probably know it but, mannn, sometimes it’s the only word.

So yeah, EW57 was, well… epic.

There’s been some really REALLY great events and trips this year and this was certainly one of them. I’ve even noticed the enjoyment factor on the increase –both from people travelling with us as well as from within our team (ie Steve and I!). It’s become traveling with friends rather than customers – and interestingly that feeling of ‘COAP family’ also extends to those that have travelled with us for the first time! We are very proud of the dynamic we create and hope that it continues.

EW57 was a perfect case in point, with a small group of four photographers (three regulars and one brand new traveller, plus another newbie joining up half-way through). Of course, it’s also rare nowadays that anyone that might be a first-time traveller is completely ‘unknown’ to me (or Steve), thanks to the delights of social media –again an area that I work very hard on to make relationships, keep up contact sand answer messages. It’s extremely rare for a message on any of the mediums of text, e-mail, WhatsApp, Messenger, Instagram, Facebook, Pages, Instagram o rTwitter DM to ever go unanswered (if ever…?).

So yeah, even if you’re a newcomer, it doesn’t necessarily feel like it.

Another familiarity of the trip was the location. We’ve been running the ‘USA: West’ series for some time now(as well as East) and not only have we run similar itineraries, but we are also already familiar with the lie of the land having independently visited the locations a lot over the years. As such, we knew where to be and when, the best locations to shoot from and the timings involved, which is I guess what you’d expect from us wherever possible.


The EW57 plan involved hitting Nellis AFB for ‘Aviation Nation’ and then taking one of the famous COAP RoadTrips south to Tucson. We’d kept the itinerary pretty short and sweet, not least because it was in-between Greece and Japan. We also needed to under take some important ground work on the Sunday, so this meant an arrival on Friday(and straight into the steak and beers at one of our favourite BBQ places),followed by one full day at the show on Saturday.

With the guys briefed and plans set, we all enjoyed the showcase of Aviation Nation. US shows are not great compared to our crazy European events, with varying degrees of access and something of a “copy and paste” set-up across the US calendar. However, they are ABSOLUTELY worth it for the handful of gems you do get of the based performers. They may not be much – sometimes just one or two – but they will afford shots that are very hard to come by nowadays. For example, Nellis will see an hour’s-worth of action that will make the whole day worth it, with air-to-air and air-to-ground role demos undertaken (with pyros) by the home team forces (A-10, F-16, F-15, F-22, F-35, HH-60s and Aggressors).

Nellis does bring its own challenges though in the form of the light… Light is king, right? Well at Nellis you’re shooting into the sun for 70% of the day at least. The sun only swings round enough for the closing item, which is usually the Thunderbirds(and they do look ace against their hometown Sunrise Mountain). The rest of the programme is staring into the desert sun, which is always low as the show is inNovember. I will show you my results and the post-processing of them in a future post. It’s not easy and in this situation you can’t rely on post-processing magic alone, you need to know your camera and play with the flying display line and lift-off points.

Interestingly, without sounding ‘odd’, I noticed a lot of shots being posted from the day on social media and to be brutally honest was really not impressed by the quality of photography.Bad lighting, unimaginative angles, poor quality processing… It actually powered me to stay up wayyy later than I should have that night to post a dozen or so shots to kind of show what could be had if you worked at it. Anyway, more another time.

Another major headache at Nellis– but US shows all over the place – is the bag size restrictions. Plastered on the website is the “no large camera bags” rule and indeed some shows also restrict the size of lens (in terms of physicality). I elected to carry no bag and put my 500mm f4.5 on my D7200 (great reach with its 1.6 crop) and the 80-400mmm on my D5 full frame (super flexibility) and carried both over my shoulders.

I figured that the static would not be worth shooting anyway (covered in people… in a bad way) and I could use my iPhone for the detail shots I wanted. I also slipped my 28-300mm into my trouser leg pocket, just in case they were using a particular taxiway (they did not). I swapped combinations a lot between the two long lenses, but did not use my 28-300mm at all – just employing the iPhone for all ground stuff, which included crews posing, tail codes, patches, crowd scenes, video and selfies with ‘Bandit 9’ Red Eagle (he basically set up Tonopah and the Rd Eagles project)!! The set-up worked great, but biggest issue was where to put all the cool patches and t-shirts that I could not resist buying haha!

Road Trip

With the show in the bag (see what I did there), we turned our heading south and drove out of Vegas, through the desert, over the Hoover Dam and onto Kingman to stay on Route 66. Another round or three of beers flowed well with good food in a friendly, art-deco restaurant. We were well on our way!

A five-hour drive the next day was broken with a pleasant lunch at a regular haunt of Mesa in Phoenix. This regional FBO has regular military traffic for weekend stopovers etc and we were rewarded by two AV-8B Harrier IIs on the ramp. We enjoyed a few carefully chosen craft beers and tasty pulled pork before it was time to hear those engines spool up for their taxi out in front of us. A perfect lunch.

Kickin Ass in Tucson

The next leg down to Tucson IAP saw us up the stakes in terms of military engagement and quality photography.We were there to work with the 1FS/AZ ANG, which trains future KLuF-16 pilots, and we would be conducting a complex series of family shoots for the unit. This saw some 20 families turn up for the shoot, which had to be choreographed on the spot with a flowing, dynamic plan. The team worked brilliantly with some working on the back of one of the jets and another on the front of the jet, with different heights and angles achieved through primary and secondary shooter management. The families themselves also really enjoy edit. Bearing in mind that ‘people shots’ and the like is not in everyone’s repertoire or comfort zone so it was quite a deep end that everyone jumped into, but with careful briefings and a clear plan and shadowing, it worked smoothly.

Once the sun began to set, we moved to part two of the plan, with sunset pilot shots and in-cockpit photography of the students and instructors. This then turned into set-ups at night under our special lighting system, which resulted in some super dramatic and moody images. It really was a job well done and we were ready for hit the comfortable hotel beds!

For the primary daylight shoot I used a 28-300mm for some of the candid shots, but the 24-120mm f4 for most of the portraits. I then swapped to the 10-24mm for the in-cockpit stuff and finally the 24-70 f2.8 once it went dark and the lights were needed. The extra stop counted whilst moving around hand-held at around 1/2 at f/2.8 and 1000ISO-plus (though these changed a lot over the evening).


Anticipation rose high the following day with the plan being to go air-to-air with a pair of Vipers at sunset over the desert. I’d sorted the primary briefing points with the unit and the awesome leadership of the 148, as well as the great guys at the aircraft hire company. We’d be flying with two jets, taking off around1530hrs, and head to a military operating area over the desert that borderedMexico. We’d RV around 1600hrs, undertake some eight different serials with thetwo jets, of which around five would be in daylight. Callsigns were SKYDIVE 12and ROGUE 1-2.

With everything briefed, we setoff as a group to configure the Skyvan cameraship and familiarise with the layout and seating plan and we had the whole afternoon to do so. In the US, you have to be in proper seats for take off under FAA rules, and then move forward to your seating position at the ramp once airborne. We undertake multiple, multiple practices and safety briefs around this with the crew and photographers, so it’s all familiar and safe in the air. It works well, especially as the group was just seven people.

Time waits for no man and having what seemed like ages to get the gear ready and prepare, the last hour disappears as usual. It was a quick boarding and take-off, with the desert scrub blurring beneath us as we headed south towards our airspace. The two jets, ROGUE 1 andROGUE 2 were already checking in on the ground and were all on time and with no snags.

The radio was alive with chatter as we were vectored into the MOA – normally a no-go zone for a civilian aircraft. With the Boss of the unit also on frequency and closing in on us, it wasn’t long before they were visual. With our necks craning through the the Skyvan windows, a pair of F-16s could be seen breaking over the top of us for their descent to form up behind us for the first serials.

Watch out for Mexico

The Boss of this unit is a pretty special dude. Arguably one of the world’s most experienced Viper pilots, he commands respect and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He also flies the F-16like it’s a part of his body, completely at one and is like no other pilot I’ve seen in a jet. The serials were flowing thick and fast with left and right positions and breaks. Not everything went to plan here, with some lighting and heading challenges as well as side preferences by the crew… Our airspace ran right along the Mexican border and it was very strict up there.

About halfway through the call came over the radio that the jets were unexpectedly thirsty and would not have enough fuel to complete the mission of they carried on at this pace. This was absolutely critical as the sunset period was key to the outcomes of the flight.As such, a decision was made to knock it off and for the jets to climb to altitude to maximise the time, save gas, and wait for the sunset and correct lighting (it was now getting rapidly overcast and pretty dull). We also hung at height, around 9,000ft AGL and I kept a watchful eye on what the clouds were doing, where they were breaking and where the sun was showing. So many times we’d change heading and find sunshine, only for the area of sun to actually be in the no-go boundary of Mexico itself!

Sunset happens quick over there, so after around 20min the heat was back on.There was a distant ridge of cloud (again, the thickest gap being ‘that’s in Mexico’), but there was a distinct possibility that if we could keep this heading, in this track, along this part of the airspace, that the sun would fall below the cloud line for just a few minutes.

At this time, with the sun still hidden but a bright ridge line forming, I called the jets down one by one for some quick 360-turns on the side. Steve and I had specifically requested this particular Skyvan because of its good windows, and indeed our team had cleaned them inside and out before take-off. The jets came down and executed some great turns, with flares too as they broke off. Some of these worked better than others due to the jets’ proximity, which was nothing short of impressive regardless!

With minutes to go before the sun came out and then disappeared for the day, it was time for the last two chapters of the story – sunset breaks with flares from the rear of the Skyvan and afterburner departures from the side. Wow. This was the embodiment of EPIC.With each jet coming as singles, they positioned behind and listened to my refinements over the radio and bang-bang-bang… released a salvo of flares that burned orange and purple in the last embers of daylight, whilst illuminating the underside of the jet in brilliant oranges and whites against the setting sun over the Sonoran Desert. Incredible.

Sunset & Flares

One of my favourite images is the vertical shot with a flare just starting to burn. I distinctly recall ROGUE 2 getting in position and starting a count-down to break ahead of this shot. ButI stopped him and asked for the formation to turn just 1 or 2 degrees to the right so that, when he broke, he’d be exactly in line with the sunset just kissing the horizon. So pleased that worked as it’s tiny details like that that become so important.

Once the sun had disappeared it was time for the final serial, the twilight afterburner pass to departure. The crews had worked out how many seconds the jets would take to get to Stage 5 and therefore hung back in a pairs echelon, ready to light. They then passed by the Skyvan and we’d do our level best to shoot the result. This was not easy – just the acceleration alone was tough, let alone reflections, composition and camera settings. I shot the whole event, from start to finish (day to twilight) in the same way I always do… Shutter Priority (I need them sharp), with an eye kept on the ISO and not so much the aperture (I don’t need to worry too much about DoFin this instance). With those in mind, I then use exposure compensation a lotttt to tell the camera which way I want it to think – my thumbs are very busy on these shoots! It helps greatly to know how your camera reacts to certain lighting too. Often one body will constantly need over compensation, another under compensation. Thank goodness for LCD review eh?

Darkness having now fallen, the jets were waved off and we took our seats for some image review time during the30min transit back. It was all very quiet and even on landing and disembark it was all sinking in still. We didn’t really know what we had shot…

Going air-to-air is a strange business. We try to ensure everyone sees the brief and knows what to expect, but sometimes that can lead to high expectations. Certainly, shooting in challenging light conditions leaves you wondering if the shots are going to be ok ‘on the big screen’. It’s also pretty normal, I’ve found, to be a little deflated after some sorties… I think it can be a case of “I saw this and I saw that, but I could not shoot it because of X, Y, Z” and it’s human nature(British nature?!) to concentrate on the things you missed or the shots that the camera didn’t quite manage or when someone’s head got in the way etc, and overlooking what you DID get. It can be quite stressful! Especially when you’re already tired from travel and have a 3hr-long flight to physically deal with.

In all honesty, these shots NEEDED to be seen on the screen back at the hotel to be believed.

That would come, but after a pretty long day and pressured shoot, we hit what is probably one of the bestChinese meals you could ever ask for. A delicious debrief! Knowledge such as this is really important to me, and I try to work hard at making sure that the restaurants we eat in are as much a part of the trip as the photography. I feel it works and is super important to the ethos of travelling with COAP.

With a later start the next day, the editing could begin and my my, what a flight. Yes, there were parts that have been done better and areas that could not be helped, but seriously – the peaks of the flight turned out to be the peaks of anything you could ever, ever do air-to-air. It was slowly sinking in and it was incredible.

The combination I used was the 80-400 on the crop body for compression and close-in fuselage stuff and 28-300on the full frame for the action. I found that the 80-400/crop combo was barely used, it just wasn’t that kind of flight and I needed the speed of drive and focussing of the full frame D5.

Desert Storm & Moonshine

We’d planned to hit it all over again for a second flight the next day with different pilots but, in a crazy twist, Tucson was being hit by a massive storm “the kind that we only see once every few years” according to the locals. Great… This would not only put paid to our second aerial flight, but also the air-to-ground flights over AMARG ‘Boneyard’, which was a shame.

Another area that we pride ourselves on is our flexibility (it helps SO much to be in a small group) and having back-up plans, as well as being able to deal with obstacles on the fly.

As such, we turned off the Avgas and headed out for some Moonshine. The 1800s-era cowboy town of Tombstone is a paradise for cultured photography with its ghost-town buildings and real life cowboy township. It was a brilliant morning of relaxation, photography and good ol’ fashion fun in the restaurants and bars, complete with period residents.

Fast-forward a few years to the Cold War and Tucson was a pinnacle of the Nuclear missile programme, with 18Titan II silos ready to hit WW3 at the turn of a key and herald the end of the world. One of these decommissioned silos is open for visits, complete with underground bunker tour and 150ft Titan missile in its silo. It was an impressive, sobering visit, which I solely captured on the iPhone – such is the quality of this beastie in indoor, poorly-lit areas that need a quick shot.

Naturally(!), thoughts then turned to the evening meal, and we were joined by the 1or a huge steak night with more local beers. Just the perfect way to wash it down.


The next day was when we’d scheduled the AMARG overflights, so the time was used wisely on some editing for our hosts as the weather closed in. We then hit a drive around the impressiveAMARG facility and associated scrapyards, ahead of entering the world-class Pima Air & Space Museum.

At the time we entered the carpark, there was a gap in the clouds that afforded around 2hrs of brilliant sunshine against a dark-clouded horizon. To say that the sight of the precious exhibits literally glowing against the orange desert floor was impressive doesn’t do it justice. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve been to this brilliant place and yet I was running around like a loon trying to get as much shot in this stunning light as possible. Epic. Once the sun succumbed to another cloud ridge, I took up residence in the great little café they have there for some more editing. The super milkshakes and bomber sandwiches were as mega as ever.

Come 1400hrs, we’d booked to go onto the Boneyard Tour – an hour-long bus ride through the AMARG facility that, if you work hard, can yield impressive results. It tends to be really slow on the less interesting stuff and really speedy and bumpy on the interesting stored machines, but we had a sparsely populated bus and were therefore able to move from side to side to shoot whatever our eyes laid upon. It’s always astounding to see this place, but rarely is it covered in cloud layers that allow shooting in all directions and for some great black & white post-processing shenanigans. The tinted windows did not pose as much of an issue as they would in full sun either, and an exposure compensation of around1-1.5 stop did the trick (though the ISO was pretty high).

No sooner had we stepped off the bus was it time for the icing on the museum cake in the form of our night shoot with the good guys from the local Arizona photography set-up led by Joe and the lovely PASM staff spearheaded by John. Night shooting at this place, being amongst the legends as the sun goes down and they start to glow, is something we absolutely love doing and are very appreciative of the chance.

You can’t do it all at this treasure trove though, so you need to choose your targets carefully. Steve had the idea of shooting the imposing US Navy PB4Y-2 inside one of the hangars as well as catching all three of the museum’s Constellation types under our lights. We quickly worked out the lighting arrangement by trial and error and applied it to two Connies, one Warning Star, the Shackleton, the B-47 as well as the mighty, mighty B-36 Peacemaker! Who’d have thought that we could night shoot aB-36?! Amazing.

My legs were aching by the end as I always use a tiny tripod, maybe no more than 8-10in high and that’s a long way down and up again nowadays haha! It’s solid enough for the 24-120 on a D5and small enough to pack, but crucially low enough to separate the fuselage from the horizon, which is a ‘must’ in my book if you’re doing silhouettes etc.It’s a pain, but I love it and it gets the results. It was a superb way to end the trip.

Final Countdown

The way up to Phoenix was a reminder of the weather looming back home as torrential rain hit the highway all the way north. It was also telling that – in what was quite a short trip that had lost three days of action (including an air-to-air and an air-to-ground) – it was still just utterly brilliant. Great teamwork, lovely people, top mates, EPIC photography.

Two days at home, and then the Relentless Pursuit continued with Japan… And that’ll be another entry! See y'all later, cowboys!