Thrills In The Sky

A U.S. Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle performs during the Gary South Shore Air Show held at Marquette Beach in Gary, Ind., Friday, July 15, 2011. The show featured a variety of solo and group aviation acts.

As I sat strapped into the rear seat of the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team’s Fokker C31 aircraft on the ramp at the Gary Chicago Airport last weekend, I tried to count back in my mind on all the times I’ve flown with the group in the past five years. It had to have been my twenty-something-th flight, but I’ve lost track. Though the number of flights may have escaped me, having a front-row seat to document some of the most skilled men and women in our armed forces, up close and personal, is a privilege I’m not lost on. Having the soldiers greet me by my first name as I entered the plane was another reminder of just how many times I’ve taken to the skies with them on their airborne adventures.

As the plane’s twin turboprop engines began to spool up, they sent the distinct, hot smell of aviation fuel exhaust back through the open door right next to my seat. I tightened up the last few inches of the zipper on my fleece jacket and pulled tight the Velcro on my loaner skydiving gloves, despite the 90 degree muggy temperatures that day on the ground. Repeat flights have taught me that, despite my added layers of warmth, I’d soon be shivering at our final altitude of 12,500 feet. With the air temperature dropping four degrees for every thousand feet you climb, seeing small snowflakes blowing into the back of the plane near clouds no longer comes as a surprise.

As we taxi’ed to the end of runway 12 for our departure to the northeast, I conversed with a few of the team members I hadn’t met in previous years, explaining my work in photography and other areas of the arts, and sharing some of the more notable projects I’ve worked on. When one of them asked me what I’d prefer to be shooting, the answer was simple, “This.”

Since I was young, but ramping up around junior high, I’ve had a strong passion for aviation. There’s something innately alluring about the freedom of being in an aircraft, high above all the constraints and structure of the world. Couple this passion with my love of photography, and I’m left with the feeling that my air show photos almost shoot themselves. I’m not “working” when I’m photographing people flying – or jumping from – airplanes. I’m in a sort of creative hyper-drive mode, looking for the best moments to share with others of something I’m most passionate about through another one of my passions.

My air show images from the summer of 1999 left a lot to be desired, and bought a lot of technical flaws. Where do I begin? Chain-link fence visible in the shot. Noise. Aliasing. Muddy color. At least my passion was there, and thankfully, the equipment would eventually catch up!

As we rounded the turn on the taxiway and held short of the runway for a moment, I got a good view of the fence at the Gary Chicago Airport. I should know it well. After all, it was that very fence I shot my first couple of air shows through here during high school. In the summer of 1999, I had no media credentials. Heck, I didn’t even have a driver’s license! My dad was my assistant / chauffeur, and stood by as I did my best to document aircraft on the runways through that horrid, chain-link fence with my Sony Digital 8 camcorder. Shooting stills wasn’t even an option at the time, since my longest lens for my 35mm Canon AE-1 film body topped out at somewhere around 150mm. Pulling still frames off video was about the best I could do, and at the time (somehow), the quality was acceptable to me.

Needless to say, I’m thankful to look back on my air show photos from 12 summers ago and see the growth not only in my technical photography skills, but to appreciate the growth in the access to the air show that I now have (both in the air and on the ground) that was only a dream way back when. Being on the other side of that chain-link fence feels mighty nice, especially when you’re rolling down the runway about to take off.

Staff Sergeant Tom Dunning (left) with the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team, keeps an eye on wind streamers thrown from the team’s Fokker C-31 aircraft over Marquette Beach along with Staff Sergeant Trevor Oppenborn prior to performing in the Gary South Shore Air Show held at Marquette Beach in Gary, Ind., Saturday, July 16, 2011. The wind streamers help the team determine their optimum jumping location.

In addition to photographing and flying with the Golden Knights during this year’s air show, I also had a blast chalking up some more aerobatic flight experience with the Aerostars Formation Aerobatic Team in their Soviet Yak-52TW aircraft. Pulling 4.5 G’s going into a loop over Lake Michigan – and keeping my camera to my eye the entire time – required a considerable amount of effort!

Truth be told, while the air show is a blast to cover, it’s also starting to require a lot of effort on my part to come up with fresh images from situations I document year after year. Flying with new groups, such as the Aerostars team, helps by virtue of the fact that they’re new to me, but new technology (such as the Go Pro Hero camera) allows me to capture fresh angles that weren’t possible as little as two years ago. This was also one of the first years that I shot the air show from down on Marquette Beach, documenting not only the aircraft overhead, but the thousands of attendees who flocked to the water’s edge for a thrilling weekend of excitement and fun.

At the end of the day, documenting the Gary South Shore Air Show is just that – fun – and is one of my favorite weekends of the year to do everything I truly love doing.

New technology allowed me to capture unique angles of The Golden Knights this year, such as this image of the team exiting the Fokker C31 aircraft, shot on a Go Pro Hero camera mounted to the helmet of Golden Knights Staff Sergeant Howard Sanborn.

Here’s my Go Pro’s view of me (left) and my view of the Go Pro with Staff Sergeant Howard Sanborn just before the team exited the aircraft 12,500 feet above Marquette Beach. Sanborn’s other cameras, a Canon 30D and a Sony video camera, are always mounted on his helmet to document the team’s jumps. In flight, Sanborn triggers the 30D with a mouth switch, seen between his teeth, and uses a sight in front of his right eye to compose the video image. The Go Pro was mounted above the Sony video camera (after a thorough surface cleaning) using one of Go Pro’s adhesive mounts, and set to record 5-megapixel still images once every three seconds.

Sergeant Dan Cook with the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team salutes while exiting the door of the team’s Fokker C-31 aircraft 12,500 feet over Marquette Beach.

Members of the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team descend in formation over Marquette Park in Gary. Until now, I haven’t been able to capture the team in formation so close while in flight. Even though it was my remote camera along for the ride, Sergeant Sanborn deserves much of the credit for these images.


Members of the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team prepare to hit their landing target on Marquette Beach in Gary during the Gary South Shore Air Show.

Sergeant Dan Cook with the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team approaches the landing target on Marquette Beach during the Gary South Shore Air Show.

Click above for a time lapse video comprised of every frame the Go Pro camera shot (249 total) on the way down with Sergeant Sanborn. You’ll notice me in the jump plane turning it on at the beginning of the movie, as well as members of the Golden Knights (all very familiar with Go Pro cameras) turning the camera off for me down on the beach.

Eight-year-old Mercedes Curtis of Gary, Ind., looks to the sky as members of the U.S. Army Golden Knights Parachute Team begin their descent during the Gary South Shore Air Show held at Marquette Beach in Gary. Documenting the show from the beach was a first for me this year, and allowed me to capture some nice images of the crowd interacting with the show overhead.

Condensation forms above the wings of a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet while executing a tight turn during the Gary South Shore Air Show held at Marquette Beach in Gary.

(From left) Paige Wood, 10, of Merrillville, Ind., works on a sand creation with her best friend Hailey Karpen, 10, of Merrillville, along with Hailey’s sister Kendall Karpen, 7, and Paige’s brother James Wood, 4, on Marquette Beach in Gary, Ind., as the Aerostars Formation Aerobatic Tean performs in the background during the Gary South Shore Air Show.

Aerobatic solo pilot Matt Chapman flies his CAP 580 aircraft during the Gary South Shore Air Show.

The Lima Lima Flight Team, whom I’ve also had the pleasure of flying with several times, displays their precision formation flying. Only since I’ve started flying a computer flight simulator (which features formation flying) do I appreciate how difficult this is.

Gary South Shore Air Show announcer Herb Hunter of Daytona Beach, Florida, narrates the Aerostars Formation Aerobatic Team during the show held at Marquette Beach. When not announcing air shows, Hunter flies Boeing 747′s for United Airlines.

Aerobatic pilot Jack Knutson with the Firebirds group flies an Extra 300S during the Gary South Shore Air Show held at Marquette Beach.

Spectators and boats line the shore of Lake Michigan at West Beach in Gary, Ind., during the Gary South Shore Air Show.

Aerostars Formation Aerobatic Team pilot Paul Hornick of Poplar Grove, Ill., flies a Soviet Yak-52TW aircraft in formation over Lake Michigan near Gary, Ind., during a demonstration flight for the Gary South Shore Air Show.

I found it interesting, but not surprising, that some of the gauges inside the Soviet-designed Yak-52TW were labeled in Cyrillic lettering. Exposed control cables for the aircraft’s manually controlled flight surfaces are also visible near the left side of the frame.

Aerostars Formation Aerobatic Team pilot Dave Monroe of Crystal Lake, Ill., pulls a Soviet Yak-52TW aircraft through a loop over Lake Michigan near Gary, Ind., during a demonstration flight for the Gary South Shore Air Show. Away from the team, Monroe flies Boeing 767′s for American Airlines. This image was also captured using a Go Pro Hero in still photo mode, mounted to the aircraft’s canopy via a suction cup.

Aerostars Formation Aerobatic Team pilot Paul Hornick of Poplar Grove, Ill., pulls a Soviet Yak-52TW through a loop over Lake Michigan near Gary, Ind., during a demonstration flight for the Gary South Shore Air Show.


A U.S. Navy F/A-18 Hornet, flanked by the setting sun, exits the air show box after performing during the Gary South Shore Air Show.

Posted in Aviation, Photography, Photojournalism by Guy Rhodes on July 21st, 2011.

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