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Aviation Photography

Heroic Group Photo of Life Flight Team for Memorial Hermann Foundation

The finished piece, designed by Pennebaker and retouched by Avenue Sixty7 in the UK.

Earlier this year, we worked on a very cool project for the Memorial Hermann Foundation.  Memorial Hermann is one of the largest healthcare providers in the area, and they pioneered the use of helicopters in emergency medicine.  “Life Flight” as it became known, was the brainchild of the Dr. “Red” Duke of the Memorial Hermann/UT Health Science Center.  I had the honor of photographing him with a Life Flight helicopter a few years before he passed away for an editorial assignment.

Sometimes editorial assignment lead to commercial gigs, and it when it came time for a fundraiser for the Memorial Hermann Foundation, I was lucky enough to get the call to recreate the feel of that photo, albeit with a much larger group of people.

We worked with a stellar team of creatives at Pennebaker, including Halina Dodd and Stacey Hodge. Many ideas were tossed around during the planning stages, among them: taking a group shot on the helipad of the entire Life Flight team (over 100 people!), helicopters parked, a helicopter hovering in air over their shoulder, among other ideas.  In the end, we opted for a representative sample of members of the Life Flight team:  a nurse, a pilot, an ER trauma doc, etc….to show all the different folks that make the program work.  The goal was to make a “Heroic portrait” ,movie poster-style featuring a selection of the Life Flight team.

If you’ve ever been around helicopter operations, you know that taking a group shot of one person, let alone 13 people, can present quite a challenge on a helipad with the rotor wash of helicopter blades.  Add to that, uncertain winter weather, uncertain helicopter schedules (they can be called away on a real mission at any moment), and a windy helipad located many floors up on top of a high-rise hospital and you’ve got a very high possibility of failure.

Despite my desire to “nail it in camera” in one shot and avoid composites, it was obvious that this was not a plausible or safe scenario in which to photograph a large group of people with a ton of lighting equipment.

The solution:  A 6am group shot inside the hospital combined with plates of the helipad, helicopter, and sky.  John Lewis, Travis Schiebel, and Michael Klein agreed to help us on the shoot day with a ridiculously early 4:30am call time.  I bribed them with promises of a giant diner breakfast after the shoot.

Reference group shot with a 24mm wide angle for the retoucher.

Individual shots from the same height/perspective with a longer focal length (105mm).

We knew one of the final uses of the photo was going to be a poster, so we wanted a super high resolution image.  We used the 50 MP Canon EOS 5DS for the job.  After nailing the arrangement in one frame (mostly as a reference frame for the retoucher), we kept the camera in the exact same position, then turned the camera vertically, zoomed in, and photographed the group in smaller pieces of 3-4 people at a time.  The lighting setup  (We used Profoto B-4 packs and heads, and a Plume Wafer Hexoval 180 as the main light source), and 20×20 white background were both rolled on large high-roller stands left to right in front of each smaller group of 3-4 subjects to maintain the same lighting look on everyone.  When pieced together with the background elements, this yielded a huge final file size.

The helicopter/helipad plate.

The clouds/sky plate, from an earlier shoot in New Mexico.

We also used a rental special effects wind machine to blow the subject’s hair and lab coats to make it look as if they were really on top of the rooftop helipad.  In reality, the rotor wash would have caused hair to go everywhere and for everyone to freak out rather than holding a steady hero pose.

I went back on a separate day to photograph a helicopter hovering on the helipad at dawn, and the concrete helipad.  We used an existing photo I had of a stormy gray sky as the background plate.  All of these elements were brilliantly fused together into a believable final composite image by Craig Roberts and his team at Avenue Sixty7 in the UK.  I love the foreground/background scale of the different subjects. We really wanted that look, with some of the subjects much closer to camera and Craig made it look great.

At the end of the project, our foundation client was pleased, the poster was a big hit, and we came away with an exceptional image that was the result of an entire team of people working together beautifully! (Larger version of the poster tearsheet here on my website).

Here's the final shot without the graphics.

 

 

 

The Doolittle Raiders Final Toast

2013_Doolittle_SEALE_01

Three of the remaining four Doolittle Raiders at the Final Toast in Nov. 2013 at the US Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. Left to right: Sgt. David Thatcher, Col. Ed Saylor, and Col. Richard Cole.

After photographing the Doolitle Raiders reunions on several occasions, I was very honored when I was asked to photograph the Final Toast ceremony for the Raiders at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, on Nov. 8-9, 2013.  I've written about the Doolittle Raiders and their historic contributions in WW II on the blog before here and here, so I won't go through the entire history again here.

One of the interesting things about The Raiders is that they gathered together every year since the end of WW II, gradually dwindling in numbers each year.  They eventually made a pact, sealed with a bottle of unopened Cognac from the year of Doolittle's birth (1896), that they would continue to toast their fallen comrades each year until they were down to the last two Raiders, and at that time, the last two survivors would open the bottle and do a final toast.  Each crew member had a silver goblet housed in a special traveling case with their name engraved right side up, and upside down.  Deceased crew members from the previous year had their goblets turned upside down in a moving but very private ceremony that only the other Raiders attended each year.

After their 71st reunion in 2013, there were four of the original group left:  Col. Richard Cole, Sgt. David Thatcher, Col. Ed Saylor, and Lt. Col. Robert Hite, who has not been well enough to attend the last several reunions.  With the survivors all in their mid to late 90's, the possibility existed that perhaps they might not be well enough to travel, or, God forbid, perhaps they all might pass in the same year, thus losing any chance for the culmination of the Raider tradition.  The remaining survivors made the decision to go ahead and complete the final toast in Nov. 2013 on Veteran's Day weekend at the U.S. Air Force Museum, in a semi public  event attended by the top brass of the Air Force, and many of the Raider's families and friends.  It was a bittersweet occasion, but one I wouldn't have missed for the world.  I was lucky to be accompanied on the trip by my good friend and overqualified photo assistant John Simmons.

I was lucky to make a couple of portraits of the remaining three Raiders, and of the toast ceremony.  On this Veteran's Day a year later, I raise my glass to these brave men, and to their great contribution that changed the course of World War II.

The Final Toast at the US Air Force Museum.

The Final Toast at the US Air Force Museum.

 

 

Portrait shoot with former POW Col. Bud Day

The March cover of Air & Space, with Col Bud Day on the cover.

I've had a keen interest in military aviation since childhood…when other kids were reading Curious George and other children's books, I was reading military biographies and books about World War II and Vietnam.  I remember one summer day, when I was in about 3rd or 4th grade, while returning books to our local public library, one of the elderly librarians tried to usher me from the “grown up books” to the “kid's section” on the other side of the building.  One of the other librarians quickly corrected her, “He's ok, Mabel….he just returned a book titled Guerilla Warfare and Terrorism. ” After that, Mabel left me alone.  (I actually can't remember what her name was…… Mabel just seems like the perfect name for an old lady librarian).

I thought being a fighter pilot would be cool, I even requested info on the Air Force Academy at one point during junior high or early high school.  20/400 vision, however, and projectile vomiting during a simple Cessna 172 plane ride with a friend conspired to keep me out of the ejection seat.

After photographing the Doolittle Raiders a few years ago, one of my friends from the assignment, Matt Jolley, of Warbird Radio recommended me to some of the nice folks at Wings over Houston, the annual airshow here in the Houston area. I had mentioned to him an idea about a personal project, trying to photograph environmental portraits of notable pilots.  The people with the autograph tent at WoH were nice enough to let me set up in their area and shoot simple, white background portraits of the pilots who were there signing autographs.  I was able to photograph Col. Bud Anderson (a triple ace in the P-51 during WWII), Col. Dick Cole (Doolitle's co-pilot on the WWII Doolittle Raid on Tokyo), Gen. Boots Blesse (a famous Sabre jet ace from the Korean war) and several others during my weekend there.  I was also lucky enough to meet and photograph former POW and Medal of Honor recipient Col. Bud Day.

The photos were interesting facial studies, but I lamented the limitations of the white background.  I would have loved to have captured each of them with their respective airplanes, but during mid-day sun at a packed airshow, it was just not in the cards.

The first shot we took, before sunrise on the field at Ellington.

Several months later, John Simmons, one of my buddies from the WoH event sent me an incredible video of Bud Day, eagerly climbing into the cockpit of an F-100 Super Sabre just like the one he had flown in Vietnam and going up for a flight!  The video was from the Collings Foundation, a non-profit foundation that owns and maintains not just World War II era prop planes, but also several Vietnam era jets, at….get this…..Ellington Field in Houston, Texas.  The F-100, painted just like Bud's Misty 1 Vietnam bird is one of two in the world in flying condition.

John went to work, getting us permission from Rick Harris of the Collings Foundation to use the airplane.  We made arrangements to photograph Bud, who lives in Florida, during a visit to see his son George, a former F-16 pilot, who now works as a SWA captain in Houston.

A few months later, there we were before sunrise on a warm summer morning in Houston, pulling the F-100 out of the hangar and towing it to the proper spot on the taxiway.  We had scouted a few days before, using the iphone app LightTrac to position the plane.

Bud showed up in his flight suit, with his boots and Nomex gloves on – he was definitely ready to fly the plane if necessary!  His son George also wore his flight suit.  Part of my plan was to do a nice group shot of the father and son fighter pilots together.

We started shooting before dawn – long exposures on a tripod with battery powered strobes.  Nathan Lindstrom assisted on the shoot and did a great job.  We used a Profoto 7B with a  Plume Wafer Hexoval 180 on the side, and a Wafer 100 on another 7B boomed in front of the face as a fill.

The second shot, with a Wafer Hexoval 180 and a Wafer 100 as the sun rises in the background.

We next moved onto the backlit side of the plane, and photographed the Col.'s Day together and also the elder Col. Day alone, again using the same lighting setup.  Fortunately, the sun came out for a few minutes before going back under a layer of clouds. The sunrise was beautiful!

Col. Day with Col. Day…two generations of fighter pilots.

We next moved to a shot with a long lens looking at the signature angle of the F-100 – straight up the open nose air intake.  We carefully framed Col. Day in the foreground and backlit him from each side with a Profoto 7B and a Wafer 100 on each side.  We then boomed in a  Chimera small strip bank powered by an Acute 600.   Although 87 years old, and with his body ravaged by years of torture and POW abuse, in this pose, with this light, in front of the F-100, Bud Day looked like he could still kick some serious ass.

The shot that made the cover, Col. Day still formidable at 87.

We finished with a 3/4 side lit portrait, with his glasses off, which showed off the MISTY patch on his flight suit.

The 3/4 lit portrait with “The Hun” front view in the background.

We did some group shots with the Collings Foundation folks who had so generously donated their time and effort to showcase the plane, and some USAF U-2 pilots, who had gathered during the shoot.  All USAF pilots go through survival training at the AF Survival School at Fairchild AFB, named in Col. Day's honor.  It was like watching a bunch of NBA rookies meeting Michael Jordan for the first time.

After packing up, the whole crew adjourned to a nearby Ihop for a truly memorable breakfast.  I could literally sit and listen to George and his dad tell flying stories for hours.  It was a fantastic experience.

After the shoot, I sent a few of the photos to my editor at Air & Space magazine, just on the off chance that they might be working on a story related to Col. Day, MISTY, or the F-100.  Several months later, as it turns out, there was a story on the MISTY program in the works.  They eventually decided to use one of the photographs of Col. Day on the cover of the issue, with another one running inside.

I didn't want to jinx anything, so I didn't mention it to Bud or George until the cover was posted online.  I've worked for many magazines, and covers often get pulled or changed at the 11th hour.

It was really an honor and a highlight to finally be able to make the call to Col. Day and let him know that not only was there a story on MISTY in the current issue of Air & Space, but that he had made the cover!  This was truly one of the coolest things I've been able to work on, and I'm grateful to A&S, the Day family, Rick Harris and John Simmons for making this happen.

Col. Day and Col. Day reviewing some of the photos with the me.

A little background on Col. George “Bud” Day:  He joined the Marines and fought in World War II just after high school.  He came back to the US and earned a law degree, then continued in the Air Force flying fighter jets in Korea and eventually Vietnam.   He miraculously survived a no-chute ejection the 1950's.   At an age and mission count when other pilots were retiring, he volunteered for another tour and came up with the MISTY Fast Forward Air Control (Fast FAC) program, of which he was the commander.  MISTY pilots flew low and fast over North Vietnam, marking targets including SAM missile sites for other aircraft to attack.  It was so dangerous that it was an all volunteer squadron.

During one of these MISTY missions in 1967, Col. Day was shot down and captured.  Badly hurt and barefoot, he escaped after a few days and evaded the enemy for 12-15 days, subsisting on frogs and berries, traversing miles of enemy territory and crossing the river into South Vietnam.  He was within a mile or two of an American base when he was shot twice and recaptured.  He spent the next 5 years 7 months in the “Hanoi Hilton” being tortured along with other notable POW pilots like Sen. John McCain and Admiral James Stockdale.  For his valor, he was awarded the Air Force Cross and the Congressional Medal of HonorToday he is the most decorated living service member.  After returning from Vietnam, he received 13 medical waivers and continued flying.  He eventually amassed over 8000 hours – nearly 5000 of those in fighter aircraft.    As if that weren't enough, he retired and went to work as an attorney, eventually suing the US Government on behalf of veterans who were not getting promised medical benefits and won.  As a result, millions of veterans (my late mother-in-law among them), have benefitted from the program, called Tri-Care for Life.

 

Here's a cool behind the scenes video my friend John Simmons put together of the shoot:

A Weekend with the Doolittle Raiders

 

Lt. Col. Richard E. “Dick” Cole with the Panchito B-25

I'm a real military aviation history buff, so it was an incredible honor when I was recently assigned to take portraits of the Doolittle Raiders for Smithsonian Air and Space Magazine.  It was especially gratifying because I was able to pitch the idea to the magazine and then get the green light to take on the assignment.

The Doolittle Raid was America's first major strike back at the Japanese after Pearl Harbor.  On April 18, 1942, Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle led an all volunteer group 80 men launched 16 B-25 bombers from the USS Hornet and struck Japan.  Because a Japanese fishing boat detected the carrier group early, the crews launched early, which weakened their already compromised range, and prevented them from landing safely on Chinese airfields as planned.  The crews bailed out or ditched their planes near the coast of China after running out of fuel.  Three men were killed in the raid, and eight more would die in Japanese POW camps.  Miraculously, most of the crews were eventually rescued and safely transferred back to the US by the Chinese.

The crew of aircraft 1. Doolittle is second from left; Cole is second from right. Check out the “Thunderbird” logo on his jacket and compare it to the one in the portrait above. (USAF Photo)

It was an incredible feat for a number of reasons – chief among them, the fact that they used Army bombers, which were not designed to take off or land on an aircraft carrier.  The men on the mission were not told the details of their target until the Hornet was steaming toward Japan.  Even though the common thought was that it would probably be a suicide mission, no one backed down and all volunteered to continue.  Although the raid didn't inflict series damage on the Japanese, it was a huge morale booster for the Americans.  The raid had an additional benefit:  the Japanese islands, once thought to be safely out of range of American attack, were shown to be vulnerable, thus Japan would need to hold back key defense forces to protect their homeland for the rest of the war.

There are five living crewman remaining from the raid:

-Colonel Richard E. Cole, copilot of aircraft #1

-Major Thomas C. Griffin, navigator of aircraft #9

-Lieutenant Colonel Robert L. Hite, copilot of aircraft #16

-Major Edward Joseph Saylor, engineer of aircraft #15

-Staff Sergeant David J. Thatcher, gunner of aircraft #7  (Thatcher is featured prominently in Ted Lawson's book, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, which became a movie starring Spencer Tracy in 1944).

I'm always excited to photograph notable pilots, and I knew that Dick Cole, Jimmy Doolittle's co-pilot during the raid, lived in Comfort, Texas, near San Antonio.  I thought that perhaps with the 70th anniversary of the raid coming up next year, that it might be a great opportunity to photograph him with a B-25.  I thought that I could probably arrange to photograph him in Texas with help from the CAF (Commemorative Air Force).  After making some phone calls, I found out to my surprise that three of the remaining five raiders would get together at the Florida International Airshow in Punta Gorda, Florida for an airshow, and that it might be a great opportunity to photograph them together for the magazine.

Col. Cole's steady 95 year old hands on the wheel of the B-25

Upon arrival, I found out that Dick Cole was going to meet up with Larry Kelley, the owner of the “Panchito” B-25, and fly in his airplane from Sarasota to Punta Gorda.  K.T. and Syd Jones, along with Matt Jolley from Warbird Radio were crewing the plane with Larry, and were kind enough to make arrangements for me to make the flight with Col. Cole.  Space was tight inside the plane, but through their generosity, I was able to take one of their seats in the main crew compartment and photograph Col. Cole's experienced hands taking the yoke from the right seat of the B-25.  At 95, he was as smooth as ever, and it was an incredible experience to know that we were being flown around by Doolittle's co-pilot!

Larry Kelley (left), and Col. Cole (right) flying high over the Florida coast in Panchito

With fabulous support from my editor at A&S, and incredible support from this tight-knit warbird community, we were able to pull off a once in a lifetime sunset photo shoot the next day with 3 of the Raiders and a B-25 very similar to the one they flew to Japan in 69 years earlier.

Fellow photographers and good friends Brian Blanco and Chip Litherland assisted me on this dream  assignment.  Chip and I used Lighttrac, an Ipad app, to determine the optimum position of the plane at sunset.  Once we determined our position, Larry graciously provided his airplane as our iconic backdrop and allowed us to tow it into the perfect position for the evening shoot.  The airboss and ground crew at the airport actually shut down an active taxiway to provide us with the perfect angle, far from the other planes on the ramp.  Tom Casey, who runs the Raiders charity organization, and manages their appearances, delivered our hero subjects at the right time, and arranged for us to borrow an authentic copy of Cole's WWII era leather jacket.  K.T. Budde-Jones and Syd Jones, who work with Stallion 51 in Kissimmee, Florida, pitched in and answered a million of my dumb questions.  Matt Jolley helped us out as well, and videotaped the shoot for Warbird Radio, a fabulous internet radio site, with tons of interviews and information  on pilots and planes.

Doolittle Raid

We photographed the group together in their Doolittle insignia blazers, and then photographed each Raider individually.  Col. Cole looked great in his WWII era A-2 leather flight jacket.  We kept the lighting simple, utilizing an easy corner lighting setup with two softboxes. For Griffin, we used a Plume Wafer 100 and some ridiculously low shuter speeds to try to capture what little ambient light we had remaining.  Because we had a cloudless sky, it quickly became very dark, and we photographed SSgt. David Thatcher  in almost complete darkness.  Chip backlit Panchito's nose and canopy with the Wafer 100, and we used a large Hexoval for Thatcher's  face.  We used Profoto 7B's and Profoto Acute 600 battery powered strobes, since we were out on the taxiway far from any sources of AC power.

SSgt. David J. Thatcher, gunner of aircraft 7

One of the highlights for me, was a bit of audio on Matt's video of the shoot.  Dick Cole is a very laid back, humble and classy guy.  If you met him on the street, you would never know that he was a famous pilot or war hero.  Matt asked him on camera – ‘what do you think of all the fuss?'  Cole quickly came back with, “the water-boarding is next?”

The lead time on the story was several months, but they've finally been published and now I can share them here.  It was a real treat to photograph these heroes, and it wouldn't have been successful without the help of my Florida colleagues and good friends in the warbird community.