Warbird Alley Special Feature
Red Jet Over Lincolnland
A Photo Essay by Job Conger, Associate Editor

In this piece, Associate Editor Job Conger describes a typical warbird photo formation flight, and lets us in on some of the numerous considerations an aerial photographer must make when capturing images of rare and beautiful airplanes in flight.


Dean "Cutter" Cutshall's Folland Gnat, NX8130N.


If my dad had not been a professional photographer, chances are slim that I would have found myself in the back seat of Mike George’s Soko Galeb taking pictures of a red jet built by an obscure British company unknown to most stateside stick and rudder jockeys. Dad taught me what makes a good picture. That cognitive ability, combined with the capacity to turn ability into results, and the assistance of some very talented and kind warbird owners, has put my lucky gluteus maximus into some seats I never would have warmed without that picture thingee hanging from my neck. Take Mike George. Please.

Some pictures I took of a young man with his shiny Corvette in 1983, when we both helped a fund drive to restore a B-25, made a good impression. Years later, we happened to encounter each other shortly after he had purchased his Soko G-2A Galeb, one of eight in the USA at the time. He was in the process of starting a warbird collection, and I offered to help in whatever small way I could, including taking pictures. As a result, Mike’s articles about aircraft from his collection were featured in some aviation publications, some with my byline and some by others.

On June 10, 1995, Mike and his Air Combat Museum hosted a cook-out with supporters and friends. Invited guests included pilots and owners of some immaculately restored P-51s; the owner of the first Allison turbo-prop powered Beech Mentor in private ownership; Mike Keenum’s dazzling F-86; and a little red jet called a Gnat, manufactured by Folland, owned and flown by Dean "Cutter" Cutshall, from Ft. Wayne, Indiana. In the course of consuming savory summer cuisine, Dean and the two Mikes decided to go flying. Within a nanosecond of that decision, I suggested they should have some pictures of the historically unique event, and to my profound surprise and delight, they agreed!

Before strapping in, Mike George explained our destination: a piece of sky about 20 miles south of SPI (Capital Airport, Springfield, Illinois) within sight of a power generator and a lake. We would cruise at about 6,000 feet and once at our destination, would orbit. For purposes of this flight, the Galeb would lead the formation. I explained that I hoped to get some pictures of the Gnat by itself and some with the -86 close by. We all understood that only when the sun was in their faces would I be taking pictures. That’s because the sun had to be on my back to be on the sunlit side of their airplanes. "Cutter" and Keenum were very attentive to what I had to say, even though they had heard my points from other photographers, I’m sure. I always risk boring good pilots because some of my early aerial sorties suggested that some warbird pilots don’t know all I assume they know. And the time to make certain that the camera guy and the pilots are on the same page is on the ground, not at 130 gallons per hour and 7,000 feet.

Fueling and loading the tiny trainer is best accomplished with friends.

This was my first flight in a Galeb, and I was glad I had been more interested in photography than food earlier in the day. This was an unusual condition for me, because most of the time it’s the other way around. But this happy coincidence was the only way to explain the fact the we were successful in getting the lap belt and shoulder harness connected and locked.

Every formation flight in which I've participated has consisted of what seems like an hour between strapping in and wheels-up, followed by five minutes in the air, and the unavoidable, reluctant reunion with terra firma. This flight was true to form.

Preflight checks are completed just prior to taking the runway.

Join up after launch was a breeze. The ride was as smooth as a marble on a mirror. Mike maintained a gentle climb, and the Sabre/Gnat combo, which formed up together as they took our Galeb’s heading, reported visual contact with us in short order. The sky was our friend, with lightly-scattered cumulus clouds well below our cruise altitude. Seeing Mike Keenum approaching from our 5 o'clock struck me the way a McConnell or a Jabara probably felt if they ever discovered a MiG-15 that way. Let the games begin!

Communication was strictly between pilots, though the voice-activated intercom allowed me to talk with the front-seater anytime. Still, this was not a time to chatter. We were aware that jet fuel doesn’t grow on trees. Gnat and Sabre masters traded places during our time in the racetrack pattern.

Though flying photo work is easiest when the lead is higher than wing, I have limited appreciation for photographing dirt and anything connected to it. Still, that kind of positioning helps synchronize speeds at the start. It also allows the top of the airplane to be seen and appreciated. With Mike George’s cooperation, and some graphic gestures with my left hand, Dean climbed to about 30 feet above us and held that altitude like a bird on a wire. We also entered a gentle right turn and during this, "Cutter" banked the Gnat even more toward us. Because we were expecting this, pictures were taken as planned. No one had to say another word or make further gestures.

 

My greatest challenge in the air was rewinding and replacing my film. I had to fight the inclination to rewind the film into the can as fast as I could because when the film is treated this way, sometimes it scratches on camera parts it usually doesn’t touch. The last thing I wanted to do was drop a roll of film, new OR used, because of the risk that something loose on the floor could contact a component of the airplane and prevent movement of a control. I could just imagine an FAA report: "Debris at the crash site revealed a can of 35mm film securely lodged between the elevator pushrod and the adjacent structure…" Not with me aboard would this happen, no way!


The rest of the flight after the pictures was all downhill, literally. Visual contact was no longer necessary, and each pilot landed at his discretion -- with the cooperation of Capital Tower, of course.

It’s hard to imagine a flight of jets from Great Britain, the USA and Yugoslavia taking place anywhere else at any time. If these disparate types ever did, one thing is certain: no one had more fun than this writer, when I photographed Dean Cutshall and his red bird over Lincoln Land that sunny day in 1995.


--Job Conger, a freelance aviation photographer and writer, is the proprietor of AeroKnow.com, an aviation history database. His work has appeared in several aviation publications including Air Show Journal, In Flight USA, Aircraft Illustrated and The Flyer.

 

 


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