Photo Flights: The Voices of Experience

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Bill Stein

The other thing that should be covered because it is the scariest thing that pilots do — and they all do them — is photo flights.

You see the craziest stuff because everybody will do something for the camera that they would not do otherwise, everybody. I have never met anybody that says, “I haven’t ever done that and I won’t ever do that.” The biggest names in the air show business are the most affected by the camera and their ability to let go of situational awareness.

As a writer, you talk about suspension of disbelief and that happens on photo flights. It is fricking crazy. People will do stuff, and I’ve flown with all of them, and nobody has not had a huge, major screw up. Everybody will roll inverted and fly formation off of a photo plane even if they have never ever attempted inverted formation flight.

One guy was leading a three-ship formation and coming up behind the cargo plane used for the Leap Frogs. He pulled all three of them into the wake and did a pretty much uncommanded thing with guys tight on him thinking he was leading them into a safe environment to conduct their flight into.

What people do is, they don’t understand their responsibilities. So the Red Barons wouldn’t do photo flights with other guys. Then we did one, but somebody else, not John Bowman, was leading. On one photo flight, I’m right wing and I’m so far in the wake of the Seneca and I know I am not very far behind the Seneca, so there is no way I can be in the picture in the first place. And second, the guy leading us doesn’t know that I am right behind the photo plane. He doesn’t know how close he is to the photo plane.

The whole thing is that stuff has happened. I try to put myself in a defensive spot. And I’ve seen enough scary ones that I’m always the guy trying to say, “Why don’t we make this one that we can survive?”

I actually have said to people, “Is it worth killing me to get your picture taken?” And that is people that I’ve been with on teams. I’ve said that more than one time. And reasonable conversations ensued. But it is even different than ego. It’s just the nature of photo flights. It’s not the nature of people. It is almost that, once someone is behind (in front of) the camera, the camera is talking and it is not even the photographer. I know guys who would say no to an experienced photographer if he asked them to do something they didn’t want to do. But, when that camera asked for it, it is a whole different thing. It is like, “Okay, I’ll think of how to comply because I’m on this photo flight and I’m trying to comply.”

So there are egos, definitely. And the guys without the egos are still doing the same thing. I think it is a detachment thing. It is a particularly insidious activity. And, even knowing how insidious it is, you still do really stupid stuff and it just keeps going. It should be a thing that is discussed at various ways at ACE evaluations. The ACE evaluation is about, “Are you going to be a safe pilot?” Photo flights are not safe.

I was on a photo flight with a guy who was supposed to be responsible for separation from me. They had a photo flight with six guys and one photo plane, the guy next to me is looking at the person outside of him. He has got his head turned more than 90 degrees away from him and he is flying the wing off of people. It shows in that picture. I said something to him and he said, “No, I would never do that.” And I showed him that picture and he said, “Oh my god.” Actually, what he was trying to do was, he didn’t have confidence in the person outside of him, and he was trying to defend himself. But he just lost his situational awareness because there is all this going on and that is the nature of photo flights.

I just consider every photo flight to be a stupid ass thing. I cannot tell you how much respect I think you should give to photo flights.

We did one at an early season air show that was totally nutty. The photographer wanted a shot where we were in a steep turn in echelon where we are stacked up. We were flying these mid-wing monoplanes where we can’t see jack. And so the photographer says, ‘Can you do that?’ And we talked about on the ground, then we are looking at where the photographer was at, and we put Jack in a spot where he could keep track of Matt, and Rob and I were going to stack up on top of that.

What Rob and I did was brief, “If we were going out at the same time there is a likelihood that just a big bump or a 20 degree unexpected bank angle change on the photo plane is going to make Jack and Matt descend to the point where we are going to lose sight of them before we understand what is going on. So, if we have a planned lost sight and an out procedure for this plan then we can try it.” And we actually did execute the plan because we did lose sight. We talked about it, we briefed it, and our out was executed just the way we wanted, and we are all happy with it, but we are not going to do it again.

So that is what we did and it was kind of dumb ass, I think, whether we should have tried it or not. But it was plausible and, because he asked us the day before, we spent some time talking about it at dinner and we thought about it. Then, the next day, we talked about it some more while we were sitting around waiting to fly. Then, during the briefing, we kind of expressed our final plan and we were finally ready to execute it and it worked out pretty good.

When I flew on the Collaborators with Sean Tucker, we learned a lot of stuff together and one of the things was photo flights. I told him. “We are going to go practice photo flights or we are not going to do them.”  We actually dedicated two days to it. We got Brian Norris down in the Seneca and we decided what we were going to have for our Collaborator poses. Then we were going to do that. And we set up things, “Okay, do this.” We all knew our responsibilities and we did it. It only took a day, but we set aside two days and we practiced our photo flights. Then, when anybody else was on the photo flight, it was only if we all felt thoroughly briefed and that the walk-through was with few enough errors that we felt confident enough that the flight could run smoothly. And we checked in with each other at the end of the walk through.

The tops guys have realized that sharing of media gets them more media. So many guys have done it with us enough that they are adopting the procedures. The photo flights are, in general, getting better, but everybody should have a brief on photo flights.

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Deb Gary is a former air show performer, member of the ICAS Foundation Air Show Hall of Fame and freelance writer whose work has been published in Air Shows Magazine and Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine.