Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Photoflying in Belgium: Part 1

Now this is what I call a Wonky Horizon. Yak-18 OO-IAK and Nanchang CJ-6A G-CJSA photographed in flight (Uncropped image: Nikon D300, 18-70mm lens at 18mm, 1/200 sec, f10, ISO200)

This is going to be a much larger blog piece than usual, so I am splitting it in to several parts that will appear over the next few days. I'm putting a larger collection of images in my Pbase galleries at

Parts of this series

Part 1: Photoflying: what is it all about?

"If you want to take more interesting pictures, stand in front of more interesting stuff" Joe McNally

"If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough" Robert Capa

It does not matter which photographic genre floats your boat, the McNally and Capa axioms apply in spades. One of my long-standing photographic passions is aircraft, especially vintage and military. As much as I enjoy ground-to-air aircraft photography, for me, the most interesting aviation pictures are taken from another aircraft, and so show the relationship of the subject aircraft to the Earth below. Not only that, but real impact is often gained not by using a super-telephoto lens, but in close with a normal or wide-angle instead. This means that some of the best aviation pictures are obtained by one aircraft formating closely in flight with another carrying a photographer. This is, of course, not a new idea -- some of the best aviation photography has always been done this way. So, even though it has the potential to completely break the bank, I decided I had to try photographing aircraft Air-to-Air.

I had come across the AviationPhoto Crew, led by Eric Coeckelberghs (pictured below), via their postings in various forums, which led me to their website. They offer an annual Air-to-Air Academy in Belgium that aims to introduce photographers to the art of photoflying. I was lucky enough to get a place on this year's edition. Expensive -- yes, of course -- but an experience worth every penny.

Left to right: Eric "Mr Photoflight" Coeckelberghs; Peter Van Loey, who spent immense energy organizing people and planes; Daniel Rychick who was generous in his photographic advice, and flew as photodirector on my Academy flight
The Academy is based around the use of a Shorts Skyvan -- an aircraft which makes me think of an airborne transit van -- which is flown with an open rear door so that there is an uninterrupted view of aircraft in close formation behind. Each Academy flight lasts about an hour and a half, during which several different aircraft pose at different angles and distances behind the Skyvan to allow photography. The Academy flights give photographers the chance to practice the techniques of Air-to-Air photography and to discover whether it is something really for them.

Ready to depart: the Skyvan with 11 photographers aboard

A view of the self-loading freight as the Skyvan taxies before a photoflight

The Academy takes place at Zoersal airfield, a former NATO reserve base close to Antwerp. It is timed to coincide with a free fly-in run by the local Aeroclub that brings in aircraft from all around. The Academy itself is popular with private pilots because it gives them the opportunity to have airborne photographs of their mounts. One of the ethics of the Academy is that photographers provide images of the aircraft to the pilots who fly with them -- something I think most of us are more than happy to do as a way of saying thank you.

(Parenthetically -- it is worth noting that my SatNav did not find the airfield in its database. Fortunately, Google maps came to my aid so I went to Belgium with printouts from Google maps as well as the SatNav to get me close. Having found it, I set it as a favourite in the TomTom. If I can ever find a way to export the GPS  coordinates from it, I'll add them here.)

The Academy took place from Thurs 18-Sun 21 Aug 2011. On the Thursday there was an introduction to photoflying and safety in flight, then the flights themselves happened over the following three days. There were opportunities for additional flights as well as the Academy flight, including the one that I was most excited about – the Warbird flight.

One of the best things about the four days was the opportunity to meet some of the pilots who were flying our photographic subjects. They are all great people (actually, I’ve never met a pilot I don’t like) and it was a great pleasure to talk to them. Some of them will feature in future blog posts.

For the moment, I’ll just finish with a picture from one of the flights I made. 

TF51D Scat VII in flight. Nikon D300, 18-70mm at 56mm, 1/80 sec, f10, ISO200.


  1. The next time some wag (or judge) at APS asks 'where you in another plane to take that?' you'll have to own up this time.

    Thanks for sharing the experience - I love the Scat VII shot.

    Dread to think of the cost, I guess you'll be well and truly 'grounded' for a while now!

  2. Nice introduction and love the portraits - its nice to attach faces to the names int the blog. You write as well as you click :D Keep up the good work!!