Thursday, 30 August 2012

Photoflying in Belgium 2012

Spitfire and Hurricane, air-to-air

About 10 days ago, I returned from Belgium after this year's Photoflying days. My lack of blogging since then is not due to any lack of pictures from that time: I returned with a stupidly large amount (121 GB). I have spent such a long time sorting through the images, and trying to summon up the courage to write something sensible about a fantastic event, that I have rather been intimidated by the process of blogging.

I've edited enough pictures now to set up galleries on Flickr and Pbase.
Caught in the light: Spitfire Vb, flown by Charlie Brown
I was there for the whole of Wednesday 15 to Sunday 19 August. On Wednesday, a number of aircraft arrived including, for me, most importantly the Historic Aircraft Collection's Spitfire and Hurricane, piloted by Charlie Brown and Dave Harvey respectively. They had taken two days to fly back from Moscow via Poland where they had been attending the celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the Russian air force. We had a photo session in the evening with them and some re-enactors, which was great fun. Both pilots were in good form despite having long flights to get to Belgium.
Avenger in evening light

On the Thursday morning we all gathered: about 60 photographers, nearly double the number from last year. The event is clearly getting a worldwide reputation as there were attendees not just from all over Europe but from the US, Japan and South Africa. Flight planning began and to cut a long story short, I was lucky enough to get onto two flights that day. The first one was with the Spitfire and Hurricane, photographing them from the Skyvan. The second flight that evening was again in the Skyvan, photographing a selection of warbirds and historic aircraft, that again included the Spitfire, as well as an Avenger, Jet Provost, Yak-50, T-6 and Osa's Ark, the Sikorsky S-38.
(Left) Hanno in the AT-6A (right) Yak-50 Sasha
The Friday was taken up with largely ground-based photography, and slowly wilting in the heat. It reached the high 30°s C in the afternoon. The accredited photographers had a spot marked out about halfway down the runway where we could catch takeoffs and landings. But it was a long march (I think around 2 miles) from where the cars were parked, carrying gear (two cameras and lenses, including the 200-400 mm f/4) and as much water as would fit in a bag. Lots of great aircraft came through, so, despite the long round-trip, it was well worth it. A pair of F16s did a few great passes.
That evening, I positioned myself next to the taxiway to catch start-ups and departures for the photoflying, which again yielded rather a large number of pictures. There was a night shoot organised by Daniel Rychcick as well with artificial lights on the parked aircraft: I didn’t stay long as (a) I was exhausted and (b) wanted to get back early the next morning at sunrise to catch the early light.

On the Saturday I was up early (roused by a wretched cockerel that woke me each morning with the first faint hints of dawn) and on the flight line at 5:30 AM to catch the first rays of light on the aircraft. I spent a lot of time concentrating on Spitfire because I had an idea about trying to put together an A/V -- more on that in a future blog.
Janie: Etienne Verhellen at work
At lunchtime it was another flight in the Skyvan. This time with the classical civvies: Bulldog, Janie (the Yak-52 of Etienne Verhellen that I flew with last year), Chipmunk, Stampe SV-4c, and the AT-6A. It was wonderful to have Etienne behind the Skyvan as well: if there's someone who knows how to put on a show for those in the Skyvan it is Etienne. He left miles of smoke trails behind us as we flew, and did a very fast flick roll right up our backside that was great fun. Incidentally, I should mention that Hanno Wesdorp, who flies the T-6, was the hardest working flyer I have ever seen: he was up for all the photo flights, as well as flights intercepting arrivals for photography. Hanno is a wonderful guy, but he must really, seriously like flying to do all he did.
Rod Brown at the controls of Alice, Geoff Collins' Cub

Bulldog, photographed from Alice

It was also a pleasure to meet Geoff Collins again who was over with his Cub "Alice". Along with several others, I had been badgering him for a flight in her, so late that afternoon I was lucky enough to go up in the back seat with Rod Brown in charge at the front. We went for a 1-1 photo flight with the Scottish Aviation Bulldog. The light was gorgeous, and Marnix Tahon in the Bulldog flew beautifully, giving me plenty of chances for shots both on the front and rear quarters. It is a bit of a challenge though: I really wanted to get the full propeller rotation which means shooting at between 1/60 or 1/80 of a second. But the two aircraft are moving in space relative to each other and the Cub is vibrating and bumping around, so the rate of success is small. However, as McNally says, no pixels die in this, so there's no need to skimp on the number of shots. I got more than enough in the end to satisfy me.

Sunset with vintage formation

Emerging from the Cub, the sunset was coming up, and it was starting to look beautiful. There was a vintage formation of small aircraft circling the field with a photoship in attendance. Rod Brown went up with another photographer to try catch the vintage formation. I stood with Geoff and watched as the Cub gamely gave chase. Meanwhile the sunset was getting better and better and Geoff and I said to each other "Wouldn't it be wonderful if that vintage formation went through the sunset?" And after a few minutes they did. The picture that resulted is one of my favourite sunsets recently.

Malle-Zoersel airfield in evening light. Skyvan (top), Breitling DC-3 and Osa's Ark are in evidence. Air-to-ground shot from Alice.

After all that, it was back for the farewell barbecue which was great, except that it was so hot that I had little appetite. The afternoon had got up to 40°C in the end, and we were all just about dissolving in our own sweat. Zoersel Malle airfield (EBZR) is also placed on a sandy plain so it was a bit like walking through a desert at some points. I was glad to get back to the hotel, shower and get to bed.

The Sunday morning was largely a case of hanging around taking a few pictures but with little specific in mind. Eventually, I left with plenty of time to drive back to the ferry at Dunkirk and I was home by 9 PM.

All in all, an utterly brilliant experience. It was exhausting given the possibilities of shooting from dawn to midnight, and enervating in the heat; not only that, but photoflying is the most expensive passion I can imagine coming across. Nevertheless, photoflying has been one of the great experiences of my life. Flying with the Hurricane and Spitfire has ticked an item off my bucket list.

My thanks go to Eric, Tom, Giel, Peter, Michael, Jesse and the rest of the Aviation Photocrew and their organisation. It was great to meet a large number of people I had seen last year, including Daniel Rychcick, Mark Salter, Andy Martin, Frank Grealish and Sonya Cooley, and Kedar Karmarkar who no doubt will write an excellent and much more comprehensive blog piece than me. Among the pilots it was a privilege to make the acquaintance of Charlie Brown and Dave Harvey, and to meet Etienne Verhellen and Jean-Michel Legrande again. I certainly hope to go back in the future.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

BRC British Rallycross Championship, Lydden Hill

Having enjoyed a great day out at Brands Hatch in July, I was keen to try a different type of motor sport and teamed up with Ian to hit Lydden Hill circuit on Sunday last.

Final checks before entering the lions' den
We arrived soon after 10am and walked around the circuit to ascertain some potential vantage points. Unlike larger circuits, there are very few places at Lydden where your view of the track is obscured by security fencing. We opted on an anti-clockwise sweep round the circuit during the day, keeping the sun roughly at our backs.

The day got of to a slow start with regard to action. First out was a set of three 'drifters'; not really a motor sport - just a demo of how to burn through a set of tyres in 3 laps!

There are a number of different classes, from little Suzuki Swifts for the juniors up to hard-core ones that can out accelerate an F1 car from 0-60mph. I was particularly taken by the RX150 class, a kind of dune buggy, these were great fun to watch.

An RX150 fighting oversteer

The start line is controlled by a set of lights, with an IR beam to check for false starts - of which there were many - and to our amusement, no disqualifications appeared to be dished out. After a while this became rather tedious as the cars would do a full lap before lining up again. DQ them I say - if Usain Bolt has to deal with it then why not Rally Cross!

Starter waiting for the cars to pull up on the grid
Ready, steady, go!
Rally cross is contested on a circuit that is part tarmac and part dirt/gravel - or in periods of dry weather, dust. Despite numerous heavy watering sessions, the sun and wind quickly dried out the exposed parts.

Most of the images I took were panning of the cars on the off-road sections.

Jos Jansen kicking up a plume of dust
Pat Doran
Despite all the bright paint jobs I thought I'd try some monochrome processing.

Julian Godfrey - monochrome
Volksport Beetle of James Harold
The above Beetle was not a serious contender in the races but was probably the smartest car there. Ian managed to capture it with flames coming out of the exhaust.

I shall make a point of going back next season and checking out the action from other parts of the circuit.

Monday, 13 August 2012

Olympic London

Signs of the Olympics: Germany v Bulgaria at Earls Court
This is just a very quick piece now that the Olympics are over. As I recorded previously, along with most of the country, I had serious doubts about the Olympics before they started. But having seen the torch come through, and sampling the atmosphere around it, I felt we might have a party after all. And so it turned out. "Super Saturday" (Aug 4), when the UK’s athletes won 6 gold medals (6 times as many as in the whole of the 1996 Olympics) won me over.

I spent last Wednesday and Thursday in London trying to catch some of the spirit of the time.I've put a set of the resulting pictures on Flickr.

At St Pancras
Wednesday I was by myself: arriving at St Pancras, I walked, camera in hand, to Bond St via Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street; then on the Central Line to Bank, and a walk along to Tower Bridge and St Katherine’s Docks, over the Bridge and to London Bridge to get the Northern Line back to St Pancras.

 The thing I was surprised about was that although the media were super-saturated with Olympics, once outside St Pancras, there was little to be seen. Some nice people were handing out free ice creams (I desisted!) and bottles of water. There were some advertising posters featuring athletes, but other than that, there was little sign that the Olympics were on at all. The copyright police had done their job more thoroughly that I could ever have imagined.

The North Bank of the Thames between Southwark Bridge and Tower Bridge was full of tourists, as expected for a summer’s day. The French Olympic mission had taken up residence at one point, with a sailing ship moored opposite. At St Katherine’s Docks, the Danes had taken over. They had a wonderful lighthearted Viking invasion by the Dickens Inn, where kids were playing with the invaders.

On the South side of the Thames, a big screen had been set up where families and office workers were watching the Games. I got there in time to see Victoria Pendleton win silver in the cycling, followed by Chris Hoy winning gold for the (I’ve lost count – sixth??) time. Huge joy and much jumping around by the assembly.

On the Thursday, Martin kindly offered me a ticket to the men’s volleyball quarter-finals at Earls Court. His wife didn’t fancy the late evening finish, so I’m most grateful to be the beneficiary. We spent the day wandering, and after an excellent lunch at a South Indian restaurant in Percy Street, came to Hyde Park. The big screens were set up there too, behind fencing on the parade ground. We had to go through airport-style security, but with better humour than you ever find at Heathrow. A restriction on photographic equipment longer than 6 inches was in force: I was amused to be asked to reverse the lens hood on my zoom to make it look shorter!

Finally to Earls Court. Poland v Russia, followed by Germany v Bulgaria. It was a home game for the Poles: the bulk of the crowd were Poland fans. We were surrounded in our seats by a wonderful, loud and highly partisan bunch of them. Their flags festooned the arena.

Russia won the game to the dismay of the people around us. Martin and I didn’t expect the disappointed Polish supporters to return after the break: they did, but only after a longish time for suitable consoling refreshment. As a result of the corresponding gaps in the crowd, we became aware of the Bulgarian supporters just along from us – just as loud and partisan as the Poles.

I’m no volleyball fan, having never even played a game, but Martin is (and has a coaching qualification). So it was great to be there with an expert to explain the finer points. I was totally caught up in the whole experience, and could not have enjoyed myself more: many, many thanks, Martin, for the ticket.

So, in all the Olympics have been a huge boost for the country's mood. It has been a real lift to the spirits in otherwise depressing times. I’m always skeptical of medals tables, since the games are about individuals, not national teams; in any case, I grew up with the Soviet Union and East Germany dominating them, which is scarcely a recommendation. Nonetheless, the fact the UK finished third is testimony to the many individual triumphs of our athletes. All our politicians now have a wonderful opportunity to keep their traps shut and not spoil the mood.

The Olympics closed last night, with a huge party in the main stadium. I probably enjoyed the closing ceremony more than the opening. The opening ceremony kept me wondering what on Earth the overseas audience (who make up the bulk of the watchers) would make of it. Wallander in a top hat with a cigar reciting The Tempest? I loved the Queen jumping out of a helicopter with James Bond – how surreal can things get? But unless you’re intimately aware of the cultural references, I can’t imagine that the opening ceremony would mean much. The closing ceremony was simple party, and none the worse for it (although the sight of Wormtail in a bowler spluttering the same lines as Wallander left me a bit bemused!). I can’t wait for Rio: where better for the party to continue?