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.


  1. Hi Anthony ,

    What fantastic pictures. I thought the Avenger was quite superb , then I scrolled down to the sunset shot and that was even better !

    All the best ,

    Mark Salter

  2. Stunning images and passionate commentary. Super post; thanks for sharing.

  3. Hi Mark and Martin,

    Thanks so much for the comments. Much appreciated.


  4. Hello Anthony !

    Nice to see you again in Zoersel. Too bad we could not spend more time together
    and fly together this time. Maybe next year ! Your "Sunset" shot with the 3 Piper-Cub is amazing. My daughters and my wife love it. Very good job.
    Hope to see you for the next edition of the Photoflying days in August 2013.
    Etienne. Yak-52 "janie" G-CBSS.