Saturday, June 22, 2013

Remembering Jane Wicker the Wing Walker

Tonight, I heard the news of a tragic air show crash in Dayton, Ohio involving Jane Wicker and her pilot, Charlie Schwenker. They were performing an exhilarating show of wing walking involving rolls, loops, inverted flight and all kinds of crazy feats of athleticism and aerobatics.

The crash video can be found on YouTube, but I will not list it here. It is a sickening sight of something going terribly wrong. The experts can decide if it was mechanical malfunction, pilot error or freak accident, but that is not what this blog is about.

I was lucky enough to see Jane Wicker perform at the 2013 Sun & Fun Fly-In at Lakeland, Florida, and wanted to pay tribute to her in the photos I took that day. I think she was incredibly daring. She will be missed by those who knew her and the spectators who got to witness her amazing acts of bravery.

Good bye Jane and Charlie.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Memorial Day Through the Eyes of the Living

How many times have we all missed the true purpose of Memorial Day or Veteran's Day? For many of us, it seems like a good chance to enjoy a super sale or have a cook out. But have you ever really stopped to think that those seemingly small freedoms were paid for by somebody else?

It is said that freedom is not free and that is true. The lives of our armed service men and women are risked, spent and lost to help maintain our way of life and protect our strategic interests abroad. You cannot fight a war with just robots and drones... yet anyway.

For someone like me who has never served in the military, I may truly never understand what is sacrificed by our soldiers. How could I? I have not seen what they have or lost friends that are like brothers. Talking to some veterans makes it clear to me that the memories of those passed friends are still fresh many years later... like ghosts that visit the edge of their mind.

The 80+ year old airmen that I met when shooting photos for the Liberty Foundation (who flew a WWII era Boeing B-17 bomber) are ones that I frankly cannot forget. The stories they told me were epic, sad, funny or terrifying. The one thing that was repeated by every single one of them... "I am not a hero. The true heroes were my friends that died."

In honor of those soldiers on this Memorial Day, I would like to share some of the photos that I took of these humble Americans who did their duty and should be honored. Hopefully, I have all the facts correct.

Joe, the Ball Turret Gunner
Meet Joe Walters, a ball turret gunner on a B-17 Flying Fortress named the Chug a Lug Choo Choo. On a bombing run over occupied France, the plane was shot down. Joe was able to get out of claustrophobic ball turrest and parachute to the ground...only he did not make it all the way down. He got hung up in a tree. A farmer and his son found him.

Joe was rushed away to the French Resistance who eventually got him back to the the Allied forces. Many years later, the families of Joe and the farmer reunited to celebrate. 

When I took the photos of Joe, his facial features were amazingly the same. Below is a rare photo showing Joe being led off by the farmer. My guess is that being photographed stealing a prisoner away from the Nazis was a pretty dangerous game, and he was taking a great risk.

Photographer: unknown

Bob, the Pilot

Even at his age, Bob still looks like a strapping flyboy full of confidence and swagger.

Below he is signing the Liberty Belle's door that was reserved for World War Two veterans only. There was even some signatures from the German Luftwaffe present.

Charlie, the 3 Star General

Charlie was a pretty high ranking officer later in his career. I think he also few a Northrop P-61 Black Widow, one of the first night interceptors of the war.

Roy Reid, Shot Down at Pearl Harbor

I met Roy shortly before his 90th birthday and was there to witness him getting to fly again in a World War Two era warbird. Read my previous blog about him here.

To make a amazing story short, Roy was supposed to land his B-17 at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and got shot down by Japanese fighters. The B-17 crews were not fully aware that the base was under attack due to radio silence. Some of his friends did not survive the crash landing and the ensuing strafing. Roy said that armor plating welded to the back of his chair a few days prior saved his bacon. The photo below may be of his actual plane, but I cannot confirm it.

Photographer: unknown
Roy's log book is filled with entries of flying exotic military machines from the 1940s. 

Sam, the tailgunner from the Shiftless Skunk

The first thing I noticed about Sam was that he wore his pants very high, and that he was a character!

The next thing I noticed was his original bomber jacket with 28 missions recorded on it. The third mission had a parachute indicated instead of a bomb, which means he had to bail out. He said a fire on plane full of bombs during take off was "exciting, but not in a good way."

Though there are usually many people walking around a plane like this on display, I asked Sam to hang back when everyone walked off so I can get a simple photo of man and machine. Ten men crewed each B-17, and you can see how large these flying pans were. I call them this because many were scrapped after the war to become pots and pans.

Michael Gold, the Jewish P.O.W.

Think about it... a Jewish prisoner of war in Nazi Germany. I am a little amazed that Dr. Gold survived that ordeal. I photographed him in the nose of the B-17 and I swear for a moment, he was really back in the 1940s. I could see it in his eyes.

He was a handsome devil back in the day... ladies beware.

Victory on so many levels... enough said.

Richard, back on the B-17 sixty three years later

This man held up a slip of paper showing the last time he was in a B-17 bomber, which was March 26, 1944 exactly 63 years to the day earlier. The only mission data that I found for that date that looks like the writing was a V-Weapon site in La Sorellerie France. The V-Weapons were the first long range missiles used in war.

The rest of the photos have fewer details to share. I did not catch their names, but it was an honor to meet them nonetheless.

"It's all coming back... "

I always felt honored to have these men in my presence. They are MY heroes.

The next time you meet a veteran, thank him or her for what they have given you, whether you know it or not.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Sun and Fun Air Show Photos 2013

It had been several years since my last "Sun and Fun" adventure which took me to Lakeland, Florida, the home of the second largest U.S. air show. Only the Osh Kosh Fly-In is bigger. 

I am lucky to have a wonderful client who lets me hitch a ride in his twin engine airplane making the boring ten hour drive in just two. Thanks Dan.

The trip revolves around several days of aerobatic performances, modern and vintage aircraft, a huge aviation trade show, and miles of walking. 

The photo below is of the AeroShell Flight Team. These guys are incredibly precise, and they move like one plane during their performance. I look forward to seeing them every year.

From communist China, two Nanchang CJ-6 trainers demonstrate acrobatic maneuvers below. These are often mistaken for the Russian "Yaks". I can look beyond the political origin of the planes and just enjoy them as beautiful flying machines... or "war trophies" as the announcer called them.

The big draw for me has always been the Warbirds section dedicated to fighters and bombers of yesteryear's wars.  To me, they stand as proud symbols of some of the greatest triumphs of the American people. There is no denying that World War II and the sacrifices made by that great generation made the United States the superpower that it is today.

My favorite photo of the trip happened by ignoring the air show that was going on. I decided to wander about the Warbirds line while the crowds were elsewhere. This is when I saw a wonderful enthusiast in vintage flight gear watching the planes fly by. He made it easy to imagine what young pilots in the 1940s looked like, and it is the one photo that captures the love of flight to me. The skies are calling to him.

Even before George Lucas made his "Red Tails" movie, I was interested in the famed African American 332nd Fighter Group called the Tuskegee Airmen. It is hard to imagine a pre-civil rights world where whites and blacks were segregated in most aspects of life, including the military.

Many contemporaries expected the Tuskegee Airmen to fail in this experimental program, but instead they served honorably earning many citations, medals and the respect of their fellow airmen. They put their foot in the door of equality that had been shut for African Americans paving the way for future generations of black military men.... and beyond.

The Tuskegee Airmen and their all black ground crews fought with distinction and honor putting their lives at risk and proving that they were a formidable fighting force. Their role as long range bomber escorts deep into German territory is legendary saving countless American lives.

Being a bomber crewman was one of the most dangerous jobs in the whole war. B-17 and B-24 bombers carried up to ten men and thousands died from Luftwaffe fighters and accurate flak. I have read figures of over a 50% death toll for the flyers of the heavy bombers. The protection afforded by these fighters gave them the nickname "Red Tail Angels".

This fantastic B-Model of the P-51 was on display by the inspirational Rise Above organization. This model uses an older fastback design instead of the later cockpit bubble. It really changes the look of the aircraft, and probably affects rearward visibility. Check out that flip up canopy.

For comparison, the later model P-51 with the bubble canopy is shown below. This one has been elongated to fit two people.

The owners of "Crazy Horse" must love to polish because this plane's skin sparkled like a mirror.

Some twin engine B-25 bombers were at Sun and Fun, and were great to see flying. Even though they may not be as sexy as a fighter, they did great damage to the enemy. Panchito's polished aluminum skin shined like chrome.

Yellow Rose had painted camouflage and bristled with twelve .50 caliber machine guns that could unleash fury on a strafing pass. These versatile planes could hold bombs, rockets and torpedoes too.

Nearly 10,000 of these were manufactured, and the distinct split tail can be seen from miles away.

The weather during our trip was a mixed bag. We experienced everything from steamy Florida afternoons to dark and ugly rain clouds. Shooting photos in these extremes can be interesting. 

The available lighting conditions affect the photos that I take of the airplanes. I think I only saw blue skies one of the afternoons we were there.

To me, it can be less interesting to shoot airplanes in a dreary dead light of overcast skies. The clarity of the images are affected by the haze in the air too.

Still, I was there to get what I could. My goal was to get a perfectly focused plane in motion with the propeller blurred. This was not easy for me to do for many reasons.

First of all, I was shooting at the equivalent of a 900mm telephoto zoom, and I was panning to track the planes' flight paths. At that magnification, even tiny shakes can ruin the photo.

Because I wanted the props blurred, I was shooting in the 1/250 of a second shutter speed.

I could have raised the shutter speed to 1/1000th of a second, but that makes the prop "freeze" in place which ruins the suggestion of motion like in the photo below of a Helio Courier. This plane is used by missionaries in remote locations, and is designed spiral upwards in very tight places like canyons and runways hacked out of jungles. I've never seen a plane fly so slow and in such a tight radius. It was amazing.

One of the air show highlights for me was seeing the dare devil wing walker, Jane Wicker. I am not saying that she is crazy, but she is much braver than I am. Just thinking about hanging off a wing as the plane does flips and loops is enough to make my hands sweat. 

 There were no parachutes or safety lines... if something happened, it would be a deadly disaster. I bet she has great abs because she has to do crunches against at least 100 mph of wind pressure, centrifugal forces, gravity and an ex-husband at the stick. To see Jane's acrophobia-inducing act, check out the YouTube video. 

There were several helicopters in attendance including the Vietnam era Bell UH-1 "Huey". The unmistakable "wump wump" of the rotors sound just like they do in the movies.

The amazing Bell AH-1 Cobra attack copter was selling rides. Maybe I should have gone because I doubt I will ever get another chance. Would you believe the original design dates back to 1965?

Some aircraft at the air show never make it off the ground, but that still does not diminish their appeal.

Take this 1943 Hawker Tempest Mk 2 for instance. This extremely rare bird was the fastest radial engine powered plane of the war, and the shape is beautiful. This one will be restored in the future.

 Its engine had 2,250 horsepower, and the plane was influenced by the design of the German Focke-Wulf FW-190. The war's end and the jet age made them obsolete before they had a chance to shine.

The beefy bird below is a Westland Lysander. It was pretty much already obsolete as World War Two started, and it was used as a spotter plane.

One thing for sure, it is chunky... no wait, that is me.

There were other infamous and important warbirds on the line including a pristine Vought F4U Corsair. 

I remember this kind from "Bah Bah Black Sheep", the 1970s television show chronicling the exploits of "Pappy" Boyington and his Black Sheep Squadron.

The Corsair's design seems to be unique with its gull wings.

There was also a Curtiss SB2C-5 Hell Diver. I've read that these planes were not loved by the men who flew them and they had several colorful nicknames including the "Beast". This photo shows the flaps with holes deployed on divebombing runs. This is not a small aircraft... it even had a rear seat machine gunner.

Below is a sample of the only kind of wing walking I would ever attempt. 

There was another mystery plane which stumped me and several pilots I questioned. When asked what it was, they replied "I have no idea"... and these are guys that eat and breathe aviation. 

I found out that it started life as a North American AT-6 like the one shown below which is nice, but kinda boring compared to the slick custom built plane.

Some relatively modern jet fighters showed their stuff including the Douglas A-4 Sky Hawk. This small fighter was made for maneuverability. The Blue Angels used to fly these. I love seeing the hot jet exhaust distort the background.

Below my friend, Lewis, was wondering if he could hotwire this thing... the answer is probably "yes".

One semi-affordable jet is the L-39 Albatross. "Affordable" is a relative term to pilots... as in "This plane costs 1/3 of what a million dollar P-51 Mustang does." 

The L-39 originated from Czechoslovakia, and the first one flew in 1968. They are still used today.

Something not often seen is the Grumman OV-1 Mohawk, an Vietnam-era observation plane. Notice the bulging cockpit windows designed so the pilots could easily look down. To me, this thing looks like a giant puffer fish with propellers.

There is plenty to see on the ground too...

Pyrotechnics go "boom" during simulated bomb runs.

The look like mini mushroom clouds.

These fireballs sometimes make smoke rings of epic proportions. This one dwarfs a nearby plane.

 The volunteers who work this show are incredible. I see the same guys year after year, and they do a great job keeping everything organized.

If you get tired of looking at flying contraptions, you can always resort to people watching.

I met several people in period clothing including this German soldier with his own Kubelwagen with a working MG-42 machine gun and a very rare 1944 Sturmgewehr MP-44 assault rifle, which was the first of it's kind. It reminds me of an AK-47, except this one is said to be worth $30,000. I got to hold it too. It looked incredibly modern.

I hope next year brings more planes, warbirds and interesting people to watch.

There are just too many photos to stuff into this article.
See the rest of the 2013 Sun and Fun gallery here...