Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Photograph Jets Up Close in Death Valley

High Speed Selfie
Water vapor condenses on the wing of an F-15C from the 144th Fighter Wing of the +Air National Guard in Fresno
I've encountered jets in this canyon in Death Valley by coincidence a few times over the years, so I mentioned them on page 130 of my "Photographing California" guidebook, but I've only recently sat around and waited for them to arrive. The first time I showed up at 4:30 pm and waited for a couple of hours, and was skunked. I later talked to someone who had arrived at 3:30 pm, and saw three passes in 45 minutes before leaving at 4:15 pm.
The second time I waited from dawn, nothing happened until a single plane went through at 9:50 am. Nothing happened for another hour, then a pair of F-15C jets from the California +Air National Guard went through it in each direction, twice! They seemed to spot the camera on the first run, then on the next three runs the lead plane pulled up sharply right at my location partway down the canyon, to be pulling a lot of Gs and turning up out of the canyon sharply directly next to me. The pilot appears to be looking at the camera each time, and I can't think of many reasons to end a run up the canyon early, in both directions, so it sure seemed like he was setting up selfies. When he was pulling the most Gs, water vapor trails formed as trailing lines in the wingtip vortices, and more vapor formed on top of the wings. Having heard that photographers fly over from Europe to spend a week sitting all day waiting for the jets, and they report 7 to 9 per day, I had my 9 and figured that I had done well. For some reason, Mondays were considered to be less promising, so I might not see any more planes that day. I picked up my tripods and started moving towards the car, and more planes came! It was like that until I had to leave by noon. I'd throw the tripod over my shoulder and another jet would come. A couple of guys from the adjacent campsite in the Stovepipe Wells campground the night before showed up and saw a jet go through. A few random people watched one go by from time to time. A busload of children on a field trip showed up, their wait was no more than 10 minutes, then a jet went by and they left. It seemed as if perhaps they came from a town nearby and had been able to coordinate with the pilot, perhaps a parent of one of the children. Having been skunked on a prior visit then rewarded with a flurry of activity after a few hours of boredom, I can't make generalizations yet about your odds of catching jets flying up canyons in Death Valley, but apparently if you are persistent enough, they may eventually come. That's when you'll find success, when preparation meets opportunity.

F-18 Showing Off
Water vapor condenses at the wingtips and over the wings of an F-18 in a high-G turn