OK, before we get into all this, just want to give you a heads up: I cover all of this in MUCH more detail (with more final and behind-the-scenes photos), on yesterday’s episode of “The Grid” which I’ve posted below, so you can just watch it right here if you like.

OK, if you’re not watching that video, here we go! First, some final photos (taken aboard the carrier George H.W. Bush) and then we’ll get to the stories and behind the scenes stuff.

Above: here’s an F/A-18 coming in for a touch and go on the flight deck.

Above: Here’s a wide angle (14mm) view from one of the launch catapults looking back toward the Island (that tower on the left).

Above: One of  the Crash and Salvage Crews on the flight deck in his fire-retardant gear on.

Above: Steam from the previous catapult launch blowing back toward the next F/A-18 getting ready to launch

Above: It almost ran me over. Thankfully, they grabbed the back of my deck vest and pulled me out of the way.

Above: My one HDR shot — here’s the view from the Bridge.

Above: This is taken from two levels up in the Island: from a place they call Vulture’s Row (basically, where visitors get to watch take-offs and landings safely above the Flight Deck).

Above: the weather was less-than-optimal for photography, but from what I hear, pretty standard for flying off a carrier.

Above: Another wide angle shot

Above: One of the Catapult and Arresting Gear Officers (known as “Shooters” on the deck (the crew who literally help “shoot” the plane off the deck).

Above: Literally right before they launch the place the pilot gives a crisp salute, and a split-second later they launch him off.

Above: Guiding an F/A-18 on to the launch Catapult (look how short the runway is!).

Above: One of my favorites — taken during a catapult launch.

Above: It’s not an HDR but I had to double-process this shot of the Bridge or the view outside the window would be totally blown out to solid white.

Above: The only other plane I got to shoot: A Prowler (on deck) with an F/A-18 taking off.

Above: An F/A-18 getting tail hooked for a landing.

landing

Above: Here’s an iPhone video I shot of a tail-hook landing.

Now, It’s Story Time (Q&A Style):

Q. OK, how did you wind up shooting on an Aircraft Carrier?
A. It wasn’t easy. It took me literally eight years of trying to find someone who had a connection to get me on. I was close a couple of times, but either my schedule or the location of the carrier made it impossible, but then last week I got an email from Ed Buice of NCIS (not the TV show — the real NCIS [Naval Criminal Investigative Services), that he was flying out on assignment to the carrier George H.W. Bush which was already at sea and that I could come and assist with the shoot. Even though it was only three-days notice — I jumped all over it. 

Above: That’s Ed in the Officer’s dining room. Looks really serious, but he was a blast — great sense of humor — totally cool guy, really good photographer, awesome to hang out with, and he taught me a lot. Plus, he didn’t shoot me (a bonus).

Q. What kind of assignment did Ed have?
A. Ed is the Public Affairs Officer for NCIS and he needed shots of Special Agent Afloat Sam Bush (each carrier has an NCIS agent on board. More about this on that video at the top of the page).

We spent two days following Sam around the ship shooting him “doing his thing,” which was everything from posed portraits, to Sam conducting interviews, interacting with the ship’s Security Detail, dusting for prints — you name it. Sam is a busy guy, and after two days of shooting him (and baby-sitting us) he was probably thrilled to see us finally leave the ship. I did some flash stuff, and basically acted as Ed’s “Second shooter” (I put a few of my 2nd shooter shots below), but of course we also got to shoot all sorts of other cool stuff, too.

Q. Were their concerns about you shooting stuff that is Classified or that you’re not supposed to share?
A. Everywhere we went, we had a handler with us and they made certain that we didn’t shoot anything we couldn’t’ share. Of course, this means there were parts of the ship that were weren’t allowed to visit, and we always had to have permission in advance to enter certain areas and then permission to take photos once we were in that area. We actually had much more access than I had imagined but we made sure we stuck to the rules and didn’t shoot anything we weren’t supposed to.

Q. How did you get out to the Carrier?
A. We took off from the base in Norfolk, Virginia in a COD (Carrier Onboard Delivery) plane (a twin-engine Grumann C2 Greyhound — a mail and supply plane that also holds around 40 passengers as uncomfortably as possible and you’re seated backwards), and we landed (and got tail hooked) on the deck of the carrier (which was pretty cool and not as scary as everyone had warned me about).

Above: That’s me standing in front of our ride out to the Carrier. You enter through the back and you start screaming. Kidding. Kinda. Photo by Ed Buice.

Q. How did you get off the carrier?
A. They literally shot us off with the same Catapult they launch the F/A-18 Hornet’s off with, and that was actually pretty intense (and pretty fun) but it was over in literally 3-seconds and the rest was just a regular plane ride (accept you’re seated backwards and there are virtually no windows and it’s louder than a Monster Truck & Tractor Pull).

Q. Any surprises?
A. Yup. Two. The first was — after we got on board, after an hour or so we learned that none of our luggage actually made it on the COD plane. Nothing. Not my camera gear. Not my overnight bag. No toothbrush. No underwear. No phone charger. Nada. We were kinda freaked!

Q. So what did you do?
A. We had a guardian Angel. We’re looking for our luggage and up comes Tony Curtis (not the actor; one of the ship’s Mass Communication Specialists, 2nd Class). He’s one of the ship’s photographers (a really good one as it turns out) and he says, “Hey, I read your blog every day” and we started talking. He was a totally cool guy — great personality, smart, talented and when we told him our heartbreaking story, he says, “Don’t worry — I’ve got you covered.”

Above: That’s MC Curtis (totally great guy) and he basically saved our trip. He’s really a smart guy, so we called him MC2 (MC Squared) for short. 

Q. So he had toothpaste?
A. Better. He had a ton of Nikon gear. A ton! (see below). He takes us down to his department where his boss, and head of Media Communication MCC (Chief Mass Communication Specialist) Matt Bash, has approved for us to borrow some gear (awesome boss, right?). So, Tony unlocks this door, we walk in and he says “Whatdawant? A D4? D800? What kind of lenses? 14-24m? 70-200mm? 300 f/2.8? We were saved! Whoo Hoo (and Tony is now our new best friend).

Above: Just part of their equipment locker. They had everything! It was like breaking into B&H Photo.

Q. So what did you do first?
A. We geared up and then Tony asked me “Where do you want to shoot first?” I asked if we could shoot on the flight deck (fat chance, right?) and he said “Sure! Let’s grab some gear — you’ll need a helmet, goggles, gloves, and a flight desk safety vest” (which he handed me) and we headed for the flight deck. I almost blacked out.

Above: That’s Sam, MC Curtis, Me, and MC Walter (another really good Navy photographer. These guys seriously know their stuff, and work their butts off. MC Walter was totally cool, too and he helped me out with everything from giving me shooting location and camera tips, and pulling me to safety).

Q. So….how’d it go?
A. Honestly, I totally blew it. When I stepped out there, and we were literally in the middle of everything. We’re getting blown around by Jet Wash; jets are rolling right by us; another is taking off, we’ve got loads of gear on (plus, we have layers of clothing because it’s cold and windy) and then I put the camera up to my eye and “Clonk!” I have goggle on so you can’t put it up to your eye — you have to put it up to the goggle, which is just weird because it’s like two-inches in front of your eyes, but that’s not why I tanked it.

I was so overwhelmed, pumped and just exciting, I just started firing. I took a ton of shots of planes taking off and landing, but what I didn’t realize at that point was that this scenario never changes. It’s the same planes taking off from the same runways, landing on the same runways, and if everything goes as planned, it all looks exactly the same, so just shooting jet after jet creates a bunch of very similar-looking photos of gray planes. When I looked at the images from my first shoot, I was pretty bummed. No color, no people, just lots of gray planes. Very cool stuff, but a lot of the same stuff.

Above: Here’s the typical type of stupid shots I took, with a big red bar on the right side killing the shot (that’s called a Belknap — thanks Jose Ramos) and of course I could crop it out but that’s not how it’s supposed to work. I’m in charge of composition in the camera — not afterward in Photoshop, so shooting like this feels like a total failure of my most basic job as a photographer. I had a bunch of these. Actually, a ton.

Q. Did you do any teaching?
A. I did a talk for the Navy photographers on board with some tips on how to move to the next level with their photography. It was only about an hour talk, but afterward I did some one-on-one portfolio reviews (and saw some really fantastic, creative images which actually inspired me for my 2nd shoot the following day), and I shared a few Photoshop tips and shortcuts.

Above: Here’s a shot taken by Ed Buice during my talk. What I’m saying right here is “Don’t forget to pack an extra toothbrush!” LOL!

Q. So, did the 2nd shoot go any better?
A. Dramatically. First, I was settled down and more focused. I had gotten used to the jet wash, roar of the jets, and the fact that I would be dragged in different directions at any time to keep from being literally run over by a jet taxi-ing on the flight deck. But beside that, I knew that for more interesting shots, I needed to include the human factor, and I needed to include color, which honestly was everywhere because the flight deck crews wear different solid-color vests and helmets for quick visual ID.

Q. Aren’t these trips usually just 24-hour quick over-night trips?
A. Generally yes, but the weather was so bad they delayed, and then cancelled our flight back to base, so we had to stay another day on board without our luggage (LOL!). Hey, honestly, I was thrilled because that gave me a third shoot (the 2nd shoot was a dawn shoot that morning that was a bust because the sun rose straight into a giant gray cloud bank). It was that extra shoot where I got some images I at least thought were decent. I wasn’t thrilled, but at least I wasn’t miserable. It’s harder than it looks (especially because of the dynamics of a VERY active flight deck.

Q. How were the accommodations?
A. We had Officer’s quarters, and we got to eat with the Officers, so compared to the rest of the shipmates, it was heavenly. However, the actual sleeping part was kind of challenging because our stateroom was located just two decks below the Flight Deck and they run flight operations, well…pretty much all the time. So, what was that like. Close your eyes and picture this scenario: You’ve somehow fallen asleep in a Port-o-potty. While you’re asleep, a huge Semi-Tractor trailer pulls up so close to your Port-o-potty that it touches the door. Then the driver Revs his engine as loud as he can for 15 or so seconds, then he jumps out; takes a baseball bat and hits your Port-o-potty as hard as he can (so it hard it shakes the whole thing), then he starts a running chain saw for another 10-seconds. It was exactly like that. Only louder, and this happens about every 60-seconds or so. Weird thing is — you somehow get used to it, and you fall asleep, but the first time you hear it, after you stop freaking out, you start to laugh hysterically. Well, Ed and I did anyway.

The bathrooms were somewhere down a hall or two, but the hall is pitch dark with just a very dim red light (like you’d imagine a submarine would be during war games), and they were often clogged beyond belief —- sometimes to the extent that you’d go in there, look around and say, “Oh hell no!” and walk right back out. In the dark.

Above: Ed and I shared this spacious room, reminiscent of a suite at the Four Seasons, but larger. Lots of storage space, but that’s about it. It made you not want to hang out in your room. Nice lighting, though. ;-)

Q. What did you learn from this trip?
A. I learned that the sailors and Marines who work on the George H.W. Bush are an incredible team. The flight deck is a miracle of precision, teamwork and timing. The pilots that land on carriers are literally wizards (especially when they land at night, and we watched a night landing session — the photos were a total bust — didn’t’ have a tripod, but not sure that would have helped), and however thankful and proud I was of our men and women in uniform, after seeing what they do, my respect for them went up another big notch. I was really impressed at the professionalism, courtesy, attitude and work ethic of everyone I ran across. Really impressive, and even the Captain seemed like a really great guy (and the crew all spoke very highly of him). My humble thanks to the crew of the George H.W. Bush for their service to our country, and for the sacrifices they make, and their families make, every single day. It was really an honor to visit the carrier, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Thanks to my buddy Ed Buice for an experience I’ll never forget. I had so much fun hanging out with you, and I learned a lot about the “real” NCIS and some of the dedicated people who serve there. Thanks to MC Curtis for saving our trip and for his wonderful hospitality and great attitude while we were there, and to MC Walter for the tips and advice and for looking out for us on the Flight Deck. Thanks to their boss MCC  Matt Bash and all the dedicated photo and graphics crew on board for making us feel so welcome. And of course thanks to the men and women of GHWB for everything you do to keep us safe and our country free. My hats off to you all.