On Monday morning I a took a short flight down to Key West, Florida to meet up with my buddy Jose Ramos, a military aviation photographer who was on assignment for Pilot magazine doing a story on Fighter Squadron VFC-111 (The “Sundowners”) based at Key West Naval Airstation.

It was absolutely beautiful down there (and the weather couldn’t have been more beautiful, with temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s), and on Monday, after shooting some takesoffs and landings from long range, Jose and I stayed late to get some nice light at sunset with some of the jets on the flight line.

One of the highlights of the trip was Jose and I having lunch with his good friend, and Squadron Commander,  Joe ‘Monty’ McMonigle. I told him about my carrier shoot, and since he had been flying off carriers for years he had some amazing stories, and I learned a ton about the process of landing on carriers. I already had an incredible amount of respect for carrier pilots but that went up a big notch after our talk with Joe. I seriously don’t know how these guys do it, but I’m sure glad that somehow they can.

Jose goes Air-to-Air
On Tuesday, Jose (who is rated by the Navy to fly in jets) got the chance to go up and do some air-to-air photography in the backseat of an F5 and he got just some absolutely sick shots!!!! He’s done that air-to-air stuff down cold (but when I heard some of the stuff they did in the air, I’m not sure I would have the presence of mind to even raise my camera to my eye. Especially with all the screaming I would have been doing). But Jose has done this stuff a bunch, and he totally nailed it. Everybody was freaking out over the shots he came back with.

I’ll leave the rest to the captions below, but a big thanks to Jose for having me tag along for the shoot, and to the men and women of the Sundowners squadron who couldn’t have been friendlier or more accommodating to us during our visit. Jose is still down there working on the story and by the time you read this, he’s probably in the cockpit for another air-to-air shoot. OK, not the best term, but you know what I mean. Hats off to Monty and the entire VFC-111 — thanks for your service to our country.

 

Above: The jets were all facing toward the setting sun, so to get the good light, we had to shoot from behind or beside the jets, because if we faced them, the sky behind them was kind of…well…gray and boring. 

Above: After the jets come back in from their last runs of the day, the ground crew takes over and that’s when I got this open-cockpit shot. 

Above: At about 5:30 pm and sun was getting low in the sky so we headed out to get some shots, and the clouds were totally cooperating with us. This is a E/A-18G Growler, a specialized electronic warfare variant of the FA-18F Super Hornet.

Above: Here’s the hanger. It’s a half-HDR shot (an HDR shot mixed at 50% with the original non-HDR’d image).

Above: Here’s an F5 fighter (used by the Navy to portray “Bad guys” in dog fights, ala “Top Gun.”). This shot is taken just after take-off (my only take-off shot. Long story) and the front gear hasn’t retracted yet (they go up after the rear. It’s an old plane).

Above: Here’s one of the F5′s taxiing out for a training session with the Growlers. It’s pretty warm down there so they keep the canopy open until they’re about to take off. 

Above: Here’s one of the two-seater F5′s that Jose goes up in for his air-to-air shoots. With a camera. You knew that, right?

Above: Jose is always doing these shoots, but nobody’s ever covering Jose, so I took on the job. Here he is headed out for his first air-to-air of the week (and yes, that’s a parachute on his back). Apparently, it’s more dangerous than shooting football. I’ve never had to wear a parachute. ;-)

Above: Here’s Jose (rear seat) before heading out. That’s ‘Monty’ Piloting the F5. 

Above: Here’s Jose looking very “Top Gun”

Above: Here’s me looking like I always do, standing beside an F5. Snooze. 

Above: Here’s a shot taken inside their F5 flight simulator. It was pretty amazing (I took this one from the platform where you climb into the simulator. I shot it with a 28-300mm f/3.5 to f/5.6. The lighting was pretty dark in there, but I wanted to shoot it with just the ambient light, so I shot it at 2,500 ISO handheld at 1/13 of a second. I fired a lot series of shots in High-Speed continuous to make sure I had one in focus (and sure enough, I did). 

Above: Here’s a closing shot. It would have been sweet if we could have gotten them to turn the jet around so we could have shot from the front or front side with the sunset in the background. Of course, we never asked (for obvious reasons). The squadron has just about adopted Jose (he’s been shooting and flying with them since was 18-years-old), so they would actually probably do it if he asked far enough in advance.

Above: It’s great to see such a great relationship built between Jose and the Squad, but Jose has worked very hard to earn their trust (plus he delivers some amazing images, which literally line the walls of the squadron’s headquarters, as shown above in this photo taken with my iPhone —- that’s Jose’s shot framed on the wall beside him). 

Anyway, it was a quick, really fun overnight trip, and I was already back home the next afternoon, but I gotta tell ya — shooting jets is just a blast!

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