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 ofâ¦wellâ¦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!

sdfsdf

About The Author

Scott is the President of KelbyOne, an online educational community for Photographers, Photoshop and Lightroom users. He's editor and publisher of Photoshop User Magazine, Conference Technical Chair for the Photoshop World Conference & Expo, and the author of a string of bestselling Photoshop, Lightroom, and photography books.

30 Comments

  1. great images, excellent story but that’s what I expect. Great to cya on the flight line!

  2. Awesome. Jose is a great photographer, but more than that, he truly is a good guy. It’s always a pleasure to catch up with him. Great story and photos.

  3. Love the shots and the story, your simulator picture nearly caught me out as I asked how did he get that!??!!! And the half HDR hangar shot are my favourites. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  4. Terrific shots, Scott. It’s too bad you couldn’t stay down there another day to get some sunrise pictures. Then the jets would have been facing the right way! :-)

    Have a great weekend,
    –John

  5. Stunning images, thanks for sharing! Love the story the comes along with the photos.

  6. Enjoyed these images, sweet silhouettes (reminds me of the Top Gun opening scenes). Also reminds me of when I met a couple of Sundowners F-14 pilots back ’86. Fighter pilots were rock stars back then. Really like the HDR, and normally not being a fan of HDR, your process of that hangar shot is really well done- like I’m standing there looking at it. If you have a chance to do a quick “how to get that look”, I’d pay attention. I almost get it with the description, but not quite. Good technique as always. Cheers-

  7. Amazing, thanks for sharing!

  8. Thanks for the memories so to speak Scott! As a retired Naval Aviator and one who’s been to Key West to “play” in the sky your photos and story bring back the fond memories of not only the flying but the comraderie of all those involved that make it all work day in day out.

    Thanks for sharing!

  9. Just some Magnificent photos, Scott! I love Airplanes! I graduated from college with an Aeronautical Degree in engineering. Love your silhouette shots! Just amazing! I love the sky in the lead photo! How do you get that gradation from purple, magenta, orange! It absolutely Beautiful! Thanks for sharing these spectacular photos! Awesome stuff!

    Dennis

  10. Awesome photos ! Thanks for taking us to another place we can’t easily get to. Jose’s images give them a boost I am certain as they walk the halls. A huge thanks to the men and women who serve our country !

  11. I’m a 20 year Air Force brat, love the planes! Need to catch a ride! :)

  12. Way Cool Scott! What would you have to do to get certified to fly with them and do the Air-to-Air thing?

  13. Glad you finally made it there if even for a short time. I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to have done this with Jose as well and beyond the whole photography part, it’s like you step into a whole different world. The language is different and you have to know exactly what you are saying to who at every moment or it can go bad fast. This type of photography certainly isn’t something that is learned overnight… it takes many years of learning and gaining trust to be able to do this and there aren’t that many who are qualified to do so.

    Thanks for sharing a small part of his story… and now I can see you getting hooked on airplanes even more! (Love the hangar shot, too, btw!)

  14. Awesome! Really awesome!

  15. Incredibly interesting! Cool shots too. Thanks for taking us along on your adventure!

  16. Awesome series Scott. This summer I retire from the Air Force, after working on four different types of fighter aircraft, to pursue a career in photography. I too have some good shots from the flight line. You captured the feeling and experience just right. Late nights, early mornings, and all kinds of weather allow the capture of some beautiful scenery with those impressive machines. Thanks for sharing the set. Doug

  17. Beautiful pictures. I love the hdr hangar shot. Brilliantly done.

  18. Fantastic series Scott! Well done indeed… :-D

  19. Thanks Scott – Lots of great info! I was wondering what plane was replacing the EA-6B you mentioned was retiring on the webinar from the carrier shoot. It’s about time those flying bricks got a replacement! The EA-6 was a great all weather flyer, but that change to a 4 seater turned it into a flying brick! (from what I hear) – My squad helped hold a pilot out of the water at Bouge Field, NC after a failed touch-and-go in the mid-eighties. Boy did they get their ass chewed out by crash crew for going out there! But, they saved the pilots life – and he was grateful after the fact and some recovery.

    Giant assumption here – I’d guess the plane with the full raising sun tail marked “00” was the commander/observer’s plane and not a participant’s plane in practice exercises? Only the half-tail rising sun planes were the participants??? Just a guess :)

    Thanks for the shots. I REALLY miss the USMC and being lucky enough to be stationed by Naval and USMC Air Bases!!!

    Regards,
    Kerry

    • Kerry, the two seat F-5F is mostly used for training flights for aviators assigned to VFC-111 from the regular fleet and therefor not normally flying F-5s. It is also used for orientation flights AND as a participant in ACM exercises. THough not as maneuverable than the single seaters. 00 is usually the air wing commander’s aircraft, so it bears the name of Tactical Support Wing’s CO and XO on the left side. 101 is the squadron CO’s jet and is painted identically, though it is a single seater.

      Semper Fi

      Fuji Out

  20. Gorgeous images, Scott! I especially love the cool tones in the flight simulator shot.

  21. In spite of the negative twitter, I appreciate the great photos and the tribute to our aviators. (BTW, I hope @martingommel does un-follow you.)

  22. Love the photos. The sunset lighting is awesome for sure. Still would have been nice to see the fronts. But hey… can’t always get what you want,

  23. great photos– do not understand the negative post.

  24. I want to thank Scott for the kind words and his continued support of our armed forces.

  25. Hey Scott – you got some really beautiful shots there. Especially nice work on the hand held flight sim shots at 1/13.

    Re the danger.
    You might not have to wear a parachute shooting football, but I bet Jose has never lost a monopod to a rampaging F/A-18.

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