Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Flying High in San Antonio

Each year in San Antonio, the city's two large air bases, Randolph and Lackland, take it in turn to host their annual air show. This is always a great show, with plenty of US Air Force demonstrations alongside the civilian performers.

This year it was the turn of Randolph AFB to host the show, this year named 'Forging the Future', and for the first time I was lucky enough to be granted a media pass, along with access to the show's media preview day. This was held at San Antonio International Airport on the Thursday before the show.

The media day was being held in conjunction with the organisation Disabled American Veterans (DAV), whose mission is to build better lives for American veterans and their families. They do this in a number of ways, by offering free advice and assistance in obtaining medical care, legal issues, rehabilitation, transportation to medical facilities and counselling, amongst many more. This makes DAV a real resource for those in need.

One of the ways in which DAV publicises their activities is by outreach programmes involving two B-25 bombers; 'Panchito' in California, and 'Special Delivery' from the Lone Star Flight Museum in Galveston, TX. This is done in order to raise public awareness of the sacrifices made by both past and current troops, on behalf of the American people. DAV had arranged for Lone Star's B-25 to be present in order to give flights to some of the local veterans from the Warrior Transition Unit of the San Antonio Military Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston.

Many of the civilian performers wanted to join in, so the ramp was filled with not only the B-25, but also a P-51, the Aeroshell team's four T-6 Texans, two 'Tora Tora Tora' Zeros, Kent Pietsch's Interstate Cadet and Warren Pietsch's clipped-wing Taylorcraft, Ed Hamill's Air Force Reserve Biplane, Greg Poe's MX-2 and also his Beech Bonanza.

Veterans and pilots gather around the P-51:

A veteran rides in John Mohr's Stearman:

This fleet of aircraft was assembled in front of a couple of dozen eager veterans. Five at a time could ride in the B-25, while others were flown in different aircraft. Two lucky individuals were given a ride in the P-51 'Gunfighter' and the huge smiles when they returned said it all, as demonstrated here by Staff Sgt. Richard Pollock:

A veteran poses by the aircraft she flew in:

Some of the pilots involved in the afternoon's events (L-R): Warren Pietsch, Ed Hamill and Greg Poe, in front of Greg Poe's Beech Bonanza photoship:

This brings me on nicely to the highlight of my own afternoon. Heck; one of the highlights of my year! TSgt Sonny Cohrs of the Randolph AFB Media Relations Team had told me it was likely I would be able to fly in something this afternoon, but there was no scheduled plan as to who would ride in which aircraft. The first wave of veterans taxied out in the various aeroplanes, which I was glad to photograph.

Then, I was told that I'd be riding in Greg Poe's Beech Bonanza. This is a highly capable General Aviation aircraft, which has been fitted out to suit the needs of photographers and videographers. As you can see in the picture above, the door has been removed completely, while the seats are complete with full-body harnesses that attach each occupant directly to the aircraft.

I was to ride with Billy Calzada of the San Antonio Express-News, who was shooting both stills and video. We were strapped in by the other members of Greg Poe's team; Greg Gibson and the Bonanza pilot, Dax Wanless.

Greg Poe got into his MX-2 after putting Capt. Theresa Chrystal into the front seat. Capt. Chrystal is an officer in the AF Wounded Warrior Program at Randolph AFB. The two aircraft started up and we taxied out, already in formation, with Greg hanging off our starboard wingtip. We made our way around San Antonio International until it was time to take the runway. In formation, we took off; the MX-2 very swiftly leaving the ground.

We left the airport and headed over the top of San Antonio. I was totally caught up in photographing the MX-2; it was an amazing sight, so close you could almost reach out and touch it.

I've really no idea where we went over the city, although we were orbiting in a racetrack pattern to take advantage of different sun angles; I do remember realising at one point that the centre was the other side of us, so grabbed some shots and didn't even know until I got them home that you could see the Alamo in some of them. Sadly, I don't think it is visible with the aircraft. I'm not ashamed to admit I was bouncing up and down with excitement in the Bonanza, and you can imagine my joy when the B-25 slid into view from behind the Bonanza's wing!

We spent the next 15 minutes or so welded together as a formation flight of three. The B-25 was bristling with cameras; I could see all the folks inside waving and taking their own pictures. After giving the city folks something to look at for a few minutes, we headed over to Randolph AFB. I think perhaps Billy's seat (facing backwards, and able to see more of the view below) allowed for a slightly better sense of geographic position than mine (facing sideways), for it was only once we got over the field that I knew we were there.

The aircraft visible on the ground in this shot are static display aircraft, in position for the weekend's show.

All too soon, the B-25 left formation and returned to the airport, leaving us to make our own way back. Greg Poe took the opportunity to throw his MX-2 around a bit, with smoke on and some unusual attitudes, like this:

I love this shot; Capt. Chrystal is really enjoying herself here!

I've been fortunate enough to do some air-to-air work before, and it is safe to say that every time I go up, I learn a whole ton of new things. This shoot was amazing, the first time I've flown in a plane with the door off, the first time I've been harnessed in, and the first time I've worked with professionals of such a high calibre. Their flying was a joy to watch, and done with utmost precision.

New experiences; the sensation of the wind rushing past, the sound of the MX-2 being gunned into some energetic manouevers thirty feet away, the fact you can see and communicate with the other pilots because they're right there. You're not going to fall out (not that this worried me) and your cameras are pretty safe too, after all, the photo ship is not being thrown around, so they won't be tipped out of the door (which had crossed my mind). Being able to move about to get the shots and not have to twist around in a cramped cockpit, or avoid photographing wing bracing wires, struts, etc is just luxury.

We flew for about thirty minutes, although I didn't land with the formation. I floated down gently over the span of about the next three days!

HUGE thanks are due to TSgt Cohrs of Randolph AFB, Greg Poe and his team, Larry Gregory and his Lone Star Flight Museum team, and of course the DAV. I heard that many of the veterans said this was the best day of their lives. I sure won't forget it, either. Thanks to you all.

Finally, here is a short video from the day:

And if you'd like to see more photos, Click this way...