Gulf Coast Photo Tour 2006 Feature Report
Thursday 30th March - Saturday 8th April
In September 2004 Aircraft Illustrated's Deputy Editor, Richard Cooper, took a group of photographers to the Italian AF base of Grazzanise to shoot the final days of the F-104 Starfighter. Further tours followed to airfields in Europe and here in the UK, and their popularity led to the formation of the Aviation Photo Club (APC) earlier this year. Members of the APC are able to join fellow photographers on Aviation Tours across the world with the promise of 'up-close and operational' access to aviation assets.
reports from the inaugural Photo Tour of 2006 - a 10-day aviation extravaganza across the Gulf Coast of the United States. All photographs by the author.
The tour began on Thursday March 30th at Ellington Field near Houston, Texas, home to a variety of military and civilian units. First port of call was to be guided around the NASA Johnson fleet with its mix of rare and interesting types. We were able to shoot almost 30 T-38 Talons, used for astronaut flight training, in their maintenance hangar, on the ramp and, of course, in the air.
NASA uniquely operates two WB-57F aircraft, a highly modified version of the Canberra, in the 'High Altitude Research Program'. The group was privileged to witness the almost surreal sight of the space-suited crew preparing for, and taking off on, a test flight. The following day would see the aircraft fly again and perform several touch-and-goes for our benefit!
Rounding off the NASA fleet was a small mix of modified biz-jets for shuttle training, the Super Guppy used to transport spacecraft components and the C-9B 'Vomit Comet', flying as part of the 'Reduced Gravity Research Program'.
Also based at Ellington Field is the Collings Foundation West. They had arranged for us to spend a full day on an 18-wheel low-loader, parked on the edge of the taxiway, to shoot the based aircraft and any visitors. We were able to photograph an incredible array of types from the aforementioned NASA fleet to USAF T-37 Tweets, T-38 Talons and T-1 Jayhawks, ANG F-16s, C-130s and KC-135s, US Coast Guard HH-65s, US Army Blackhawks, USN T-6 Texans and E-6 Mercury, USMC T-45 Goshawk and F/A-18 Hornets!
Of course we also shot Colling's own living, breathing aircraft - the F-4D Phantom, TA-4J Skyhawk and B-25J Mitchell. Also visiting for the weekend were the B-17G Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator. The group was able to take a 30-minute flight in the B-17 or the B-24, with both aircraft flying together for much of the mission, affording an unforgettable experience and great photo opportunities.
On Sunday April 2nd we headed north into Louisiana, taking in the Lone Star Flight Museum at Galveston along the way, with its collection of immaculate airframes, many of which are flyers. It also includes the rare TB-58 Hustler.
A late addition to the tour programme saw the group visit the airshow at Jasper County Airport. Impeccable timing meant that we arrived just in time to see many of Lone Star's WW2 flyers take to the skies with a series of fast passes and topside turns. A US Army Blackhawk was also in attendance.
Monday April 3rd was spent at Barksdale AFB to witness a ramp-full of B-52s, over 40 in all! We were given full access to shoot the BUFFs on the ramp, taxiway, runway, cockpit and from the ATC tower.
Also based at Barksdale are A-10 'Warthogs' and we were again able to shoot all 22 on the ramp and in the cockpit. A final stop was to the 8th AF Museum on the base and its collection of historic USAF bombers including a B-17, B-24, B-29 and B-52D. Also on show were rarities such as an FB-111A, KC-97, SR-71 and even an Avro Vulcan!
We journeyed south-east on Tuesday, through Mississippi, Alabama and into Florida for the remainder of the tour. Here we visited the excellent collections of the Air Force Armament Museum at Eglin AFB and the Memorial Air Park at Hurlburt Field.
An early start on Wednesday April 5th saw us arrive at NAS Pensacola at 07.30hrs. We were treated to a demo by the Blue Angels before shooting the aircraft of Training Air Wing Six. Over 40 T-6 Texans, 16 T-2 Buckeyes and 15 T-39 Sabreliners were on show and we were afforded ramp, taxiway and hangar access. Also available to us were several T-1 Jayhawks and the extremely rare SAR Sea Kings. After over 9hrs on base, no aircraft on the entire station escaped our eager trigger-fingers!
Whilst Tyndall AFB, near Panama City, is home to squadrons of F-15C/D Eagles and F-22A Raptors, we were there to photograph the QF-4 Phantom II's of the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron for the next 2 days. The focus of the 82nd ATRS mission is to provide tactically realistic targets for air-to-air missile systems, such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9 Sidewinder. In addition to the Phantoms, they also operate 3 types of subscale drones and the Air Force's only E-9A Widgets, airborne platform/telemetry relay aircraft.
First stop was to the 'swamp' where over 20 QF-4s (and a solitary QRF-4) await their inevitable fate, which usually means being blown to bits! Next to the active 'droneway' where we were treated to seeing QF-4 take-offs and landings by the edge of the runway! We enjoyed free beer and lethal liqueur in the squadron bar, followed by a BBQ on the edge of a ramp packed with visiting F-15E Strike Eagles and F-16s operated by Singapore.
Our last day at Tyndall included a trip to the 'hot ramp' with yet more Phantoms, taking our tally of QF-4s to over 40! These included the 4 specially-painted aircraft seen performing at airshows as part of the Heritage Flight.
Saturday April 8th was the final day of the tour and ended on (another!) high with a return trip to NAS Pensacola, this time to see the incredible National Museum of Naval Aviation. In addition to the exhibits inside, several members of the group were allowed to freely walk the storage compound and shoot the comprehensive collection of 'overstocks' and restoration projects.
So that was an Aviation Photo Club Photo Tour. 10 days, 1500 miles across 5 States, several hundred aircraft and 16 delighted photographers!