Keep Calm And Save Lives - PT 1

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Keep Calm And Save Lives - PT 1

Last year I had the pleasure of working with both the 56th Rescue Squadron (RQS) and 57th RQS, an eye opening experience not only for their yanking and banking in the air but watching the pararescuemen (PJs) go at it on the ground – fighting the good fight whilst tending to their ‘casualty’. I had been pushing hard to work with the 56th RQS for a long time to no avail, I kind of happened to be in the right place at the right time and fortunately had Vertical Magazine onboard to support my request as well. My brief to the squadron was fairly broad, I wanted to try and encompass everything that the USAF CSAR community represents in a job that is undeniably heroic – often flying into the face of danger to rescue injured men and women.

So as the deadline was flexible (ish) and we had until July to submit anything we planned in a few opportunities over the course of four months, which would see me flying on Joint Warrior 16-1, getting a ride on a large scale Combat Search and Rescue Task Force (CSARTF) sortie involving A-10s that were deployed to the UK for a short period and finally getting to fire a .50 cal from a HH-60G Pave hawk - probably one of the coolest things I’ve ever had the opportunity to do. Lets start from the top, Joint Warrior 16-1. Most of you will be familiar with this exercise, it runs twice a year and is an aerial, naval and land large-scale multi-national exercise. The Squadron was operating from RAF Lossiemouth, one of the most scenic bases in the UK but a rather long way from home, a seven and a half hour drive away to be precise, a fairly emotional drive after a training weekend in front of PowerPoint.

My week there didn’t get off to the best of starts; I managed to pick up a bout of food poisoning on the weekend which meant I was feeling particularly ropey and the thought of flying wasn’t massively appealing, especially after a night of hot and cold sweats and broken sleep. So much so that I couldn’t make the mornings flight, I was essentially useless as I wouldn’t have been able to take any photos. After managing a few hours sleep I headed in for the afternoon briefing for the next launch, they would be operating out on Tain Range during the week I was there, it’s much more flexible with the angles they are able to fire from meaning that can employ their weapons during some of their more ‘heavy’ maneuvers – which I would soon be experiencing

It’s pretty cold up there in April, especially when you’re flying around with the doors open, luckily very friendly guys and girls who look after the aircraft survival equipment hooked me up with some more warm flying gear to go over my down jacket as it was going to be pretty chilly! As we were flying doors open for the sortie I would be on a gunners belt, essentially a belt that goes around the waist and secures you into the aircraft but enables movement around the cab. So hooked into the aircraft and all ready to go, usually at this point I can’t wait to get up in the air and get flying but I was still feeling pretty ropey and I knew the kind of yanking and banking that was coming..

The flight to Tain from Lossie is a relatively short, albeit cold flight, it took us something like 10-15 minutes to establish with the controllers at Tain, as some of the crews were new to the range time was taken to familiarise themselves with the various targets and as such the sortie would slowly wind up, start small, end big.. I don’t want to talk too much about their tactics, for obvious reasons, but there is a particular maneuver that I have come to hate, despite some very good advice from one of the Majors. The L Attack, more specifically the ‘pop’. If you know, you know, but it is basically a period of zero G that sees you almost floating in the back of the aircraft and your stomach attempting to exit via the mouth.  But it is a particularly useful tactic for the guys and as such it meant that a lot of the sortie would revolve around rolling back into them and replaying. So getting shots was tricky, really tricky. 

Trying to stabilize myself in the back of the aircraft whilst the guys in the front were throwing the helicopter around took some getting use to and in the end I settled with just trying to get some wide perspective shots of the Special Missions Aviators (SMAs) employing the .50 cals – the kind of half in half out cab shots that the fisheye really suits. The half and half works so well because it brings the viewer into the image, a photo of the interior of a helicopter with two SMAs leaning out employing their weapons is nowhere near as dramatic as a shot of a single SMA employing the .50 cal and the spent rounds falling down to earth. I switched between using a flashgun and trying to balance the light naturally, flash has it’s place but I personally think it makes the images look unnatural and too clean, which definitely works but it’s good to experiment. 

So that first sortie was spent mainly getting the ‘wider’ shots as well as a handful of images on the ground as the guys ‘bombed up’ the .50 cals for round 2. It was certainly a productive sortie but I was feeling worse than ever so I opted to cut away and head back to base once we had landed to get my head down.

The following days were much of the same except the sorties gradually become more complex for the crews as they became more familiar with the range, pop up threats, multiple casualties etc and it was a brilliant experience sometimes to just sit back and soak everything in, watching a team of highly skilled and highly trained individuals hone their craft was nothing short of amazing. In reality the jobs demands ultimate commitment but there is no bravado within the ranks, just dedication to being the best they can be.

Over the course of the next few days I managed to nail the rest of the shots I wanted, so as not to disrupt their training on the range we penciled in air-to-air shots on the way back to Lossie from Tain, unfortunately the weather didn’t get the memo and was clouded for the majority of our flying time up there but we managed to get some good air-to-air shots over the ocean and as were at low level the texture of the water also really helped to make the aircraft ‘pop’ out from it. I also tried to shoot some on the fly as they were on the range but that’s easier said than done when you’re trying to predict when the yanking and banking is going to start. And of course, I got to fire a .50 cal from the Pave Hawk whilst we were hovering on the range – not sure if I mentioned that.. 

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Just Hangin' Out

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Just Hangin' Out

The life of a photographer, it does have its perks, early mornings mainly, lots of them.

After a super early morning drive down to Luton airport to catch my flight to Copenhagen, 1H50 in the air, a quick McDonalds in Copenhagen airport, then the four hour train journey from Copenhagen to Ronneby in Sweden and finally a brisk 20 minute walk (complete with camera bag and North Face carry all!) down to the Brunnspark to find my B&B.
What a beautiful area, friendly people and the pizza from the local restaurant was excellent – after some strained translations at least!

The reflection of Gustaf's visor showing the Swedish countryside and Magnus. 

Prior to my journey I had been in contact with the pilots who would be on duty for the duration of my visit, Gustaf and Magnus and had briefly outlined the kind of images that I was after to accompany the article on the Swedish Maritime Administration (Sjofartsverket) for Vertical911.

My welcome to their ‘home’ (whilst on duty) could not have been warmer along with copious amounts of coffee, which is always welcomed!
The morning sortie was a regular search and rescue training (SART) sortie, the plan was to fly out to the Baltic ocean and work with one of the large shipping vessels out there. As before any flight, I had a thorough safety briefing from rescue swimmer Michael Swärdh and winch operator/engineer Tomas as well as an immersion suit and flying helmet.

Before we crewed in I had already discussed a few shots that I thought would work really well, mainly focussing on winching, some exterior shots using a boat as a platform and then a posed shot of both Michael and Tomas with Gustaf and Magnus hovering the AW139 in the background, something I had tried to do way back in 2013 on my first SAR flight but it didn’t really work.

So crewed in, plugged in to the comms system and camera bag secured, Gustaf and Magnus performed a hover check before lifting off and departing Kallinge, I always love that initial feeling you get when the wheels leave the floor – it’s something that is entirely different to the kick in the back you get when taking off in a jet.

Gustaf and Michael before crewing into the AW139.

After a slow track out to the Baltic ocean the crew get to work finding a suitable vessel that they can work with as well as gaining the permission of the captain, the decision is made that the “Star of Abu Dhabi” a bulk carrier vessel, looks to be the most suitable option.

Now kicks in that fluidity of motion as each member of the crew goes through the required checklist before Tomas can winch down Michael to the vessel, at this point the crew are communicating in Swedish but Magnus is keeping me updated. With the safety checks completed, aircraft trimmed and speed matched to the vessel, Michael sits in the open door as Tomas secures his harness to the winch and unclips his ‘gunners’ belt that secures Michael into the aircraft when the doors are open. Tomas hoists Michael out of the door and then begins to lower him down to the vessel below. I’m strapped into the seat next to the open door peering over and watching Michael slowly descend towards the vessel, using hand gestures to signal back to Tomas as he controls his descent.

It’s my turn next, I hadn’t been winched since 2013 and this probably sounds quite strange as I enjoy flying so much but I really hate heights, so I was a little apprehensive. Actually though, I forgot how much I loved it, being suspended there under the AW139 and holding the guide rope as I’m slowly lowered down is incredibly relaxing, too much so as my ‘landing’ was more of a gracious fall. As Michael had brought down my camera bag I secure that making sure the downwash from the helicopter doesn’t pick it up and throw in into the ocean. The vessel provided the right height for ground-to-air images, so I got to work shoot a few different images, whilst asking the crew to reposition after taking some posed images of Michael with the helicopter in the background I noticed a rainbow in the spray, created from the downwash of the helicopter and position of the sun – a quick request to hold for 30 secs and the shots were in the bag.

Tomas brings the cable back up to the AW139. 

Members of crew from the vessel seemingly appeared out of thin air to shake our hands and say hello, we were taken up to the bridge of the ship to a sea (punny) of iPhones and iPads recording the guys in the helicopter as they repositioned to the rear of the ship so I could use the elevation of the bridge to shoot some images looking down on them. When shooting images like this I begin shooting at 1/160th sec whilst keeping the ISO as low as possible, usually between 100-200 to try and keep the F number stopped down to something like F/10-F/13. Then I begin to get a little more creative trying to capture as much rotor blur as possible and movement in the background, easier said than done though sometimes.

We had been on the ship for a little over 15 minutes before the winch was lowered back down and Michael secured my harness to the clip, up and away but this time with my D7100 and Samyang fisheye, all secured so if I started spinning from the downwash I could try to recover/steady myself. I wanted to get an image of Tomas reaching out to grab me with the exterior of the AW139, using the fisheye and it’s wide PoV to get as much into the scene as possible.

Secured, doors closed and camera bag strapped down we made our way back to base after a relatively successful sortie, one that provided valuable training to all of the crew whilst allowing them to position the helicopter safely for photos throughout.

Michael gets to work finding a suitable vessel to work with on the first day.

Debrief completed, coffee brewing and lunch cooking (I said how great they were at hosting me right?) we sat down around the table to discuss another phot brief for the second sortie, they had been requested to work with a Swedish navy submarine and its crew so they could practice various methods of getting a ‘casualty’ out successfully and safely. As this was a sortie that would see us in the air for the entirety and with no opportunity to get any ground-to-air images I focussed on images of the winching and a posed shot of both Tomas and Michael with the AW139 in the background once we had returned to Kallinge, with the plan of flying out to an old lighthouse the following day, using the height of it to shoot some aerial images.

Fed and watered it was time to get back into my immersion suit and walk for the sortie with the submarine, having never seen on before having the opportunity to photograph one from the air on a SAR exercise was an exciting prospect. It makes for a peculiar sight from the air as well, this low profile black shadow slowly stalking in the water or at least it would be if it wasn’t for the ten or so people in bright immersion suits on top of the aircraft.

The sortie gave me the opportunity to shoot some un-posed portraits Tomas and some wide angle fish eye images of Tomas winching down Michael to the submarine below, but for the most part it was great to sit back and watch for once and see for myself just how slick everything is when it goes to plan. We were out there working with the submarine for around 90 minutes before we had to head back to Kallinge, the weather had become overcast since we had lifted so I wasn’t sure how well the posed shots of Michael and Tomas would work. Fortunately it diffused the light and made for a more natural looking image, Gustaf and Magnus positioned the helicopter so it was flanking Michael and Tomas and I made sure to get as low as possible to emphasise their height and ‘power’.

Tomas brings Michael back up to the aircraft just before we RTB.

Day 1 done, nearly, what’s the best way to end a day after a lot of flying? Yup you guessed it, a BBQ with some amazing burgers!

With the majority of images that I had planned already bagged on day 1 it just left some ground-to-air images that I wanted to capture, mainly of the whole crew at ‘work’ and some really in your face images as the AW139, especially in the red and white scheme looks so fantastic. Magnus and Gustaf had recommended a lighthouse, around 100ft in height, which would provide a great platform and would give me an uninterrupted 360º view – the perfect location I know!

Back into my favourite immersion suit/sweat suit/goonbag/grow bag etc after a full phot brief for the guys, we were following a list of pre-arranged shots that would hopefully mean making the most of the time we were out there and of course making sure everything was safe as is always key when it comes to aviation. Michael would be coming down to the lighthouse, as I would have to be winched down, meaning that I could talk to the crew if it was needed.

The flight out to the lighthouse was no more than 20 minutes, but it seemed that the weather was fully co-operating, for once. As per the previous day we went through the final checks and Tomas secured me and Michael to the winch and hoisted us out of the door for the short journey down to the platform, this time my landing was a little more sturdy and I managed to stay on my feet. Michael un-clipped us from the hoist and un-packed my equipment and got ready to start shooting. Running down the checklist we had various shots planned in, head on shot level and then slightly below, a 360º rotation to show of the Trakkacorp search light and rear profile view of the aircraft, a slow fly past around the lighthouse with Tomas in the door and then finally an image of the whole team, Gustaf and Magnus at the controls with Tomas in the door and Michael suspended below on the winch. Job done, brilliantly flown by the guys and the light there could not have been any better. One of those rare occasions when everything goes to plan and a fantastic crew flying the brief to perfection.

A rear three quarters view of the AW139, a sleek looking aircraft even with the winch fitted.


And that was it, my first time visiting Sweden, a truly beautiful country full of incredibly friendly people. Gustaf, Magnus, Tomas and Michael could not have been a better team to work with, they made me feel part of the crew and nothing was too much for them. I only hope that I can visit again if I’m in the country. 

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The Sony A7SII

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The Sony A7SII

The Master Of Low Light

Nikon or Canon? The debate rages on amongst fans of each, and if you’re in the aviation community you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a straight race between the two. But after a discussion with Andrew Whyte recently, I was left wondering if there might be a third way. Andrew is well known for his astro, light painting and low light photography, and suggested I might like to try Sony’s a7sII. Sony rarely get a mention among aviation photographers, possibly because they aren’t really noted for their sports cameras, but with two night shoots coming up I was keen to try something new.

56th RQS HH-60G Pave Hawk taxiing out at RAF Lakenheath for a pairs night sortie.

 CVP very kindly offered a Sony a7sII and teamed it with a Batis 25mm F2 lens. Aviation photography requires a lot of flexibility, presenting widely varying opportunities moment to moment, so I wondered if a full frame sensor with a prime lens (and a pretty wide one at that) would cut the mustard. Then there was the lighting situation. In the confined space of a helicopter at night, the only natural light is from the multifunction displays (MFDs) or the night vision goggles (NVG). This tends to be soft and green and for obvious reasons it’s not a good idea to start using a flash in such situations. 


Whilst night images aren’t completely lacking from my portfolio, articles or reports, the ‘tactical’ low light images definitely are – mostly down to my kit limitations. I’ve never been a full frame photographer. For aviation work you really need the reach that a crop sensor gives even moderate zooms, but the compromise is the ISO handling, especially when working around the 1600 mark, certainly from my experience with the D300s and D7100. I know others that are happy to go far beyond that but I think the image quality degradation is just too noticeable. I was curious to see how the a7sII coped. I wanted to capture images of the pilots prepping their aircraft for a sortie in the cockpit at night with their NVGs fitted, and the ground crew prepping the aircraft. I would then fly at night with a helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS/Air Ambulance), having flown on a similar sortie a few months earlier it showed the massive limitations that my current kit has when working at night and at high ISO.

HH-60G Pave Hawk undergoing maintenance work, the iconic green feet printed on the hangar doors.

 So I guess a run down of my ‘daily’ kit is in order. The D300s was my go to camera body for around three years, up until 2014 anyway. With no sign of Nikon releasing a direct replacement for the much-loved D300 series I opted to chance “Nikons top enthusiast camera” the D7100. Probably not what most pro photographers would expect an aviation/landscape photographer to use but I don’t get too hung up on kit; it has its limitations of course, most notably the poor buffer. However the lack of a low pass filter really does ensure the images have an almost processed look straight out of camera and are so unbelievably sharp when used right, especially when compared to the old tech that was the D300. Thankfully Nikon final came to their senses this year, releasing the Nikon D500. Having used the D7100 for over two years I needed a new main body and the D500 fitted the bill perfectly - you can read up on my initial thoughts here: http://lloydh.co.uk/blog/2016/6/30/hl43v6f5o16xm4muyvzs1mtnycfcye
My go to lenses then; first the Nikkor 70-200mm F2.8 VR – a fantastically versatile lens that I use for either shooting portraits in the aircraft, static shots of an aircraft being prepped for a sortie or from the top of a cliff shooting a helicopter as the crew position it. I also have a Nikkor 24-70 F2.8 or 17-55mm F2.8 in my camera bag at all times, the 24-70 offering a little more flexibility when shooting air-to-air – that extra 15mm can really make all the difference. They’re great for shooting portraits in and around aircraft as well for night shots when aircraft are starting up, particularly helicopters with rotors turning. Finally a 10.5mm fisheye from Samyang works fantastically well for cockpit shots in helicopters or when the side door is open and the crewman is leaning out, sometimes I’ll carefully lean out of the door whilst on a dispatcher harness to try and get some exterior of the aircraft featured as well. 

Wiltshire Air Ambulance critical care paramedic surveying a field during an ad-hoc landing for a currency sortie. 

A forthcoming visit to the 56th Rescue Squadron at RAF Lakenheath and a night currency sortie with the Wiltshire Air Ambulance last week gave me the perfect opportunity to put the a7sII and Batis glass to work in an aviation environment. 

Whilst I missed being able to pixel peep like I can with files from my D7100 (24.1MP) I don’t think it’s a massive issue and the Sony absolutely makes up for the fewer megapixels with its incredibly impressive ISO performance. I’m still amazing at how good the files look straight out of camera at ISO 10,000, even 20,000 is usable after some noise reduction in post. Obviously the grain is visible but it’s very manageable and gives that tactical look to the images which really suites the night setting. I found the autofocus to be more or less faultless, there were a couple of times when I switched to manual to save a little bit of time rather than switching the focus point, but as long there was some form of light source such as an MFD then it locked straight on. Images straight out of camera, especially in the day, have an excellent dynamic range and look almost flat, which is great for post production work later on, though that look could just be down to the awful weather and light that seems to follow me wherever I go at the moment!

In flight the camera performed faultlessly, the light from the MFDs providing a great light source for the AF to lock on to – again at some points I did switch to MF instead of switching the focus point. I find it really hard to fault this little camera, but there are a few little niggles I have with it, all from a stills perspective.
It would be great to have the redundancy of dual SD card slots; it’s very rare that you get an opportunity to re-shoot something in aviation, so having a card fail could be disastrous.
The battery life isn’t great, but I guess the get around to that is to just buy more batteries. Finally I did find the menu to be a little fiddly compared to my Nikon, but that could just be down to the fact I’m so use to the Nikon layout.

56th RQS Special Mission Aviator prepping for a night sortie. 

This is probably a good time to mention that I am now completely in love with the Batis 25mm F2, it is such a beautiful lens. I’m really not used to shooting with a prime, being stuck to a focal length isn’t really beneficial when shooting aviation but I absolutely loved it. It certainly makes the mind work a little harder when thinking about composing images and it also means you can get right into the action though with the wide angle of view – which is absolutely perfect when working in the cramped confines of a helicopter. Also, the shallow depth of field when shooting at F2 is just so pleasing to the eye, it suits the night images very well when using parts of the airframe to naturally frame either the pilot or special-mission aviators.
I also love how Zeiss flashes up on the upper display of the lens when the camera is turned on; little things.. 

Whilst I do shoot video very occasionally, I don’t profess to know the complete ins and outs – my knowledge is very limited and whilst I’m working on increasing it, I thought it would be worth mentioning the 120fps option that the A7sii can shoot. Slow motion is perfect for helicopters; it shows perfectly how they beat the air into submission to stay airborne.

This really is an incredible package in a tiny body. Sony has created something very special in the a7sII, especially if you need that low-light capability.
  

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