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771 Squadron


Top 5 Of 2015

A Look Back Over 2015

The end of 2015 has been and gone and as is often the case among photographers we take a look back over some of our favourite images.
So I thought I’d post up five of mine from last year and give some information about planning the shots and the settings used etc.. 

#5.. Smoke On, GO!

So after months of talking and trying to arrange something with Lauren in her Pitts S-1S special we finally got a date finalised for a pretty exciting general aviation shoot. We’d wanted to something a little different from the norm you see with the air-to-air images that are often taken of Pitts bi-planes, a ‘low level’ shoot is unique in the way it can give you similar vantages that you would get from the air but with more dynamic angles and allowing the pilot, in this case Lauren, to be a little more flexible with the pre-planned lines/passes to fly. Something that isn’t really possible when shooting air-to-air, as a plan is put together and then briefed before launching for the sortie, there will be some amount of flex in that plan but for safety all parties try to stick as closely to it as is possible.  
The location that we had used gave the ideal height so as Lauren was not breaching any rules or regulations and so the sun was behind us in the morning.

From the whole shoot this is the image I had in my mind that I wanted, excellent early morning light, Lauren head on and with a wing dipped and smoke trailing!

For the shoot I was using my Nikon D7100 camera with the Nikkor 300mm F4 AF-S lens, my go to set-up when shooting low-level images, the D7100 clarity, sharpness and overall depth to the images works well with the fixed 300mm lens in really good light. Recently however I have found the D7100 metering to be off with some images coming out underexposed, in good light however this doesn’t tend to be an issue. For props/rotors I will always try to shoot as slow is physically possible given the conditions etc, I was bouncing around from 1/60th-1/250th sec a little faster than I would’ve liked but because of the speed Lauren was changing direction it was blurring the wings at 1/100th-1/160th. I bumped the ISO down to 160 to try and keep the F number in between the sweet spot for the lens as well and as is usual I was matrix metering. 


#4.. Window With A View

With 2015 being 771 naval air squadrons last operational year as the search and rescue unit responsible for the South West of England I was delighted to have another opportunity to fly with them again in their Mk5 Sea kings from RNAS Culdrose. A massively popular squadron for the public and their iconic Sea kings were a welcome sight over Cornwall for those in need, up until 1st January 2016 anyway when 771 NAS handed over the South West SAR responsibility to Bristows based out of Newquay airport. For more info on the squadron read my blog post here:

The shot itself was more or less a grab shot, we had just finished winching with a civilian vessel off the coast, the weather and light wasn’t great so I had been using a flashgun and fisheye during the winching. As the crew were finished up they closed the cab door and I started to change my lens to a Nikkor 17-55mm F2.8, we were flying towards Deans Quarry, a site that is often used for confined area landings (CALs) so I wanted to change from the fisheye to get some more natural photos as the aircrewman guided the pilot in command (PIC) down. However I noticed some really great spot lighting on the aircrewman from the small window on the rear door, I shoot a few frames still in shutter priority mode but the images weren’t quite as dramatic as I thought they could, so underexposing by around a full stop in manual it highlighted the spot lighting on the bright orange suit bringing out the texture and outline making for quite a dramatic photo.

As I didn’t want to use flash I upped the ISO to 800, stopped the lens down to F4.5 so it didn’t lose too much sharpness and shot at 1/125th sec with a Nikon D7100 and Nikkor 17-55mm F2.8


#3.. Flying Guardian

The last few months of 2015 seemed to consist of constant cloud and rain leaving little opportunity to get out and take photos without either getting soaked or just having flat light for the majority. All of my visits to RNAS Culdrose in 2015 were under grey skies, not a massive problem but it always makes things easier when you have some good light to work with, especially when the aircraft are grey as well. Anyway towards the end of November I finally worked a few dates out which worked with Okinawa flight from 849 NAS, I had first visited in February of 2015 but weather and serviceability put a quick end to any plans we had. Thankfully my visit in November went much better, managing to fly on two sorties over my three day visit to the squadron, one being a NAVEX to Oxfordshire to visit airboxaero at their office, who luckily have a helicopter landing site (HLS) situated in the industrial park. This photo was actually taken as we routed back to Culdrose, the weather on the way up had been particularly minging with low hanging clouds in part and rain. The way back wasn’t much better until we broke out of Oxfordshire where we were greeted by clear blue skies and the sun which hadn’t broken through thick cloud on the horizon. I had my camera bag up the front with me so I quickly changed to my fisheye lens and put on a Nikon SB-900 flashgun to even out the massive light difference in the cockpit. The fisheye really exaggerates the curvature in the cockpit, some love it and some hate it but I personally think the distortion looks much than that you get from a wide-angle lens.

 So for this shot as I said above I had my Samyang 8mm fisheye on my D7100 along with a Nikon SB-900 flashgun, the Samyan fisheye really is a superb lens but it does have to be stopped down to maintain sharpness in the corners. I find it loses on the left hand side of the image sometimes so I’m not too sure if I have a slightly off model. I’d also stopped the lens down to get a starburst effect from the sun, the positioning of it being more or less central was just pure luck.


#2.. Break, Break, Break!

I can easily say this was one of the best photoshoots of 2015, the weather may not have played ball 100% but thanks to exceptional flying from our camera ship pilot, Chris, the Textron Scorpion test pilots Andy Vaughan and Dan Hinson we (Vortex AeroMedia) managed to capture some great photos and video. This particular photo was taken towards the end of our first sortie, the weather had been pretty minging for the entirety but it some ways it probably helped diffuse everything and give the water so much detail and texture. Our altitude helped as well, we flew the sortie at 500ft for the majority so it gives the image an unusual depth. 

Andy Vaughan was flying the jet on the first sortie, after a little bit of discussion with Chris about how to safely and correctly get the shot, he relayed the instructions to Andy who tucked in close and below the Bonanaza camera ship before flying a hard left break down and away from the camera ship. This was taken just before the wings start to dip and gives a really good unique view of the Scorpion, with its F-14 tail and Alpha jet nose.

For the shoot I was using my trusty Nikon D7100 with a Nikkor 24-70mm F2.8 lens, unbelievably sharp and one of my favourite lenses when shooting anything aviation related. As it was overcast I’d dialed in some exposure compensation, +0.3, and was shooting at F3.2, 1/640th sec and ISO 200. In hindsight I should’ve upped the ISO a little to stop down the lens, but it seemed to work out ok. 

#1.. On The Hunt Down Low

 The Apache helicopter, an instant favourite with everyone (unless you’re the Taliban of course) it looks so wrong but so right, a sheer brute of a helicopter that has gained much recognition for their part in the Afghan/Iraq conflicts. 

This was taken during a rare visit to the now very famous Mach Loop situated in LFA7, a murky day brightened up by a very energetic pass from a pair of army air corps Apaches on a low level navex, a treat for the backseater in this aircraft as it was the American exchange officers last flight in the UK before returning to his unit in the USA. Keeping the image quite dark and moody seems to fit quite well with the natural look of the helicopter.

Shot with a Nikon D7100 and Nikkor 300mm F4 AF-S after a mad dash down Cad West to get a lower viewpoint, again I had added 0.3+ compensation as it was overcast, shooting at 1/200th, F5 and ISO 200. Had I not just run down the hill I probably would’ve chanced shooting a little slower but sometimes when its quite on the hill you just want to nail a shot. 



Flying With 771 Squadron



So with only 24 hours left to go before I needed to leave home for the horrendous 4 1/2 hour drive down to RNAS Culdrose I was finally given permission to flying with 771 Squadron. The idea was to spend 24 hours with an on duty SAR crew and document everything from a SART sortie, shout outs and 'downtime'. 


After signing in at the front gate of Culdrose and meeting Lieutenant Jonathan Duke he takes me over to 771 Squadrons crew room for the morning briefing, this includes everything from the Met, information about the 'cab', what our SART sortie would involve and diversion airfields amongst other things. 

In for the morning briefing prior to our SART sortie.

In for the morning briefing prior to our SART sortie.

After the briefing it was then left to Jonathan to show me the emergency exits in the Sea King Mk5 and also the correct brace position in case of the worst case scenario of ditching in the sea. At 1000L I was about to get my first taste of flight in a rotary aircraft and also a military aircraft, one thing I had never considered is how much the kit can really weigh you down. On top of the flight suit I had a life support jacket, my harness for winching and a helmet, all essential pieces of kit but when you throw a camera bag into the mix it doesn't half get hot.


After the pre flight checks we taxied out onto the runway at RNAS Culdrose and ascended to 2000ft, our first port of call was with a boat of the coast of Cornwall to conduct winch training. A matter of minutes later and the pilots, Commander Martin Shepherd who is the CO of 771 and Lieutenant Jonathan Duke had found the boat in question and began to position for winching. 

First to be winched down on to the boat was Petty Officer Aircrewman Adam Mayes, once down 'Maisy' unhooked the line. Lieutenant Commander 'Grossy' Daw then calls me over, checks my hardness, hooks me up and then begins the winching process. With 'Maisy' giving commands to 'Grossy' on my position I finally touch down on the top of boat.  


771 NAS Sea King Mk5 during winch training. 

771 NAS Sea King Mk5 during winch training. 

 'Grossy' then lowers the stretcher down to 'Maisy' on the deck of the boat, it was fantastic seeing all four crew working together seamlessly. Once the stretcher was down on the deck 'Maisy' hooks back up to the winch line and gets winched back up, whilst this is happening the boat has to reposition do. The crew hold off for a few minutes before approaching the rear of the boat again to winch down 'Maisy' to hook me back up. 

You can see from the image how much spray is kicked up from the downwash/rotorwash. 

Spray from the sea is kicked up onto the lens.

Spray from the sea is kicked up onto the lens.

Once the winching ops were completed it was then another short flight over to Halzephron where we 'landed on' in a field near to a site that would be used as a Pinnacle landing on the cliffs. After jumping out of the cab with 'Grossy' and positioning ourselves in a good viewing spot Commander Martin Shepherd and Lieutenant Jonathan Duke began their descent for the cliff with 'Masiy' guiding them down. A true testament to how all the crew play a vital part in manoeuvres such as this.

 'Maisy' guides the crew down from the back as he hangs out of the door of the Sea king Mk5 during a pinnacle landing.

 'Maisy' guides the crew down from the back as he hangs out of the door of the Sea king Mk5 during a pinnacle landing.

The hero shot as 'Grossy' poses for the camera with a 771 NAS Sea King Mk5 hovering behind. 

The hero shot as 'Grossy' poses for the camera with a 771 NAS Sea King Mk5 hovering behind. 

What had seemed like only a matter of minutes with winching ops, pinnacle landings and a cliff walk we were on our way back to the airfield for 20 minutes of auto rotations. The whole experience felt quite surreal, being able to go out on a SART sortie and be part of the training that plays such a vital part in their job was truly an honour. 


With brews passed out the debriefing began with the crew, it was fantastic hearing the crew analyse everything we had done throughout the sortie. A matter of minutes after the debriefing the phone rang for their first and only shout of the day.


Ground crew remove the chocks from the wheels of the Sea King Mk5.  

Ground crew remove the chocks from the wheels of the Sea King Mk5.  

In what seems like a matter of minutes the crew had quickly scoped out the area on the map in the ops room and were in the Sea King Mk5 with rotors running. It really just shows how efficient everything is, this of course comes from training like our SART sortie earlier in the day and experience. 


After rescuing an injured female cyclist and flying her to hospital they return for a debriefing with two paramedics sitting in as well.  

After the first and only shout out we spent most of our time in the crew room watching TV, I can see how it could sometimes get a little monotonous if you go a day or two with no shouts. 

After polishing off our food on the balcony outside 771 Squadrons crew room we made our way to the briefing room for the night met brief, basically in the morning I'd be finding out what the Culdrose clag looked like.  


It was then time to settle down for the night shift, with Skyfall on the TV and the distant noise of a Sea King starting up it was all a little surreal, I mean its nothing something you experience everyday. I wanted to get some low light shots of the next SART sortie that was due out so I made my way out on to the balcony again and watched the ground crew scurrying around making sure everything was ok. With the crew inside performing checks they started their start up procedure. 

Long exposure of the 771 NAS Sea King Mk5 as the crew prepare to taxi out.  

Long exposure of the 771 NAS Sea King Mk5 as the crew prepare to taxi out.  


I joined Lieutenant Jonathan Duke for a walk around of the cab whilst he made sure it was 'cocked' which ensures they encounter no nasty surprise during a quick start up in case of a shout.

So with Skyfall finished and with no shouts having come in we parted company for the night and hit the hay.

And sadly that was it, my time with 771 Squadron was over. The thick fog/sea mist that had rolled in over night cancelled all plans for the day of getting some more images of the take over crew training on the cliffs on their morning SART sortie.

It was a fantastic experience to spend 24 hours with these guys, they provide a service which so many people are thankful for and it will be interesting in 2016 to see how the Bristow will take on the challenge. I'm just thankful I had the chance to spend time with the very welcoming guys and girls at Culdrose that really could not have been more helpful.

Although I'm sure many would wince at the mention of it, but in my opinion and I'm sure many others they're all heroes in my opinion. Putting ones self in possible danger to save another life, albeit not the dangers you would find in a war zone but dangers nonetheless.  

I would like to express my utmost thanks to everyone who made me feel so welcome during my time there.