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12 December 2014

Plane vs Truck

This photograph is so remarkably perfectly timed, I thought it must be a still from an action movie or television series, done with special effects.

It turns out it’s absolutely a case of impeccable photography by Mr Robert W Madden, who was at the right place at the right time and managed to frame the shot perfectly.

It was taken in Guatemala in the aftermath of a magnitude 7.5 earthquake which struck Guatemala City on the 4th of February 1976.

Earthquake rocks Guatemala City — This Day in History — 2/4/1976

It was 3:04 a.m. when the first large tremor, centered six miles under the Earth’s surface 120 miles northwest of Guatemala City, struck. The quake was the result of a clash between the Caribbean and North American plates on the Motagua Fault. In a matter of minutes, about one third of the city was destroyed. All over the city, sleeping residents were crushed and killed when their weak adobe homes collapsed on top of them.

Immediately, efforts began to rescue the thousands of people buried beneath the rubble. Many people could not be saved, as it was extremely difficult to get help to the city. The roads and bridges leading to Guatemala City had been extensively damaged. Thousands of those people lucky enough to be pulled out alive suffered broken backs and pelvises. It is estimated that more than 70,000 people suffered serious injuries. The U.S. Air Force assisted by airlifting food and medicine into the area. With all the available hospitals filled beyond capacity, the United States also set up a field hospital in Chimaltenango. The number of deceased overwhelmed the authorities, so communal grave sites had to be established. To make matters worse, strong aftershocks followed for an entire week, terrorizing the survivors, who were staying in improvised shelters.

Bob Madden worked for National Geographic magazine and was in Guatemala covering the rescue and recovery operations. He had apparently just disembarked from another aircraft and was standing on the highway near Sanarate.

The rescue plane was bringing food and medicine to the quake victims. It was trying to land on the highway when it got caught in strong crosswinds.

Amazingly, no one was seriously injured. The two men on the left of the photograph leapt from the pick-up truck just before the crash, adding an undeniable personal aspect to this unbelieveable photograph of the aircraft impacting the truck.

The spectacular photograph was featured in the June 1976 issue of National Geographic which was dedicated to the earthquake. This year Natijonal Geographic editors featured it as one of their 50 Greatest Pictures in a special in National Geographic magazine. It also won second prize in the “Spot News” category for 1976, which makes one wonder what the first prize photograph could possibly have shown.

Bob Madden has a great photography blog with tips and tricks as well as the opportunity to join him on a photo safari or photography workshop. In a post about patience, he has a published a number of his best photographs where he cites the amount of time it took him to get the photograph. Most of them are quite long: 15 days, five months, four hours. Underneath the photograph of the plane crash, however, it simply says Two seconds!.

It’s a brilliant example of how skill and instinct can make all the difference when you are in the right place at the right time.

I wasn’t able to find anything out about the plane or the pilot, although I did discover that you can buy a greeting card of the photograph. I have to admit, I’m not sure what the appropriate occasion might be.

27 June 2014

Project Habu: Thirty SR-71 Blackbirds in Photographs

The Lockheed SR-71 has broken every speed and altitude record held by aircraft: faster than a speeding bullet and able to fly in the top 1% of our atmosphere.

The jet was designed in the 1960s, at the peak of the Cold War, as a reconnaissance jet that could operate at high speeds (Mach 3.5+) and altitudes (80,000 feet) which would allow it to out-race any other aircraft and even out-fly surface-to-air missiles.

The pilots have to wear pressurised flight suits to maintain consciousness at the high altitudes. At full velocity, the SR71’s surface temperature can exceed 260°C (500 °F). The fuselages were originally painted dark blue to increase internal heat emission and to act as camouflage against the night sky, leading to the nickname Blackbird.

This special paint, along with the slender shape of the jet, gave the aircraft an incredibly low radar signature. When the SR-71 was deployed in Okinawa, they called it Habu after an indigenous pit viper of the same narrow shape.

Lockheed built a total of thirty-two SR-71s: an amazing but expensive military fleet which was initially retired in 1989. The SR-71 program was reactivated in 1993 but the cost of maintaining the fleet was untenable and the aircraft were again retired in 1998, this time for good.

There are now thirty SR-71s left…and Curt Mason aims to photograph every single one of them.

Since before I can remember, my parents and grandparents bombarded my life with passion for aircraft, space travel and the beauty in science as a whole. And before I can remember, the Blackbird, above all else, was my favorite aircraft. My childhood was constantly filled with trips to air museums, airshows and airports. I took my first orientation flight lesson at the age of nine, or as my grandfather said “as soon as I could reach the pedals”. I went to flight school in my late teens, and flew my first solo flight at the age of seventeen.

Another lifelong passion of mine is photography. All I’ve ever wanted to do is take pictures, so much so that 100% of my income now derives from photography. I spend nearly all of my free time practicing and studying photography. Through my studies, I stumbled upon the work of QT Luong, a photographer who captured all 58 American National Parks with a large format film camera, a feat which no one else has yet performed. I was amazed at his project, and after a little organization, I discovered that I’ve visited eight of the thirty A-12 and SR-71 aircraft around the world, and photographed five of them. Instantly, it became a goal of mine to photograph all of these beautiful aircraft. Here, I will chronicle my thoughts and stories along this journey, as well as share the photographs I take of these beautiful birds.

I immediately fell in love with the project. I have a soft-spot for the SR-71 anyway (doesn’t everyone?) but Curt’s excellent photography of the displayed aircraft gives angles and perspectives that are new.

As a young child, my father would point toward the Moon and tell me “That’s the Moon. It’s a place. You can go there.” This shaped the way I view the visible universe today. Growing up in rural Idaho, in a town with a population of 250 people, I was blessed with minimal light pollution. Every night, I came home from work, parked in my driveway, and walked to the doorstep of my small, one-room log cabin nestled in the heart of the Teton Mountain range. As I walked, if I wasn’t distracted by dodging a rogue elk or grizzly bear, I would up to see the Milky Way, the Moon, planets and stars. I became as familiar with that view as my back yard.

When some people look at a star they think, “That’s way over there, and I’m over here.” Not me. Remember, when you view a star, that’s what we, our solar system, looks like from over there.

When I contacted Curt, he had photographed eight SR-71s for the project and was heading to Barksdale Air Force Base to photograph his ninth: SR71A#17967 on display at the 8th Air Force Museum. I asked him about how easy it was to gain access to the aircraft and the control centres that he photographs.

I am extremely proud of NASA. One of the big reasons is their accessibility to the public! When they have an opportunity to share something historic, they do it! I recently spent a week at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. My main focus was photographing for the project, but it was actually just an excuse to visit one of the coolest places on the planet, in my biased opinion. I wanted to thoroughly photograph every inch of what was accessible to the public, so I took their three bus tours, which take you to various historic sites. You’re currently allowed to visit Shuttle Launch Control and Mercury-Redstone Launch Control via bus tour. Apollo Launch Control and Mercury Mission Control have been relocated inside the museum portion of the facility, so you don’t even have to take a special tour to see them! There are railings and glass in the way of most of these displays, but I try to immerse my viewer reducing distracting reflections or barriers from the photographs. I want people to feel like they were there. I also photographed the International Space Station Payload Operations Center at Marshall Space Flight Center, which was constructed with these tours in mind. The control room has one wall made entirely made of glass so the tour group can view the controllers on the job. This is why I love NASA. We get to see lots of their cool stuff, and I get a lot of good practice photographing through glass! Most of my Kennedy Space Center coverage has not been shared yet, so look for that coming down the barrel soon!

I asked if he’d told them his plan to photograph every surviving SR-71.

I don’t believe NASA is yet aware of my project. When I visit their facilities, I often meet museum guides who share my enthusiasm for space flight. I always take the time to talk to them and learn their stories. The majority of these individuals are former NASA employees/engineers. I do my best to share the blog with these individuals. So, I know that some NASA folks have seen the blog, but I haven’t officially approached them about anything. I really should. They’re very supportive of anyone who spreads their message through social media.

I have exchanged emails with a few Blackbird pilots, but I have not met any in person; however, I have a dear friend who got many hours of back-seat time as a passenger in many different versions of the aircraft. I’ve also met several members of the Roadrunners Organization, who are dedicated to keeping the legacy of the aircraft alive. Most of them worked directly with the aircraft during its operational days. My closest personal connection to the Blackbird would be my Grandfather, who was a Skunk Works Engineer for 40 years. He told me that he was busy with another project during the creation of the Blackbird, but some small pieces of his engineering were included in the design.

Curt comes from an aviation family and is also an avid pilot. Most recently, he’s explored soaring in the Blanik L-23, aerobatics in an Extra 300l and kitboarding using a ram-air parafoil kite. “Kiteboarding is less pressure,” he told me, “but the view isn’t nearly as good.”

I asked him about his first solo flight:

I was 17. I traveled to my local airport, KDIJ in Driggs, Idaho for what I thought would be a normal flight lesson. I met with my instructor, pre-flighted the aircraft, and started a typical lesson with my instructor in the right-hand seat. We flew several patterns. I was really on my game that day, making some nice smooth landings. And it was a good thing, too, because my instructor had a very serious, almost militant attitude in the aircraft. This was not typical. He was normally a pretty relaxed guy. I continued to fly as precisely as possible. At one point, after our fourth or fifth go-around, we were rolling on the runway. I began to push the throttle in to perform another touch-and-go when my instructor reached over, grabbed the throttle, pulled it to idle and roughly said, “Park the aircraft. I’m done.”

My heart sank. I looked at my wristwatch, which showed that we were only half way through our lesson time. I thought I had done something wrong. I silently taxied the aircraft to its parking spot, stopped, and shut her down. We disembarked the aircraft, and at that point I learned that I was about to solo. I don’t remember exactly how this was communicated to me, probably because I was so shocked and excited. I remember a pep talk. He told me to stay ahead of the aircraft, “because whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” With that weighing on my mind, I powered my 172 back up. Suddenly, I realized that this was my bird. For the first time, I was all alone. I was pilot in command. As I taxied to the runway I’d never felt more invigorated. I was ready. I made my radio call, “Driggs traffic, Skyhawk Eight-Zero-Eight-Niner-Echo, taking off, Two-One, Driggs.” I don’t recall much until my first climb-out. I was climbing fast without the extra weight of the flight instructor. I took off, did two touch-and-goes, and finally landed, all while excitedly shouting my various checklists procedures at the top of my lungs as I performed them. Of course, every time I keyed the mic to make radio calls, my excited voice swapped to that calm, cool, collected pilot voice that we know all too well. My flight may not have exceeded more than 1,000 AGL, but I was higher than a Blackbird pilot at 95,000 feet. I’ve never been more excited in my life. And nobody knew it but me, all alone in my little plane overflying our sleepy mountain town.

He’s always had a camera in his pocket but didn’t start studying photography until a few years ago. He has a separate Tumblr dedicated to photographs taken with his phone: Lookit This Photograph. He used the limitations of the cell phone camera to focus his learning on composition, perspective and framing.

I devoted all of my free time to studying and practicing photography. During this period, I was going through a bout of working dead-end jobs. I decided that I wanted to try to make money with a camera in my hands. I started applying at different portrait studios, and was eventually hired! This helped me build confidence in working communicating with customers with regards to photography. Since then, I’ve started some freelance work, and I’m about to relocate to California to start a serious photography business with a close friend who just got out of film school. It’s all very scary and exciting, but if I never take the risk, I’ll never get anywhere. I’m packing for my move as I write this text!

Last week, Curt photographed his ninth aircraft at Barksdale Air Force Base and then went on to Dallas, Texas to photograph the SR-71 simulator at the Frontiers of Flight Museum there.

#17967 flew for NASA, performing experimental research flights, along with four remaining Blackbirds, until 1999, when those four aircraft were transferred to museums. Of that group, this bird was the first to retire, with a total of 2765.5 hours of flight time. But, she didn’t move to the museum immediately. Instead, she sat in a hangar at Dryden until 2003, while the museum raised money for transportation of the aircraft. She was the last Blackbird aircraft to be transported from her base to a museum, finally resting here on December 17, 2003. She wears the paint scheme that was current when the Air Force last flew the Blackbird aircraft.

Head straight over to Curt’s Project Habu website to see the latest photographs including shots inside the engine nacelle: Project Habu Jun. 23 2014

You can also follow him on his new Twitter account to make sure you get notified when he updates the project website: Project Habu on Twitter

Project Habu a great mixture of photography, history, personal stories and random diversions. I’m sure you’ll find his site as fascinating as I did.

01 November 2013

The Story Behind an Unbelievable Photograph

A reader mailed me this amazing aviation photograph and I knew I wanted to know more. I was surprised at how much I discovered about the photo, which at first glance I thought might be a fake. But the story of who took the photograph and how he managed to get the shot is a good one.

The aircraft is an English Electric Lightning F1. It was designed and created by the English Electric Aviation Company, who’d been contracted to develop a jet bomber at the end of World War II.

Lightning Development

The ER103 design study was sufficiently impressive for English Electric to be awarded the contract for two prototypes and a structural-test airframe. The early prototypes evolved into the Lightning, an aeroplane which was to span the time from when the Spitfire was our primary front-line fighter to the end of the Cold War.

The Lightning was the only British designed and built fighter capable of speeds in excess of Mach 2 to serve with the Royal Air Force.

The aircraft in the photograph was XG332. It was built in 1959, one of 20 pre-production Lightnings. Alan Sinfield took a photograph of XG332 in 1960 at Farnborough:

However, the very last photograph taken of XG332 is deservedly the most famous one. How does someone manage to take a photograph like this? Planning, quick wits and a healthy dose of luck.

Jim Meads is the man who took the picture. He was a professional photographer who lived near the airfield, next door to de Havilland test pilot Bob Sowray.

So, the story goes: Bob Sowray mentioned to Jim Meads that he was going to fly the Lightning that day. When Meads took his kids for a walk, he took his camera along, hoping to get a shot of the plane.

His plan was to take a photograph of the children with the airfield in the background as the Lightning came in to land. They found a good view of the final approach path and waited for the Lightning to return.

As it happened, Bob Sowray didn’t fly the Lightning that day. The pilot was George Aird, another test pilot working for De Havilland.

George Aird was involved in the Red Top Air-to-Air Missile programme and seems to have been a well-respected test pilot.

I found this a video of Aird in 1984 preparing and flying a DH Mosquito RS712. It’s one of the few videos I’ve seen that shows as much of the pilot as the plane!

But let’s get back to the story of the photograph on the 19th of September. That day, George Aird was in the Lightning doing a demonstration flight off of the south coast. He was approaching Hatfield from the north east when he realised there was trouble.

ASN Aircraft accident 13-SEP-1962 English Electric Lightning F1 XG332

Whilst carrying out a demonstration flight, there was a fire in the aircraft’s reheat zone. Un-burnt fuel in the rear fuselage had been ignited by a small crack in the jet pipe and had weakened the tailplane actuator anchorage. This weakened the tailplane control system which failed with the aircraft at 100 feet on final approach.

The aircraft pitched up violently just as Aird was coming up to land. Aird lost control of the aircraft and ejected.

Luckily, because the nose pitched up he had just enough time to eject.

The tractor in the photograph was a Fordson Super Major. If you look closely at the grill, you’ll see it reads D H Goblin, as in the de Havilland Goblin jet engine.

The tractor driver was 15-year-old Mick Sutterby, who spent that summer working on the airfield. He wasn’t posing for the camera. In fact, he was telling the photographer, Jim Mead, to move on, because he shouldn’t be there.

Mead saw the plane coming in and the nose pitch up. Then Aird ejected and Mead says he had just enough time to line up the shot as the Lightning came down nose first.

Here’s an email from Mick Sutterby the tractor driver, sent to John Palmer, which was posted on The Funny Noise.

From: Mick Sutterby
Subject: Re: Lightning aircraft crash at Hatfield
Date: Thu, 19 May 2011 20:16:41 +0100

I followed my father into work at de Havilland, Hatfield in 1954 when I was 15. My father was the foreman in charge of the aerodrome and gardens. My job in the summer was gang-mowing the airfield and at the time of the crash in 1962 the grass had stopped growing and we were trimming round the ‘overshoot’ of the runway with a ‘side-mower’.

I stopped to talk to a chap with a camera who was walking up a ditch to the overshoot. I stopped to tell him that he shouldn’t be here, I heard a roar and turned round and he took the picture! He turned out to be a friend of the pilot and had walked up the ditch to photograph his friend in the Lightning. I saw some bits fly off the plane before it crashed but it was the photographer who told me he had ejected.

There was not a big explosion when it crashed, just a loud ‘whhooooof’. I was about 200 yards from the crash scene. I saw men running out of the greenhouses and checking the scene of the crash. The works fire brigade were on the scene within a minute. Somewhere at home I have a picture of it burning. Although the picture shows it nose diving to the ground, in fact it was slowly turning over and it hit the ground upside down nose first.

I was later told that if the pilot had ejected a split second later he would have ejected himself into the ground. I was very lucky. If I had known he was coming into land, I would have been positioned near the ILS (Instrument Landing System) aerial which was only 20 yards or so from the crash site! I believe the photographer had his photo restricted by the Air Ministry for – I think – about 3 months because the plane was secret.

He then took it to the Daily Mail who said it was a fake. The photo was eventually published by the Daily Mirror. From there it went round the world, and I remember seeing a copy in the RAF museum at Hendon. I recollect the photographer usually photographed hunting scenes for magazines like The Field. I recollect that the pilot broke his legs but really was very lucky. I hope this is interesting. All from memory!

Best wishes,
Mick Sutterby

Meanwhile, George Aird landed on a greenhouse and fell through the roof, breaking both legs as he landed unconscious on the ground. The water from the sprinkler system for the tomatoes woke him. He’s reported to have said that his first thought was that he must be in heaven.

118 Squadron – Personnel 002 George Aird

George landed in a greenhouse sustaining several fractures. The hole where George and the ejection seat went through the glass roof can be seen in the above picture in the near end of the roof of the second greenhouse from the left. They landed in adjoining rows of tomatoes! The damage at the far end of the greenhouse was made by the arrival of the Lightning canopy. The remains of the Lightning can be seen on the left just into the airfield. George was back flying again within six months and on Lightnings a year after the accident.

The photographs taken that day first went to the Ministry of Aviation. Once they were released, Mead sold them to the Daily Mirror.

It was featured as a centre page spread in the newspaper on the 9th October 1962.

Jim Meads is a Mirror reader who was trying to amuse his two children, Paul, 4, and Barry, 3, by taking a picture of them as the Lightning was coming in to land at the De Havilland airfield near their home at Hatefiled, Herts.

The Daily Mirror paid Mead £1,000 for the rights to the photograph: £18,000 by today’s standards. In my opinion, he deserved every penny.

If you found this post interesting, you might like to pick up my new book, a detailed analysis of MH370: The Mystery of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

21 September 2012

Last Journey of the Endeavour

This week, the space shuttle Endeavour travelled across the U.S. to its final destination of Los Angeles, where it will be on display as a part of the California Science Center.

The Endeavour completed 25 missions, spent 299 days in orbit and orbited the Earth 4,671 times while travelling 122,883,151 statute miles. The fleet was retired last summer, with NASA’s focus shifting towards destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, including manned missions to Mars. Can I come too?

The space shuttle was bolted onto a Boeing 747 for transport. This ferry flight will be the last of the space shuttle era, capping nearly 35 years of shuttles riding atop modified 747s.

Wonderful photographs of the transport have been posted all over the Internet – click on the thumbnails below to go to the original full-sized photographs.

Beautiful. I’m sad to see her go.

03 August 2012

Stunning Norwegian Scenery

In June, Christian Semcesen and the other members of his flying club in Oslo, Norway, flew 500 nautical miles from Kjeller Airport (ENKJ) to Bodø (ENBO) for an airshow. The planes: two ex-Norwegian Army Cubs, two Tiger Moths, a PT-19 Cornell and a Chipmunk, Bird Dog, a Broussard and a T-6 Texan. Christian flew the cub for this trip and took some astounding photographs which he has graciously allowed me to share with you. If you’re on the look-out for beautiful locations for flying, look no further: the scenery is stunning.

This final photograph is my absolute favourite shot of the set. Christian writes:

I got to meet a Norwegian WWII Spitfire pilot, who commanded 332 sqdn at North Weald, Wilhelm Mohr. He signed the baggage hatch of one of our Tiger Moths, alongside the signature of Eric “Winkle” Brown, which I got last weekend at another airshow.

27 January 2012

Wish You Were Here (Webcam Roundup)

This video of a frozen plane was posted to reddit and made me shiver:

“After a night of freezing rain, this is what we showed up to. Almost an inch of pure ice on almost every surface of the plane. Even the antennas were completely cased in ice.”

It struck me because today is a glorious flying day here in sunny Swansea. I realised it has been a while since I’ve looked around the UK airfields. What a perfect day for getting up in the air. The images below show the view this afternoon when I took the screenshot. If you click on the image, you’ll go to the airfield website which includes the webcam for an up-to-the-minute view.


Cotswold (Kemble)

Dunstable, Bedfordshire

Glenforsa. Isle of Mull

Gloucestershire Airport


Hollym, Withernsea






Portmoak near Kinross

Sumburgh, Shetland Isles




White Waltham

You can see older views of many of the same airfields in the following posts:

I’ll have to look at them by airfield instead of date and see how they have changed!