Tuesday, August 10, 2010


If you are a regular visitor to this blog, you probably know that I like history.    This year, with the day off, I shot over to Willow Run Airport. Why?    Thunder Over Michigan. Military aircraft, old and new, parked or flying, all laid out for buffs like me.  Sunday was my day and I brought extra underwear (fully expecting to wet myself like a toddler at a fun park).

Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate.  Sure, it never rained, but the heat and humidity started to add up as the day moved along. By mid-afternoon, the haze was thickening  making the photography more difficult with that bright overcast sky.  But, when seven B-17s, two P-51s, and a B-24 and flying circles over the airfield - simultaneously - who cares!

One plane I was really hoping to see in flight stayed on the runway. The A-10 Thunderbolt is quite possibly the coolest plane ever flown. Sure, it putters along at speeds not much higher than 300mph, but when your job is close-in fighting, that is perfect.  One of the largest cannons ever flown, made by General Electric, interestingly enough, dominates the aircraft.  30mm shells at over 3,000 rounds per minute will turn any target into goo and will certainly ruin your day if your at the wrong end of it all.  If you are in a tank and this beast appears on the horizon a half mile away, you're done. Just ask an Iraqi tank division. Oh wait, you can't. They're all dead......gee....how did that happen?  (Check this video on You Tube of an A-10 attack on a Taliban shelter.  The whirring  sound is the cannon.)

Paying the $5 bucks to climb through a B-17 from front to aft is a no-brainer.  Under the left front side, one enters the plane.  A hard left and you are in the bombardier's spot.  A hard right and up and you find yourself sandwiched between the pilot and co-pilot. Immediately behind them? The engineer who is responsible for, among other things, firing the top turret.Tight, tight, tight. Obesity would not cut here.   Once you clambered through the bomb bay, the radioman's station and the waist (which accommodates a left and right waist gunner) is actually kinda roomy.  The picture on the left is looking forward from the aft most section of the waist.  The guy in the shirt is standing in the doorway that separates the radio room from the bomb bay. 

Unfortunately, one can't really get feel for the planes on the inside when you have to share it with others.  Here I am on my hands and knees waiting for a mom, dad, and their eighty -six kids to vacate the cabin and move to the bombbay.  "Oh, we want to leave now..."  Go with the flow, right?  "We need to go back the way we came..."  So, here I am crawling to get through the cabin to the bombbay so they could backtrack and go "out" the "in".  Not really a big deal for me, but the guy coming up the ladder behind me? He looked like a Civil War veteran! Back down the ladder he had to go. How rude.  

With the start of the airshow, and not really knowing where to be, I found myself camped out in what appeared to be the right  spot.  The F-16 Fighting Falcon (left) is known the world over.  While we build 'em, everybody buys 'em (everybody but me - maybe someday).  This plane at an airshow is all about physics.  High school teachers could eat this stuff up for a field trip. One of the most surreal aspects of the day was having it tear past you at 600mph (so said the announcer) and yet hearing nothing until the plane was well past you.  Very freaky.   The volume was deafening.  Little kids were crying every time it roared past.  Some even had accidents.  I was more than willing to donate a pair from my secret stash for this one little boy.......

Those trails of smoke that you see are not smoke at all. Believe it or not, it is simply water vapor.  I am still trying to get a handle on the physics of what is happening.  Basically, it has to do with the radical change in air pressure as the wing slices in a hard turn.  The humid air condenses in the form of a vortex.  Apparently, the wings shed these little tornadoes all the time, but when the humidity is high, we can see them when planes like this do such tight turns. Sometimes, you can see teeny-weeny ones on the passenger jets.  Look near the wing tips on take off and landings.  Again, changes in air pressure.  Isn't physics cool?

The Horseman, a P-51 Mustang Acrobatic Team was next.  Lighting was still good. Basically, we beat Germany, in part, because engineers designed this plane in 117 days.  B-17s striking the heart of Germany had to do it on their own in the beginning of the war. The Luftwaffe shot them to pieces so a long-distance escort was needed.  Slap an external fuel tank on one of these bad boys and  they could run the whole raid with the bombers.  A total game changer.  Apparently, this flight team is so top notch, James Horner wrote the music that played during their flight.  Impressive stuff.  

A less exciting part of the show for some, I suspect,  was the flight of T-6 Texans.  Pilots don't start learning how to fly in big planes.  Like so many things in life, you start small. Once you get your driver's license, you drive a car before you graduate to an 18-wheeler.  Planes are the same thing.  During World War II, if you were a pilot, you almost certainly spent some hours in a T-6 ("T" for trainer).  Once you were done with flight school, you went on to fly the planes you were asked to fly.

Skies were starting to change. By the time, the Texans went back to the ranch, that overcast, bright gray crap sometimes interspersed with dark gray crap was the norm.  

This F-100 Super Sabre was next.  The wingsweep was basically copied from the Germans (they were using jet aircraft by the end of World War II).  This plane was a keeper in the US Armed Forces through Korea and most of Vietnam. 

The picture, by the way, is NOT cropped.  I took it with a 400mm lens on a rig with a smaller sensor so I am basically shooting a 640mm lens (it is a long story). That plane was passing very close  to the grandstand.  Awesome.  

The World War II battle re-enactment was next.  Yes, there are folks who "play soldier" for fun, but it really goes way beyond that.  The sounds, the smell, and the action of a battle sequence can really bring the feel to the general public.  Granted, there were people in the crowd who know combat first hand, but events like this bring the past to the present, hopefully for a better understanding to all.

I know two of the re-enactors. Yes, they're the Germans. No, not Nazis.  Very different.  Before you pout and get offended, understand that it is history - like it or not.  You can't tell the American side of the story without telling the German side.  They were soldiers. The weapons they used and how they used them can best be shown to the public by re-enactors.  These people spend a lot of time learning this stuff and spend a lot of their own money getting it right. 

Unfortunately, for a camera guy like me, the combat created a huge problem. Smoke from artillery, grit and dust from the tanks (yes, tanks!) rolling across the dry grasses and the already mentioned humidity and haze created a denser smog-like effect.  I did the best I could with what I had.  

As a part of the battle re-enactment, they had the B-17s flying circles over the battle field.  I figured out that if I had my timing right,I could get multiple planes in one shot.  We'll forget the fact that the Flying Fortress was a high altitude bomber  (30,000 feet) and these low altitude runs (a few hundred feet) did not really happen.  With more 50-caliber machine guns than a high schooler has acne, they were for defense against other aircraft, not staffing ground targets.  (The top pic, by the way, is the B-24 with a P-51 escort. The B-17s are lining up in the background.)

So, after a long, fun day in the sun with my  photo rig and some incredible vintage aircraft, I started to make my way home.  I had no interest in hurrying along, so I took a slow meander through Lower Huron Metropark.  After a great afternoon of witnessing American air power, how fitting that I would blunder past an adult Bald Eagle sitting on a tree overlooking the Huron River.  Predatory aircraft were flying all day.  I suspect some of the engineers who designed them where inspired by birds like this one.....

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