USA July-August 2010 Part II


Continuing from Part I... Nellis AFB was hosting Red Flag 10-4, from 19-30th July, with my trip plans enabling me to catch a couple of days of the action at the end of the exercise. Not as large as previous Red Flag exercises, but quite diverse in the units that were involved, obviously the big news was that the Pakistan AF were making their first appearance, with six F-16B's from 9 Squadron 'Griffins' at Mushaf Airbase. In addition, were the Saudi AF F-15S's from 92 Squadron at Dhahran and Singapore AF F-16C/D's from the training unit 425FS based at Luke AFB, Arizona (don't get the RSAF's confused!). From the host nation, there was the F-16CJ from 77FS at Shaw AFB, F-15C from 123FS Oregon ANG at Portland, F/A-18E/F from VMFA-225 at NAS Miramar, EA-18G from VAQ-132 at NAS Whidbey Island, and EA-6B from VMAQ-3 MCAS Cherry Point. Tanker support was the KC-135R/T from 909ARS at McConnell AFB, while AWACS cover was provided by the E-3C from 552ACW at Tinker AFB and NATO E-3A LX-N90446. As usual, Nellis based  'Aggressors' played the 'bad guys', with F-15C's from 65AGRS and F-16C's from 64AGRS.

Not surprisingly, Nellis is a bit of a magnet for aircraft photographers during the exercises held here, so has well known photospots to shoot from, with predictable launch and recovery procedures for the morning and afternoon sorties. However, photography can still be a challenge, with some shots at distance maybe affected by heat haze etc (being out in the desert). Some luck is also needed with the runway in use, as well as for the recovery patterns for returning aircraft, which can affect the ideal location for shots. The two main photospots around the base, are the roadside pull-in's outside the speedway track on N Las Vegas Highway (for Runway 21 arrivals), and around the industrial estate on E Cheyenne Road (for Runway 03 arrivals), the two being joined by N Nellis Blvd. It doesn't take long to get familiar with these roads, as most photographers find out, after many 'mad dashes' between the two, to get to in position after runway changes etc. Ideally, the Runway 03L photospots are the best for landing shots, as well as take off shots coming the other way, off '21R, at any time of day, with aircraft being the lowest and closest here. The Runway 21 photospots are only really useful for landing shots in the afternoon (as you can't get over to the Eastern side of the approach at this end), and even then only '21R for fighters, with '21L being too distant for quality shots. When aircraft are recovering on '21, probably most will turn right-hand for '21R over/around the speedway track, so its 'just' a matter of being in the ideal spot along here to get the best shots. Generally, it seems that based units or pilots more familiar with Nellis will turn on tighter finals, while others will take longer finals, so you need to be further up the road to catch these the best. However, if aircraft break left-hand for '21 (as US Navy fighters often do for some reason), forget it! So, Nellis can be a bit hit and miss, though with a bit of luck can be very rewarding, and i would certainly recommend a good lens with 500mm+ reach, in addition to a regular telephoto zoom.

Day 1 here saw morning recoveries on Runway 21R, which produced a few good shots as i got familiar with the approach patterns. These included the first Pakistan F-16B.Then, knowing it would be a few hours until the afternoon launch, i decided to nip down to nearby North Las Vegas Airport for my first visit here. This is the base for Vision Air, and their Dornier 228 aircraft, which operate scenic flights down to the Grand Canyon. It's also a busy GA airfield with a few biz movements, and has several stored aircraft of interest, which i was to return to shoot later.

Returning to Nellis for the afternoon launch slot, a few more inbounds onto '21R first, included a nice pair of Raptors operating with the based test unit, with one being from an operatinal squadron at Tyndall AFB. Thankfully '21R was then used for the afternoon launches, with the Cheyenne photospot providing for some good take off shots. With '21R continuing in use, the subsequent recoveries around 1.5 hours later provided a few more good shots, from the speedway end.


Day 2 here was to be at Nellis for the morning Red Flag launch & recoveries, before moving on to the three GA airfields in the wider Vegas area, and ending up at McCarran International. With Nellis now using Runway 03, for landings from the SW, inbounds photographed from Cheyenne included the Marines KC-130J from Miramar, and the very welcome Prowler. The morning Red Flag recoveries then switched to Runway 21R, with another Prowler among the final shots here. On leaving, one of the resident Rescue HH-60G's was inbound, which route very low over the highway (with their ramp being just inside the fence). Just then 'Hydra 03' was up on the scanner, with a smoker inbound for '21L. After the 'distant' shot of the NATO E-3A, i was finally off.

First stop then, on an anti-clockwise tour of 'the other three' airports, was North Las Vegas. After a quick stop at the Vision Air terminal area for the active Dorniers, it was off around the perimeter to the ramp where seven more are parked along with some GA aircraft. All the 228's here are obviously WFU and have been used for parts, with engines and flying controls missing, all being ex Martinaire (in various colour schemes) apart from the ex Saudi aircraft, still in the basic old Saudia colours. Nice! Of the two 328JET's, both are fully intact, with the 'Vision Air' aircraft being sealed up. Chuffed to have got shots of all these, it was then off South to Henderson Executive Airport, where the first aircraft photographed was another Dornier 328JET, the executive N328DA of Comtran, parked in a hangar. This very nice airport has become quite a busy 'alternative' to LAS for executive traffic, as well as being one of the two main NBAA venues (the other being Orlando Executive). It also features a very nice terminal building with a bar upstairs that has an outside area overlooking the main ramp. Great photospot, with a highlight being the 40 year old HS125, among a handfull of biz-jets present. From here, it is around 20 miles East to Boulder City Airport, the home to DHC-6 'VistaLiners' of Scenic Airlines and Grand Canyon Airlines, as well as Papillon EC130's and a couple of Cessna Caravan operators, all offering scenic flights over the 'big hole'. Thanks here to the female pilot who let me out to shoot on the Twin Otter ramp. After also getting good shots around the terminal area, i then parked up next to the end of the runway for some landing shots, until the sun dropped below the nearby mountains. From here it was straight off to the hotel at McCarran International, around 20 miles to the NW, for the next two nights. The Hampton Inn is a nice, modern hotel (at a reasonable price), ideally located right off E Sunset Road (the Southern perimeter road at LAS), very close to the landing end of Runway 25L.


Two full days at McCarran International, which also has some well known photospots (and some less well known), which are an option at certain times of the day, depending on the runways in use. LAS has four runways: the East-West 25R/07L and 25L/07R, and slightly shorter, North-South 19R/01L and 19L/01R. The common runway use here (unless winds dictate otherwise) is probably '25R for take off's and '25L for landings (including most heavies), with 19L also used for landings (mostly by airliners) and 19R mostly for executive and 'other stuff' that parks on the West side. Also a common practice it seems, is take off's from Runway 01L/R early in the morning, which if the case, has the photospot option at the multi-story Long Term car park. For this location, head to the top level and walk as far as you can towards the runway, with the best area to the right of the elavators. This is a popular photospot for the nice rotation shots with the famous strip on Las Vegas Boulevard as a backdrop. However, it does require a lot of zoom and is usually only suitable early in the morning, before the heat haze kicks in. As well as the rotation shots, some taxy shots and aircraft on/off the stands below can also be taken from here. Obviously early in the morning, shots of Runway 19/01 movements are best, with '25L movements having the sun 'up the arse'. In addition to the car park then, there are photospots to the left of the '19L approach. Areas on the other side of the perimeter road can easily be found, or alternatively, if you drive in from this end, there is a short-term car park on the right, next to the perimeter fence, where good landing shots can be taken with the strip as a backdrop. However, security might not tolerate this in this area, so a bit of discretion is advised (i sat in the car with the window down to get shots). Its certainly worth it.

As the sun gets around at mid-day, obviously it gets better for '25L landing shots, with the sun now on the side here. Probably the most famous photospot is best now, the purpose built pull-in off E Sunset Road, which is great for touchdown shots (and has ATC radio on loud speakers). A large set of step ladders are needed here though, to get above the high perimeter fence for the easiest photography, or as some locals do, stand on top of their trucks (be carefull not to damage the rental though!). As i didn't have either, i just parked on the other side of the road and shot the landers over the fence from further down. If '25L is being used by most landing aircraft, these photospots can easily be used for the rest of the day for good shots. Alternatively, a good photospot to the right of the '19L/R approach can be used if this runway is also in use, with plenty of traffic. Just on the other side of the perimeter road here is an apartment block with some shops and a large car park, from where good landing shots can be taken (of either '19 runway) in the afternoon. Also to mention, not that they were while i was there, but if Runway 01L/R is in use, the area around the Jack in the Box restaurant is a popular place at that end for landing shots after mid-day. Generally speaking, LAS has very good photospot options for all the runways here.  

Of the FBO's that run along the West side of the airport, the ramps around the top NW corner are also used by the Las Vegas Sands aircraft, with Boeing 737's and Gulfstreams. One dissapointment during this visit though, was the absence of their 'big stuff' (B747SP's VP-BLK & VQ-BMS, B767-300 N804MS and Tristar N388LS). These 'flying casinos' are known to disappear for up to weeks at a time though, based out in the Far East, with all the Sands aircraft also occasionally using nearby Laughlin-Bullhead City, just over the border in Arizona. Further along this side, is the EG&G ramp with their famous 'Janet' B737's, which transport personnel to and from several military facilities in the region. Unfortunately, the classic B737-200's have all gone now, replaced by ex-Chinese B737-600's, in the familiar all white scheme with thick red cheatline. In addition to the 737's are some EG&G twin-props that may be seen, such as Beech 200's or Beech 1900C N623RA that was also photographed. Not surprisingly, shots around the EG&G ramp are difficult, though not worth the risk anyway, with good landing and taxy shots of their aircraft being so easy. Further down the Western perimeter, easy shots are possible, around the Signature FBO and Maverick Helicopters, which is also good for some taxy shots.

And so, with another part of the trip completed, i returned the rental car (which had only just been replaced today after the original one gave up!), and checked in for my next flight. Again flying AirTran, back to Milwaukee, FL776 was operated by B737-700 N261AT, off at 2340 and landing 3.10 hours later at 0450L. Effectively an overnight flight, with the time difference.


After the 'red-eye' from Vegas and picking up the rental car, it was straight off to Chicago-Rockford for the second day of AirFest 2010, around 95 miles to the SW of Milwaukee. Arriving just as the gates had opened, this enabled me to get in early for some static shots without too many people around. The AirFest here has grown into quite a major show in the States, and attracts a very good selection of quality aircraft, thanks to the very enthusiastic organisers involved (more on this later). With the amazing hot weather this year, came record crowds, though with a South facing crowd line, flying shots are quite difficult here. Facing the sun, the heat was almost unbearable at times, and although not ideal for photography, was great to top up the tan!

Of the aircraft present this year, it could had been even better, with FedEx originally planning to have a B727-200 in the static, which was unfortunately changed to an A310. The biggest dissapointment though, was certainly the USAF E-4B cancelling, although instead there was the Boeing Dreamlifter, making a rare airshow appearance, and so one of the stars of AirFest 2010. As for the other highlights this year, there are just too many to mention! Prior to the show i had been following developments on the Fencecheck forum, where i had seen the enthusiasm that the organisers were showing, led by Operations Supervisor Dave 'opsguy' Lindberg, who updates the forum with the latest news and what is expected at AirFest each year. He also arranges a coach to take photographers around the static on the first day of the show, before the gates open, for clear shots without any of the public in the way. After contacting Dave, i had arranged special access for the departures day, and meeting him during the show, this was confirmed. I was to meet him the next morning, and would spend the day on the ramp in his Ops vehicle as he dealt with the departing show aircraft. Fantastic!

Before that, on leaving the show today, and still with great sunlight, i stopped by the hangars on the perimeter. Here there is a company that deals with storage and scrapping of CRJ aircraft, with four outside being photographed. These included two former Independence Air aircraft (who ceased operations in January 2006), still in full colours. Of the other two, the ex Delta/Comair aircraft had been WFU five weeks earlier, while the ex Air Canada Jazz aircraft was about to be scrapped, after having almost everything possible removed!

And so to the final day of the trip, and after meeting Dave, we headed out to the airshow ramp, where some crews were already with their aircraft, preparing to depart. First to go was the Boeing Dreamlifter, with the Atlas Air crew kindly letting us onboard for some shots before departure. Here i met the Airport CEO and his wife, who were also having a look inside this massive aircraft, along with a few other crews. The USAF Thunderbirds were not far behind leaving, with their eight F-16's still putting on a show, during their departure. Dave then mentioned that they had played a prank on the airport, leaving one of their 'calling cards', with the stand 5 airbridge having the number 5 on top turned upside down, after one of the Thunderbirds crew had climbed up! This to copy Thunderbird 5, that performs the inverted display, so has the number 5 upside down on the intake! Later during the departures, i had asked Dave if there were any Ryan International B767 movements today (having their home base here), as none were present. After getting on the radio, he was told that one wasn't far out, so after getting in position, N637TW was then photographed taxying in onto stand. This aircraft was recently repaired after suffering a tail-strike on take off at Lajes on 11th June.

Finally, one of the last aircraft to go was the Barksdale B-52H, but not after i had a good chat with the crew and looked in the somewhat cramped cockpit, which was looking a bit tatty. A real aircraft! The crew were very interested in getting a copy of the photos of the B-52 arrival at last years AirFest here, from 'rival' unit 5BW at Minot, which famously badly 'bounced' on landing! Not that the Barksdale guys then had an easy time, when trying to taxy out here, with the upright taxy lights (on stands about two feet high) causing real problems as the wing-walkers slowly guided the aircraft along, just missing some of the lights with the outboard wing 'boogie wheels'. These are retractable, but need to be down to prevent the drooping wings from striking the ground. And so after watching the Buff depart, it was time to make a move, as i had to get to O'Hare for the flight home. Saying farewell to Dave then, and a big thankyou for his very kind help, i headed off for the drive of around 65 miles to ORD. Making good time, i had another quick look in at Chicago-Du Page en route, where half a dozen biz were photographed, including Whirlpool Corp Gulf 4 N1900W and old Falcon 20C-5 N300BA. Then after dropping the rental car off at ORD, it was onto American B757-200(WL) N175AN for AA54 back to Manchester. Departing at 1750, the overnight flight of 7.10 hours was in at 0700L on the 3rd, before the drive home.

More pictures to follow...