Hawkins Field Airshow 2009

"C" is for "cookie"

"C" is for "cookie"

Last year as Denise was driving back to the house she spotted an airplane doing stunts in the sky.  She promptly searched and called around to see what the deal was and found out about the Hawkins Field Airshow.  We were too late to go to it last year, so we put it on our running fun-things-to-do calendar for this year, and since it was held on a free day for us we were able to go see it a couple days ago.

For those looking for airshow photos apologies ahead of time for the boring personal family pics, and for those expecting Denise and Sofia pics apologies ahead of time for all the boring airplane shots!

Camera nerd alert–geeky photography talk ahead!  The E-P1, which had established itself as the firm favorite for casual photo outings, stayed at home this time.  I knew I’d need good autofocus tracking, and the E-P1 is weak in that area.  Plus I knew I’d need long focal length lenses, and the longest I have on the E-P1 is an 84mm equivalent lens.  So my heavier hitters did the deed instead–5D + 24-70L for close shots and 40D + Sigma 50-500 for long shots.  I also brought 3 other lenses since I didn’t know what to expect for my first airshow, which turned out to be a big mistake that my shoulder really regretted after hauling all that junk around.

As far as images go, I have no idea of the accepted aesthetics in the aircraft and aerobatics (acrobatics in the air) photography sub-genre, but based on my general knowledge of photography there were quite a few shots I was happy with, a few of which I’m sharing here.  I’ve photographed helicopters in flight before, so I knew that some propeller motion blur makes images of propeller-powered aircraft look more realistic (if you freeze the propeller in the shot, it looks like the aircraft isn’t moving), but other than that I was definitely… ahem… winging it.  For those who shoot airshows all the time and consistently come out with sharp images, big props to you.  The combination of lower shutter speed to allow propeller blur while trying to steady a 500mm lens handheld and keep a rapidly flying object in focus meant a lot of my shots were either blurry from camera shake, motion blur, or a combination of both; and when I set the shutter speed higher to compensate for that, I didn’t get enough propeller blur.  Practice, practice, practice?  Maybe that and a membership at a local gym, because all that up-down-and-around movement meant a lot of reps with a heavy camera and lens combination.  During some of the airshow routines my arms started to shake from the effort of keeping the camera steady.

Sorry for any banding and color gradation blockiness in these blue sky shots.  They aren’t that way in the originals–only in these 80% quality, web-sized JPEGs.  This isn’t a fine arts print showing after all; you get the idea even from the crummy JPEGs.  It was a beautiful, sunshiny day, as you can see from the mostly cloudless blue skies.

Despite there being a healthy crowd at the event (A few hundred?  A thousand maybe?  I’m terrible at estimating crowd sizes), finding a prime spot wasn’t hard.  We could’ve plopped down our chairs a few feet from the barricade fence if we wanted to, but I think sitting slightly further back allowed us a better view and less crowding.  You can see from the first shot above that there was plenty of elbow room.

Bearfeat Aerobatics

Randy Harris of Bearfeat Aerobatics

When I think “biplane” I think “World War I” and “slow and not maneuverable”.  So I was shocked to see this biplane and a couple others later in the show perform amazing stunts.  This plane is named the Skybolt 300, and is apparently the only plane ever built in the living room of a condo.  Extreme DIY indeed.  I’d never fly anything I built myself.

Gary Rower Vintage Airshows

Gary Rower Vintage Airshows

Another case in point: this biplane flying upside down.  That’s not nearly the most amazing thing they did though.  They also flew in tight loops, did crazy mid-air stalling maneuvers, etc.  My aerobatics knowledge is basically nil, so my terminology will be way off in describing what we saw, but suffice it to say it was pretty amazing.  Still shots don’t do these planes and what they can do any kind of justice.  You really have to see them in motion to fully experience it.

Hiding from the paps behind a graham cracker

Hiding from the paps behind a graham cracker

So far Sofia is mildly impressed.  The 1st plane was cool.  I guess the 2nd one looked like more of the same to her, so she busied herself with some graham cracker consumption.

Jimmy Fordham in a Yak 52

Jimmy Fordham in a Yak 52

The MC put on the Soviet national anthem before and during this demonstration, which made me want to go home and watch Hunt for Red October.  For sheer drama, there are few national anthems that compare to the Soviets’.  Although not nearly as maneuverable as the previous 2 planes, Mr. Fordham put in quite a shift and did some neat tricks of his own.  Hmm… that Yak 52 sure looks familiar.  I think I’ve shot down a few of these in my younger flight sim playing days.

Gary Ward in his MX2

Gary Ward in his MX2

Even more phenomenal than the biplanes was this custom-designed stunt plane.  Makes sense now that I know it, but there are actually planes designed specifically for aerobatics.  This plane did some insane tricks, really pushing the envelope of what I thought was possible within the laws of physics.  If I recall correctly at one point he hovered his plane, completely stationary.  He also did some really scary looking stall and spin maneuvers that a lesser plane wouldn’t be able to recover from.  Think Top Gun tailspin on a slower scale but scarier since it’s in real life.  Awesome stuff and something everybody should get to see at least once in his life.  Randy Harris and Gary Ward are 2 members of the 3-member “Team Chaos” that performed together later in the show.  Their individual performances were amazing enough, but they really blew it out with their team performance.

Loving on baby

Loving on baby

Dancing with baby

Dancing with baby

Amazing as the MX2 was, Sofia preferred to play and dance to the music with her baby doll.  I really thought she’d be more entranced by the airshow, but I guess she’s a girl after all.  Good to know.

Neal Darnell's Flash Fire jet truck

Neal Darnell's Flash Fire jet truck

No, really–that’s a jet-powered pickup truck.  It’s not just for show, because the truck can go a reputed 350 miles per hour.  Neal Darnell is the 3rd member of Team Chaos.  Caution: spoilers ahead!  If you don’t want to find out everything about their act and its spectacular ending, skip ahead to the next photo and paragraph. Their act is first the 2 pilots “fight” over who gets to race the jet truck by trying to out-stunt each other.  Once a winner is chosen, the jet truck starts revving up and blowing short bursts of fire and smoke everywhere while prowling back and forth on the runway, supposedly to intimidate the pilots.  The pilots respond by making some very low altitude runs over the truck.  After all the back-and-forth is through, the designated race pilot gets a running start (obviously, since he’s already in the air) while the jet truck starts from a standstill and the other pilot comes in from the opposite direction.  They time it so that all 3 of them meet in the middle of the track at which point a huge explosion goes off.  Seriously, I felt the concussive blast of air as well as the heat all the way in the crowd, as did Denise from further back.  As I was absolutely not expecting this while framing a tight shot through the 40D viewfinder, my first thought when I saw, felt, and heard the explosion was, “Oh no, something’s gone wrong!”  So my 2nd reaction was relief upon discovering it was just a stunt.  Completely botched the shot so no photographic evidence for you, but if they come back next year I’m nailing that shot.  You just watch.  I kinda feel like I’m giving away the twist to an M. Night Shyamalan movie by telling you how it ends, but really you just have to go out there and experience it anyway because it’s totally awesome.

Wow!

No way that just happened!

Miss Jaded was thoroughly impressed by the jet truck.  Of all the sights and experiences to bring away from an airshow, Sofia picks the jet truck.  Whenever recalling the airshow she mentions the jet truck in intricate detail and the airplanes only in passing.  She calls it the “fire truck”.  Well, it was pretty cool after all.

Denise has her wallet and is preparing to brave the long lines to grab us some lunch.  We thought we’d stay for 2-3 hours, but we ended up having lunch there and staying for the whole thing.  No pics of lunch (argh, falling down on the food blogging job… again!).  We had ribs (riblets?  They were short) and fries.  Nothing spectacular but a tasty and solid meal, and for $16 for 2 rib plates and 2 bottled waters not a bad deal at all, especially since we each had so much food we couldn’t finish even with Sofia’s help.  We timed lunch perfectly as there were no airshows while we were eating (various people got up to the mic to talk about flight education programs, etc.).

Skip Stewart

Skip Stewart

If the previous aerobatic displays were awesome, what Skip Stewart did seemed nigh impossible.  The above shot doesn’t show anything particularly amazing, but in other parts of his routine he did some nutty stuff.  For example, just after taking off while still over the runway he tipped his plane sideways with the wings facing the crowd and the nose pointing diagonally upwards and flew sideways, skimming over the runway at an altitude of a few feet.  If you can’t quite envision what I’m describing you’ll see it in the next shot.

Ribbon cutting, aerobatics style

Ribbon cutting, aerobatics style

Some “lucky” volunteers got to stand on either side of the runway, holding up 2 poles connected with a green and reddish-pink ribbon that Skip Stewart would cut with his plane.  In the first run he went right to left cutting the top green ribbon.  I didn’t get a clean shot of that–didn’t time the shot right.  In the 2nd run he cut through the lower pink ribbon.  His wing is probably, what, 8 feet off the ground?  Insane.  By the way, this sideways flying is what he did right after takeoff except without the ribbons.  Very, very cool show.

Walt Pierce and Double Trouble

Walt Pierce and Double Trouble

Next up were some wing walkers.  It’s crazy enough to do stunts in an airplane.  It’s a whole different level doing stunts outside of an airplane.  There’s a lady standing on top of this airplane (bottom in this photo since the plane is upside-down) and a man on the far side of the plane on the wing.  The lady moved from the bottom wing to the top and back through the course of their routine, while the plane did loops and turns.

Tora, Tora, Tora Pearl Harbor reenactment

Tora, Tora, Tora Pearl Harbor reenactment

The grand finale was a Pearl Harbor reenactment by the “Tora, Tora, Tora” group, named after the famous World War II movie of the same title.  And not just for effect either.  The planes used in this reenactment were built for the movie, which this group later bought to use for shows.  No carriers or battleships here obviously, but it was still a rousing experience.  The reenactment was performed to a backdrop of running commentary by a narrator describing the events on that fateful day, with planes zinging in and out and explosions going off periodically as they flew by.

They shootin'!

They shootin'!

Call me a cheeseball, but I really got a sense of what it must’ve been like on that day, albeit at a much smaller and tamer scale.  By the end of it the rising sun emblems on those planes looked almost as ominous and dread-inducing to me as it must have to the soldiers, pilots, and sailors that day.  They did a marvelous job, with my only niggle being that I wish they had more explosions.  Not for petty Michael Bay “awesome”-ness, but because the explosions really drove the point home, and having maybe double the explosions would’ve put it over the top in a good way.

Japanese plane replicas

Japanese plane replicas

From what I managed to find with my ninja Google-ing skills I learned that this was the 2nd annual Hawkins Field Airshow, which combined with the great turnout for this year’s event will mostly likely mean a 3rd annual incarnation next year.  So with the near certainty of another one next year in mind, here’s what we learned from going this year, and hopefully you can take advantage of our lessons learned with various degrees of pain and suffering.  Some of these points were already either implicitly or explicitly addressed previously, so those will just be summary:

  • Admission is free!  I’m all about free, especially when it’s this good.
  • The entrance to Hawkins Field is off of Industrial Drive, not Sunset Drive or Lavernet Road.  If you’re coming from Jackson, go west on Woodrow Wilson, turn right onto Industrial Drive, and find the nearest parking space.
  • If a police officer tells you there’s a shuttle on Industrial Drive to take you to Hawkins Field, don’t believe him.  Not saying he was wrong, but we walked 20 minutes and never saw a shuttle.  I’m just saying.
  • If you want good parking, get there early.  We arrived about 30-40 minutes after it started and ended up parking about a 20 minute walk or so away.  All level ground, which was a blessing, but nice and hot on the way back, which brings me to my next lesson.
  • Protect your skin from the sun.  This is probably common sense to anybody not darker skinned like me, but even somebody more resistant to sunburn like me can (and I did) get burned.  The spectator area is all concrete, with hardly any tall structures providing any shade.  Definitely sun screen up.  If you’re a lady, bring an umbrella (if you’re a man with an umbrella, somebody will punch you in the stomach because of that).  No tents allowed though.
  • Food is decent if you don’t mind standing in line for 10-15 minutes.  $16 for a meal for 2 adults and 1 child with leftovers we could’ve taken home if we had had something to carry it in.  Lemonade was sugar water with a drop of lemon–not good.  You can’t bring a cooler (Denise says it’s because airshows are a white trash tradition, as is beer in the cooler at airshows.  I say it’s nominally that but more an excuse to charge you for food and drink.), but you could bring sandwiches and bottled water in a backpack if you want to make it an entirely free outing.
  • Unless you’re ripped, travel light, especially if you’re not there early.  A 20 minute walk in the sun is a pretty healthy hike, especially with a heavy camera bag and an outdoor folding chair in tow.  Be smart and don’t carry too much unless you don’t mind the weight or you think you can get there early enough for a close parking spot.
  • Camera nerdery: 1.5x or 1.6x crop with 400 to 500mm or so lens is what’s needed to fill the frame.  If you have a 500mm prime it will be great for some shots but too long for others.  If you’re so equipped, 2 crop cameras with a 300mm on one and a 500mm on the other would probably cover the majority of shots you could possibly take of the planes in flight.  Point is: bring your longest lens because it won’t go to waste.  An ultra wide angle would come in handy too if you have the chance to get up close to the parked planes, which I didn’t.
  • More camera nerdery: bring all your memory cards and batteries because you’ll need them.  I filled almost 3 8GB compact flash cards at this event–a handful shy of 2000 shots.  And this was mostly with shooting in conservative bursts of 2-3 shots at a time.  I did manage to clog the 40D’s buffer a few times though, so maybe I wasn’t as conservative as I thought with my bursts, although I did shoot RAW so the burst buffer wasn’t very big.
  • If you don’t already, start keeping a running fun-things-to-do list.  Whenever we hear about something fun we’ve missed this year, we put it on our running list.  Otherwise we might not have remembered that the airshow would be on this past weekend.  Thanks, Denise, for reminding us and getting us out to a cracking event.

The Hawkins Field Airshow 2009 was loads of fun and will be a firmly scheduled family outing for us for as long as they continue to hold it.

(Search me if I can find an official website for the Hawkins Field Airshow.  If you find one let me know so I can stick it here.  All I’ve found is a forum post about it and a news article about it.)

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