0400, and we were up and moving.
I rubbed my eyes. Zulu in his kindness had schlepped me from just outside NYC to Wilmington the day prior for a few hours rest, but now we were loaded into the car and off to New Garden Flying Field in the dark. The muggy weather produced fog that turned lights into cones of color reaching out into the blackness. On the airport road, we had to slow for Bambi and friends as they bounded off into the forest, flashing their white tails before disappearing. For this city slicker, it was refreshing to see a living creature that wasn't a rat or a cockroach (and those both barely qualify).
We parked, stepped into the thick air and smelled the funk of mushroom farms. Our lenses fogged up immediately coming from the air-conditioned car environment to the hot, muggy morning. The airport's rotating beacon spun light sabers around silently, alternating a green beam and a stronger white beam of light. We walked down through the wet grass.
Emerging from the mist, before us in all their glory, sat the Mustang and the Corsair. As the blackness of foggy pre-dawn faded and light filtered through, the sky changed from a black to a dark periwinkle with the orange haze of artificial light along the horizon, and we took in the misty morning communion with these relics of wars past.
All was quiet on the airfield. When Christian, Ryguy and RyTy arrived, we could hear their hushed voices from a hundred yards away. We shot through dawn, enjoying the peace of a sleeping airport; the only sounds were our camera shutters and occasional quiet conversation. The day came upon us slowly in a gray fade, the low clouds continuing to block sunlight as they burned off. When we had our fill, we walked up the hill and indulged in the wonderful pancake breakfast put on every year by the show.
We shot the show from the airshow box, enjoying one spectacular performance after another from the grass off the taxiway. Afterwards, we were eating some food, enjoying the tight chordal harmony from America's Sweethearts, when Mark Murphy (the pilot of the Zero/Mustang) swung through. We had a quick conversation with him and learned he needed some photographers for a little project...and in short order.
Matt Kropp, a friend of Mark and Charlie Lynch (the Corsair pilot for the show), hopped in the Mustang, and fired it up. Mark jumped on somebody's motorcycle that was at the airport, and RyTy, Ryguy, Zulu, Joe DiAntonio, James (who showed up after the show), and I strung ourselves out along the taxiway grass to cover multiple angles as the Mustang taxied to the end of the field. As the sunset painted the gleaming bird orange, Matt pushed the throttle forward and the Mustang roared down the runway. He lifted off into a pale tangerine sky, lapped the airport and made passes down the runway as Mark raced him on the motorcycle down the taxiway, pumping his fist the whole way; Mark had gotten his Top Gun moment.
We weren't finished yet, however. We had been talking with Scott Francis for a long time leading up to this show, looking to make a night shoot happen and give his sleek MX-S the FDA treatment. For one reason or another, things never materialized...until tonight. New Garden is not a huge military base with restrictions galore, and Jon Martin, the airshow coordinator, was more than generous, staying late to help us out and allowing us to use space on the ramp for the shoot. But word had gotten around...and our list of photo subjects was growing.
By the time we had our lighting rigs in place for the shoot and the sun started her slide behind the trees, our list of aircraft had grown from one...to six. SIX. Due to the way things had to be organized with the tug and parking spaces, we worked out the order, set up our cameras and waited, enjoying the peace of an airfield sunset with our first photo subject: an authentic Mitsubishi A6M Zero.
That's right, a Zero. A real A6M2 Zero. In a night run-up. And that was just the start. When the sun was finally gone and the lights were making a difference, Matt fired up the Zero and Mark got in the frame for a few shots as the (non-authentic but still awesome) Pratt and Whitney thumped its song across the airfield. Blue hour seemed to evaporate quickly, so once the Zero shut down, what was previously a transfixed, captive audience for the engine-run, dissolved into a flurry of activity.
We began the first of many repositions with an army of helping hands guiding the tug and aircraft back to its parking space, while our next subject, Scott Francis, fired up, taxied between our light stands, and spun his MX-S around to face the press. His wingtip lights illuminated the tarmac giving each side of his aircraft a nautical green/red glow. That strikingly blue MX-S looked fast just idling there, low to the ground, the spinning prop like a big reflective dinner plate for our lights. After a minute or two idling and everyone hurriedly shifting shooting positions, he punched the smoke for us. Once again, we were off to the races.
After Scott in his bright blue MX-S, Jason Flood posted up in our spotlights with his lipstick-red, angry-sounding Pitts "The Red Ghost" and turned over her gleaming white prop, followed by his bright yellow Cub with her silver spinner. Mark Merideth was up next in the Super Chipmunk as the aircraft rotated on and off our makeshift stage, each aircraft except the Cub giving us a smokeshow and leaving a happy stain on the asphalt.
As the light from sunset faded, we were guiding the pilots in their idling aircraft back to their parking spots with our flashlights, clearing the wings on either side and doing our best to illuminate our intended path and also both sides of the aircraft. At the same time, more of our helpers were guiding our next subject into place in front of the lights, while still more the crew moved cameras and light stands out of the way for the next aircraft; truly a remarkable team effort.
Our last subject was also quite special: a P-51 Mustang. With the light completely gone, stars were starting to pierce through the atmosphere. Jupiter was glowing brightly through the entire night shoot, low and in-view of most of our lenses. The Mustang whined and coughed to life, thrumming her Merlin song, occasionally throwing blue flame from the stacks. The ground resonated with the thumping of 12 cylinders. As I shot beside Joe for a brief period, we exchanged looks of disbelief. Was this really happening? In her fire-breathing glory, the hero of WWII roared in vivid animation as a grand finale for our lenses and the once-again captive audience.
When the prop finally came to a stop, the dark night had fallen on New Garden. A hazy, orange moon was rising behind the trees, and tired volunteers began buttoning down the airfield. We exchanged heartfelt goodbyes with everyone we could find, and I headed up the hill to hop in RyTy's car for the long drive back to a NJ Transit train station. We parted ways and RyTy set off towards his home, and I took the long train ride back to the city.
Once back in the city, I waited...and waited...and waited for the late night NYC subway, which sailed past my stop running express. Naturally. To pass the time, I twisted my backpack around and cracked the top so I could see the back of my camera. Scrolling through images I felt reflective and recalled the beehive of activity between night runs and then the stoic, laser focus while the engines were turning as I waited...and waited...and waited for the next local train. The range of colors as I scrolled from dawn to dusk rode a warm crescendo, and I slowed my scroll when I saw Jupiter pop into the frame.
I came across Scott's MX-S, vivid and vibrant under the lights. When he was finished with his night run, Ryguy and I had lit his path and cleared his wings back to the hangar in the dark. He shut down, popped open the canopy and we immediately shook hands. This had been a long time coming, and we were more than thrilled to have finally captured his aircraft under the lights and the stars. We showed him a few shots quickly from the backs of our cameras and he was excited. "You guys get it. You guys get the drama of the prop," he said as he climbed out of the cockpit.
In a single off-hand phrase of praise, he captured the essence of a feeling I had been trying unsuccessfully for months to put words to. A smile came to my face as I snapped back to reality and closed my bag; my train home was pulling into this grungy NYC subway station, so I boarded, and we waited...and waited...and waited… until finally, we lurched out of the station and on to my stop. I walked home and keyed into my place, leaving a trail of clothes and equipment to the bathroom where I showered off the smoke oil, and by the time I was ready to collapse, I checked the clock:
**Full Disc Aviation would like to sincerely thank everyone involved with this monumental effort, especially Jon Martin, Scott Francis, Charlie Lynch, Mark Murphy, Jason Flood, Matt Kropp, Mark Merideth, and all the hard working volunteers at New Garden Flying Field that helped make this possible.