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  Field Notes From
The Future of Flying

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The Future of Flying On AssignmentArrows

View Field Notes
From Photographer

Joe McNally

The Future of Flying On Assignment

View Field Notes
From Author

Michael Klesius

In most cases these accounts are edited versions of a spoken interview. They have not been researched and may differ from the printed article.

Photographs by Joe McNally (top) and Brian Strauss


The Future of Flying

Field Notes From Photographer
Joe McNally

Best Worst Quirkiest
    I flew in the slot position, or the tail end, of the Blue Angels' (the
elite aerial acrobatic flying team of the United States Navy) diamond formation at their winter practice grounds in El Centro, California. I was lucky enough to be one of the few civilians ever permitted to fly with them, and one of the fewer allowed to do it with a camera.
    For 30 minutes I maneuvered in an F/A-18 Hornet. It was amazing to fly in such a highly powered craft. The canopy is a clear bubble, and it gave me a 180-degree-plus view. I felt as if I myself was literally flying.
    I also flew with a great Navy pilot named Lt. Cmdr. Jerry Deren. He really boosted my confidence by constantly letting me know what to anticipate from g-force and certain movement. I was riding in the backseat, which had a stick that went between my knees and moved in tandem with Jerry's. The motions could be abrupt and hard, so being a novice he always said something on the order of, "OK, Joe, make sure your left leg is clear of the stick. We're going to a hard left roll." 
   Flying with the Angels was a one-of-a-kind opportunity, and I got some nice pictures out of it too.

    It was absolutely the worst time to shoot a story celebrating flight. Civil aviation was a mess and the war in Iraq had just begun. This made getting photographs tough because of security concerns and the lack of aircrafts available from the military. My requests just weren't a priority.
    One of my many disappointments was my inability to photograph the approach of an F/A-14 or 18 on a carrier. It's the ultimate test of a pilot's ability, and I thought this perspective would add more richness to my coverage. I had envisioned a wide-angle shot over a pilot's shoulder just as he was landing, but I never got that chance, because the military wouldn't give me clearance.

    I shot this entire assignment with Nikon digital cameras, which was a first for the magazine. My photo editor, Bill Douthitt, and I felt that digital photography was appropriate for such a forward-looking story and offered a lot more advantages than a conventional camera. For example, when I was flying with the Blue Angels at several hundred knots, I didn't have to worry about juggling my film every 36 frames because my flashcard can hold 120 images.
    My D1-X cameras also worked well in highly classified environments. At the end of shooting the Lockheed Martin F/A-22 Raptor, I was able to give United States Air Force officials an instantaneous review of my work and walk away with all the pictures.
    The speed is phenomenal, and these days I'm shooting more than 80 percent of my assignments digitally. The technology has matured to a point that talk about differences in image quality has become irrelevant.


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