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Airshow Security


Now, this is a delicate subject. It’s dangerously close to biting the hand that feeds us, and it feels uncomfortable to go there after the years of decimation that befell this lifeblood of our hobby from the fallout of 2020.

But Airshows. Air Days. Open Houses. Air Fetes. Air Festivals. Wings… Flying Days… Expos and Air Fests… You’re all amazing. Seriously.

We, as aviation photographers, with all of our passion, patriotism and loyalty are your biggest fans. We cheered you on and prayed from the sidelines that you survived and succeeded. So please, for the love of all things flyable, please treat us like the friends we are.

It was baffling to read of a US airshow introduce a harsh new airshow ruling recently, which banned any lens above 200mm bring brought into the event on the basis of a ‘security threat’. Straight away it’s also SUPER important to point out the ‘revolt’ that ensued over social media from the aviation photography community saw a complete reversal of the ruling. Fair play – it’s a big deal for an event to admit they got it wrong, and there is absolute respect for that.

The fact that it happened over social media was ironic – the images taken by aviation photographers populate event pages and are used to spread the word and market the shows to the masses. Images are vital. Yet to shoot a display by insisting that no lens over 200mm showed a real misunderstanding of the market sector and indeed the purpose of such a ruling.

It was said that it was a security issue and that it was in-line with other (military) events. The latter point is, to the best of my knowledge, just not true. There have been rulings on lenses, but never that low a focal length. It demonstrates a worrying lack of empathy – again, importantly – not specifically aimed at this single airshow, but the wider decision-making process and industry trend.

It raises questions for me. I wonder how this was going to be policed? Had every single security officer had been trained on what a 200mm lens is? How would they have treated a 100-400mm zoom; what about teleconverters? Had considered bridge cameras; what the decision-making process was; whether the impact on the aviation enthusiast was considered; how it would be perceived and where they got this notion from in the first place.

One prospective attendee assumed it was just so that the airshow’s own photographers would therefore be the only ones to be able to shoot the flying display in some kind of image-right grab. This is not the way.

Again, let’s remember that sense prevailed, and the event reversed the decision. Thank goodness and well played.

So let’s look at the reasons why such a thing would be implemented. Primarily, it would have been because a long lens (again, why 200mm?!) looks. It can, to the untrained eye (and that’s key here) look threatening and I do understand that. From a distance, looking over a fenceline or from a rooftop building, you DO have to think about what a 500mm prime lens looks like from inside a security post.

There’s also the factor of the size of camera bag. Rulings over the size of any kind of bag being authorized to pass through airshow security have been in place for quite some years now, and is usually spelt out on the event’s website. But rarely does it mention what can be done about a camerabag. Some events permit camerabags if you have a Media Pass, which is a great idea, but not always widely inclusive.

A good example is when I visit Nellis show (Aviation Nation). I love it. It’s one of my favorite events, but I don’t actually want to have a media pass for every event I go to. Sometimes, it’s nice to just sit back and be part of the event. Take a step back, enjoy the stands, the food, the crowd. But yes, I will still bring my equipment… So how can I possibly do that without a bag? Also, how can I carry ALL. THOSE. T-SHIRTS. that I want to buy haha?! I get round it, purely thanks to the Nevada weather… I carry one body with a 28-300mm and one body with a 500mm – no bags (with a lot of hassle, an aching back, and not enough t-shirts), but it just about works.

We all know and fully accept (again, another key point), that bags can unfortunately conceal unsavory things, so having to queue for a bag search, x-ray, is a way of life now. And that really needs to be a pinchpoint for lenses, too. Any airport will have you unpack a bag, check the camera is real by actually using it, and undressing the lenses and looking through them. At an airshow, where people come to pursue their love and hobby at a public event that benefits from images, there should be no difficulty in briefing all parties in the simple requirements of the aviation photographer. Consistency and common sense is all we ask. A dedicated “Photographer” line where specially trained security dudes can vet the equipment. Clear, dedicated instructions that are communicated early and consistently specific to the photographer. And then we have a part to play too.

Oh yes, we cannot hide behind a viewfinder and dictate, we have to meet in the middle.

There are very real security measures that we need to adhere to, and I have seen first-hand some of the misunderstandings that can take place.

We are blessed with super high-tech, cutting edge assets being a highlight of today’s airshow scene. These aircraft are not your grandma’s metal and rivets. Stealth characteristics and cockpit complexities are a very real part of the cutting edge, so there is a genuine requirement to manage access accordingly.

You can’t expect to shoot an F-22 cockpit. You can’t expect to shoot an F-35’s weapons bay.

So careful static positioning and consistent training to those souls detailed to protect the assets is an easy win. There is no reason why a little thought can be put into how such jets are displayed… Most of the time, us photographers would rather have barriers further back and the jet further away to get some nice, clean shots rather than having be under the semi-automatic-armed eye of a guard as we vie for a decent angle in the fight against people’s legs.

Sure, the general-show goer also wants to get close and, hell, so do we – to get a chance to ‘breathe in’ how cool these jets are up close. But again, there’s ways of doing that – a regular jet positioned, cleaned up and sensibly briefed and then a ‘photo jet’, just positioned differently, will have a clear benefit to all.

Other airplanes suffer from massive (frustrating) inconsistencies.

When the F-35 was introduced, it was forgivable to be told ‘no shots from this angle’ at one location and then ‘that angle is fine, but actually it’s this angle that you cannot shoot’, whilst the security memos filtered through. But airshows are an industry, there are governing bodies that exist to assist the execution of events and a consistent message over what is and is not ok is achievable.

At one extreme, I have been told that the Lightning II is totally eye-clear, there is nothing you can see on the jet externally that is classified, whilst at the other, I have had security stand next to me and watch me take shot by shot under a specific, detailed briefing and still get them refused and deleted after the event. As a professional, that is not ok.

Typhoons are another type that suffers from the strange phenomena of ‘no head on shots’ at one location and not an issue at another… Sometimes, it’s been a case of one unit being ok and one unit not being ok, or a display jet being ok but the spare jet is not. This may well be for ‘operational reasons’ that are impossible to argue against, but it does not help the poor soul that finds themself in hot water as a result (or help the messenger of inconsistency).

Military security at an airshow is absolute must.

I myself have fallen foul to a mistake I made, totally innocently, when I was lost in the thrill of it all at a US base. It was at the excellent show at Luke AFB, Arizona, and I was on the far end of the ramp as a beautiful B-17 was entering the taxiway at the other end of the ramp. I wanted to shoot this aluminum beauty against the arid desert (perfect), so I thought I could make it if I ran… There were quite a few people in this corner of Luke, and I undertook a steady jog across the ramp and slowed down about 100ft from the edge of taxiway barrier so I could shoot it on about 80mm.

Boom. Surrounded. Around 6-8x USAF Police Officers, hands twitching on firearms surrounded me, demanding my immediate attention and ID.

My brain tried to compute what I’d done wrong as I implicitly complied. One of the guards said I was a tenth of a second away from being ‘taken down’.

As ID was checked and a barrage of questions answered, it became clear that my crime was simply running to get the shot. Not only that, but also that my camerabag was a backpack. It’s what it looked like and these guys were absolutely right to check and I absolutely learned my lesson – if I had not been quite so focused (it’s only a photo!) I could have thought to seek the guards responsible for the ramp and explain that I would like to run over to the opposite side of the taxiway in order to get this particular shot and why I wanted it, here’s my ID, here’s my open camera bag, and have a nice day. Middle ground.

Another example as at El Centro show. After the event, my group of photographers was returning to our vehicle after another excellent day. A long story short, the CIA met us there… The CIA… One of the guys had seen one of those classic scenes of an aircrew sitting on top of their airplane (a Hercules, if I recall correctly) and took a picture of them enjoying the show, shades on, looking to the heavens and being engrossed in their fellow aviator’s skills in the flying display. There was also a shot taken of the crowd, looking backwards from the elevated bleachers. Quality images, taken by a professional photographer showing the spectacle of the event and the human element that any Public Affairs office would love… Or clandestine espionage, threatening freedom and posing a threat to life. That’s why the security is there and that’s why it’s important for everybody to understand the dynamics at play here. The event in the car park was, obviously, 100% necessary and resulted in hand shakes all round.

Finally COVID. Ahhh, COVID, that destroyer of industry, humanity and livelihood. There were worrying signs of this actually being used as a security issue. Some events that took place in 2022 left a bad taste in the mouth in the way that military/event security have enforced barriers and footfall. Yes, there are plans that have to be implemented and everyone has a part to play in that or there’s no event… But in no way should this involved armed guards marching to public conveniences, dictating cattle, rather than running an event. Again, there IS a middle ground.

I guess, at the end of the day, all this is more of a hope than an observation. All that is required is for that empathic middle ground to be found and, when it is, that it is implemented with consistency, mutual understanding and common sense from both sides of the camera.

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