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Black Jets

There will never be another jet like the F-117A Nighthawk, ever. The way it was developed and test flown, how it was put into operational service and the transition from a black program into the (semi) white world is one of the finest legends of aviation history.

It was a real honor to work with the Bandit community, as F-117 pilots are known. They were all pretty senior guys due to the type of posting, so they were experienced, relaxed, and full of incredible stories.

My earliest memories of taking photos of the Stealth Fighter all come with a flurry of nervous excitement and camerashake. It was THAT special to see these strange, secret, black jets that changed shape every time you looked at them.

I remember the scramble of suited crowds trying to get close to it at the Paris Air Salon in 1991, fresh from the Gulf War, with me somehow getting on top of a roof to look down on the bizarre, TR-coded jet. I recall turning around from the burger stand at 0700hrs one May morning in 1992, Mountain Dew in hand, and the breath being taken from my lungs as one was towed towards me during the type’s UK debut in 1992 at RAF Mildenhall Air Fete. I chased them to The Netherlands, where I could not believe that we could get so close to these airpower gems on an exercise deployment to Gilze Rijen AB, where they had to stop cars on the final approach due to the low altitude of the jets. Sneaky appearances at Lakenheath on deployments, and then increasing appearances at airshows in the US and Europe, saw the F-117 coming further and further out of the shadows – albeit with a fully armed guard, and sometimes a double fence line. I remember one airshow announcer telling the crowds to put their cameras down before an F-117s fly through “Because your lenses won’t be able to focus and the camera will not see the airplane…” Magic stuff.

My lasting memory of my professional work with the 49th Fighter Wing, the last operational home of the F-117s at Holloman AFB. NM, was that I was here, in amongst the last squadrons of Stealth Fighters… and these aircraft… these very aircraft that were taxiing out in front of me or forming up on my wing over New Mexico… they were not new-build versions, or a development of the original jets… they were the REAL DEAL.

These exact airframes were the ones flown in absolute secrecy out of Tonopah, they were the airframes called into such prolific combat action over the Balkans and Iraq. These jets.

I was incredibly privileged to have enjoyed a very close working relationship with the 49th FW in the type’s final operational years.

I was present when they launched over 30 jets into the blue New Mexico skies to celebrate the type’s 25th anniversary, shadowed their operational life at Holloman, followed them to their last ever ‘Red Flag’ at Nellis, drunk English ales with them when they undertook their final European appearance, and, incredible, flew the last ever air-to-air photo sorties with them.

I am working on a long-term project to produce a book on these precious days and what I can recall about them. My stand-out recollections will be shooting on the Holloman EOR with 30 jets coming towards me, getting an entire ‘Red Flag’ launch re-ordered and time-slipped so they could have the images, and having to change a T-38 canopy before the final air-to-air sorties.

Interestingly, a lot of the milestone ‘last’ images were all in the 2007-2008 timeframe, and all on digital. Just imagine how much technology has advanced from the kit I used to shoot these precious pixels over 12 years ago. As a staunch Minolta shooter back in the film days, I transitioned to digital when Minolta did with their merger with Konica and used the Konica-Minolta 7D for these… at just 6mp. Yeah. But even now looking at them on my 15in MacBook Pro with its retina screen they stand up. I was using the truly excellent Minolta 28-135 f4 lens – incredible glass – and the sharpness and depth holds really well. It also shows that, unless I had said that these were taken on a 12-year-old, first generation, 6mp body by a defunct manufacturer, you’d never know. Black magic indeed.

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