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Shooting the A-4 Skyhawk

I’d worked with the Luftwaffe at Wittmund AB in northern Germany for a number of years as the venerable F-4F Phantoms faded from service. The base has been home to a detachment of ex-military fighters on contracted services to the Luftwaffe for target towing and ‘Red Air’ aggressors for many years. I recall BAE Systems’ F-100 Super Sabres thumping around Europe in the 1990s, before they were replaced by the more economical Scooters and operated in the same overall white scheme with blue cheatline.

This set-up seemed to be in place forever. Then, things got a little more serious as the contracted provision of Red Air and multi-service threat support stepped up a notch of importance and new companies were asked to tender for the contracts in ever-growing numbers. As such, BAE Systems moved out and in came a Canadian company, Discovery Air Defence, which had slowly built up an arsenal of ex-Israeli A-4s in Arizona under its Top Aces umbrella. The company quickly gained ground and were the first to win an overseas contract, taking over the Luftwaffe (actually, Bundeswehr) deal out of Wittmund.

Having seen the guys gear up as the EF2000s moved into Wittmund to replace the Phantoms, I quickly built up a relationship with them and undertook a couple of base visits to check them out and report on their operations.

What was super interesting was the intricacy of the operations. Imagine, if you will, the paperwork and red tape required to operate a US-built fighter, ex-Israeli AF, putting these fighting machines on the Canadian civil register… and then flying them on German soil. It was certainly eye-watering. One of the key attributes to making this work was the high quality of the maintenance and certain rules around it all. Compliance is key and it had to be as the contract was demanding and expected much.

So much so that it was obviously hard to get authorization to go flying with these guys as it took them out of their day-to-day contract provision. With the company wanting it, they still had to persuade their customer (the Luftwaffe) that they could do it, and indeed the Luftwaffe had to then authorise everything and not least its own aircraft to fly too.

We would be working with the great team behind the Aviation PhotoCrew (APC) to deliver a series of stills whilst an APC crewmember would be on video duties. For this, we’d hire a Shorts Skyvan with an open rear ramp and experienced pilots trained in formation flying.

I want to highlight two photography points in this. The first being that producing film and stills are two very, very different genres and skillsets. Some photographers are gifted in both and I know a few that can achieve both within the same sortie. However, this set-up would require two separate flights – film work requires a different way of flying, with sweeping curves, snappy breaks and specific manouevers. That requires a separate briefing. It also requires some hefty tripod and camera work, which requires space, which a Skyvan does not have. Accordingly, two flights were made, with differing set-ups and a wide, spread-eagled and vibration-reduced tripod as well as gyro. The stills flight would have different nuances to the positions, the pace of the breaks, and the style of flight.

The second point that readers may not be aware of is dissimilar type performances. Here we were asking a Fourth Generation Fighter, with a Third Generation Fighter, to formate on a fat, dumb and happy (but oh so cool) Skyvan and perform specific, non-standard flight profiles. The biggest issue? Speeds. The Skyvan is flying flat out with the door open whilst the Skyhawk is literally gasping for air – jets from that era are not designed for slow-speed handling. The EF2000s (as Typhoons are called in Germany) are a lot more stable, but it still requires very skilful flying and an excellent brief to achieve, all whilst maintaining 110% safety.

One answer is to carefully choreograph slow passes on a set heading. The extra few ‘tens’ of knots make all the difference. Once the jets have burned off fuel, they become lighter and a lot easier to hold formation, so you need to work your choreography and briefing accordingly.

The guys at APC and the Skyvan pilots (we’ve undertaken two flights over the last couple of years) did a great job and some results can be seen here, with individual Skyhawk work, pairs, as well as being joined by EF2000s (again, really no easy feat from authorisation to execution), from behind and then some side work too.

For these images, I was using a combination of a Nikon D7200 with a Nikkor AF-S 80-400 to achieve the compression and crop, with a Nikon D3S coupled to a Nikkor AF-S 24-120 f4 (close formation and side windows). Generally I would be shooting on Shutter Priority, selecting anything from 1/1000th sec upwards depending on the ISO and Aperture values it was giving me. Sometimes, I would switch to Aperture priority if a formation required a larger depth of field (unlikely) and I would very often use the Exposure Compensation dial to compensate. The overcast skies of Northern Germany are very bright indeed when you are above them!

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