Quest for the Perfect Thunderbirds Delta-Formation Picture
I have visited Cleveland Air Show at Cleveland Burke Lakefront
Airport during the Labor-Day weekend. This year, the weather was
perfect for all three days. I typically drive there only one or
two of three days of the air show, but this time the sky was too clear
to miss. I made three round trips from Pittsburgh to Cleveland.
.Blue Angels flew in the Cleveland Air Show last year, and this year was
Thunderbirds' turn. Also F-18F from the Navy flew twice a day.
What a treat! I was impressed by the accuracy of the pilot who
flew F-18F in this year. Typically, the flight paths of a
military-jet aerobatics vary day by day although the maneuvers are the
same. The aircraft appears too big on my finder on one day and too
small on the next day for the equal focal length. But, the
distance from my vantage point was exactly the same for all six flights.
I could tell from my EXIF data of my photos. He would score
hundreds of targets in the combat even without precision-guided weapons.
Marine-Corps AV-8B Harrier also demonstrated high-speed passes and
hovering. Each day.
Day one. I was
planning to leave Pittsburgh around 7:30am, but actually left at 8am.
Speed limit of the Interstate in Ohio was raised from 65 to 70 a few
years ago. I feel that it takes shorter to get there. I took
a break once and got to the parking lot a little after 10am. I
always park my car in the parking lot on E 9th St. across Willard Park
where the giant "Free" stamp sculpture resides from the city hall.
(To be accurate, the parking lot is next to that square on the airport
side.) From there, it is about 10 minutes walk to the air-show
entrance. But, what's good about this parking lot is it is in-door
parking. I don't need to burn my hand by the wheel heated by the
sun when I come back after the air show. Also it is very easy to
get on to I-90 eastbound. Only slightly inconvenient thing is that
the GPS does not lock on until I come out of the parking lot. I
was expecting a long line to get in to the parking lot because I was a
bit late. But there was no line. If I join the line for the
parking of the Latrobe air show at 10am, the show will be over before I
can park my car.
By the way, if you come to the Cleveland Air Show,
find a sponsor tent of Drug Mart. You can get a bag full of free
samples. It is worth $5 or more. You can recover a fraction
of the admission fee. The Drug-Mart tent used to be closer to the
main entrance, west side of the airport in the regular year, but it was
close to the east end of the spectator area this year. The bags
were hidden behind the table on the second day, and I had to ask if they
were giving away free samples to get one. After working for a
private university for 13 years (plus 4 years as a Ph.D student), I am
attracted to free food and free stuff. (Can I get pay raise?
I haven't had more than infration-rate for 13 years.)
Thunderbirds were not in the air-show ramp. Sometimes the military
jet team takes off from Cleveland Hopkins International airport, about
10nm south west, instead of taking off from the air-show site. Was
it just Thunderbirds always take off from Hopkins? I checked my
past pictures, and realized that Thunderbirds take off from Hopkins and
Blue Angels take off from the air-show site.
But, there is a rare
photo opporunity when Thunderbirds fly a remote show. I have seen
Thunderbirds, Blue Angels, and Blue Impulse, all of which fly six
airplanes, many times in the past. However, I don't have a good
picture of a delta formation with clear blue sky as background, all
pilots' helmets visible, airplanes nicely lit, perfectly focused, and no
motion blur. The reason is simple. In a regular show, the
delta formation never fly close to the spectator area. They start
Delta Roll from very far away from the spectator area, and they are too
far away when it comes to a nice angle from the show center. No
matter how long focal lenth you use, you cannot beat fluctuation of the
air. The picture becomes blurrly or obscured by the haze.
They start Delta Loop from somewhat high altitude (300 to 500ft?) and
start pulling up before reaching the show center. I can only see
the belly of the airplanes. When it comes down, well there is a
chance, somewhat, but heat haze is a problem. The best chance is
when they fly a low show or a flat show. But, low and flat shows
are for when the weather condition does not permit high-altitude
maneuvers, then it is unlikely to have a clear blue sky. As a
result, I have never been able to take a perfect picture of the delta
formation that I want to make a poster out of.
Thunderbirds starts a remote show, they fly in from behind of the
spectator area in the delta formation, and two solos breaks left and
right about directly above the show center. So, if I aim the
formation from the west of the show center, I have a very good chance of
taking a good picture of the formation from the close proximity (means
little adverse effect from the heat haze) perfectly lit by the sun
behind myself. All I need is a clear blue sky, which was
forecasted for all three days. I set my goal of this Cleveland air
show as taking a perfect poster-quality photo of the Thunderbirds Delta
OK. When I say this, someone always say, why don't
you buy a photo? That person doesn't understand. I want to
take a picture by myself. This feeling may be hard to understand
if you are not into the photography. I think that a subject loved
by many people is photographed by many people. Every photo has a
certain probability of being lost in certain length of time. Your
hard drive may break at a certain probability. Even there is a
probability that your backup copy has some errors. Therefore, the
number of pictures of a specific subject in the world exponentially
shrinks year by year. It can be 1% per year or can be 0.0001% per
year. If the subject was photographed by many people, the pictures
will survive longer time than the subject photographed by less people.
So, by taking pictures of what I love, I am slightly increasing the
probability of the picture surviving longer time into the future.
I never regret that I made three round trips to London just to
photograph Concordes in the final year.
Of course, thousands of
people are taking pictures of the Thunderbirds with even better cameras
than mine. My contribution most likely makes only superficial
BUT, I DO PHOTOGRAPH ANYWAY.
the main target of this year is a perfect Delta formation, I stationed
slightly west of where I stay in the regular years. I put my char
about 30ft into the grass from taxiway C. A local remote-control
airplane club was flying in the morning, but I had a feeling that they
were enjoying flying their airplanes rather than the people watching
them. Real part of the air show started a little after 12pm.
The real part of the show was supposed to start with the Army Golden
Knights parachute team coming down with the American flag with the
national anthem. But, the Golden Knights cancelled the appearance
due to the fatal accident during the Chicago Air and Water show last
month. The show was started with Canadian and American national
anthem without Golden Knights.
The first aircraft took to the air
was drones. I think the people flying drons were having more fun
than spectators. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are the interesting
technology from the engineering point of view, although they are nothing
new. It existed long time. It simply became affordable
recently. Same thing for the 3D printers. I first saw a 3D
printed thing in 1993. It just is now more affordable. Is
the drone industry willing to live together with the general-aviation
community? Or do they choose to be hostile to us? They seem
to be saying they comply with the regulations, but do they really want
to crush all general aviation and take control of the airspace where we
are using now. If they choose to be hostile, we need to fight.
I hope the general-aviation community won't have to fight, but it
depends on what the drone industry does.
Will Navy and Air Force
really replace manned fighters and attackers with unmanned ones after
F-35? F-104 and F-8 were said to be the last manned fighter, but
they were not. Will it be the repeat? Or, will unmanned
fighrers and attackers be real this time? One thing I can say is
it won't be a fun any more if Blue Angels and Thunderbirds are flown by
Sean D. Tucker was energetic as
After the Jet
Truck and Rob Holland, Navy F-18F taxied out. What I look forward
to in the F-18 aerobatics is high-speed pass in which the aircraft
passes in front of the show center almost at the speed of sound.
The airspeed is less than the speed of sound, but the air flow around
the aircraft is accelerated above mach 1, and water vapor condenses
around the airplane to form a round cloud around the aircraft. It
is a very good photo opportunity, if you can keep the airplane inside
the finder. It is very fast! But, this time, the weather
seemed to be too dry, and I didn't see too impressive water vapor.
The next photo opportunity was after the simulated carrier touch & go.
The aircraft got airbourne immediately after touching the runway surface
and low over the runway quite long. From my vantage point, I could
take this picture with 70mm focal length (but I am using 2x tele
converter and, the crop factor of my Olympus E-5 is 2.0. So, it is
equivalent to 280mm in a traditional film camera.)
Simulated carrier touch & go, and a
cute lady-bug unbrella.
The next chance is the photo
pass. I tried with 180mm focal length (equivalent to 720mm in a
film camera). I almost had it, but I missed a wing tip, and the
camera didn't seem to be able to completely focus. Sometimes it
happens. Maybe it is due to the monotonic color of the
Photo pass. Missed the tail a
Then came AV-8B Harrier. It did a
high-speed pass from left to right and the left to right, but I used too
long a focal length for this one. Then it demonstrated the
hovering, and landed. Taking a crisp picture of a hovering Harrier
is as easy as taking a crisp picture of F-18 high-alpha pass.
Harrier hovering demo.
F-18F taxied out once again later. What a
treat! It was nothing special before the infamous forced budget
cut which lead to mass cancellation of air shows in 2013. I often
saw demonstrations of F-15, F-16, F-18, and AV-8B in addition to
Thunderbirds or Blue Angels in one air show. But, I see only one
or two military jet demo per day after 2013. Small local air shows
doesn't even have a military jet demo. But, in this air show, I
could see F-18F aerobatics times two plus AV-8B demo. It was very
After Mr. Sean D. Tucker's energetic aerobatics, it was the
Thunderbirds' turn. The six F-16s took off Hopkins airport.
Formed a delta formation over lake Erie. Then flew clockwise
around the Burke Lakefront airport and entered from the behind! I
was waiting for this timing! But, I didn't know what focal lneght
to use. Of course I can adjust on the fly. But, the problem
is if I rotate the focal-length ring, my left hand is no longer holding
the lens from the under-side of the lens. 200mm F6.3 lens plus 2x
tele converter is heavy. I need to hold it firmly on the
under-side of the lens, or I cannot hold it stable. I tried 100mm
focal length (equivalent to 400mm in the film camera), which was too
long, and had to rotate. Also I was underestimating the direct
reflection of the sun. I should have used negative exposure
compensation (EF). So, it was not a good shot after all, but it
was ok. I needed a camera-configuration so that I can improve in
the day 2.
Thunderbirds' entry. I should have
chosen negative EF.
Actually, the delta
formation also flew from the forward to the behind of the spectato area
after the show. Ther was an additional opportunity. But, I
should have used negative EF, and also I should have keep the tail of #4
airplane at the center because the formation was trailing the smoke.
I could reduce the space in front of the formation to make it more
Thunderbirds returning to Cleveland
Hopkins International airport.
I saw a rainbow while driving back home near
Accident! A P-38J crashed on the runway soon after take off.
The airplane attempted an impossible roll-on-takeoff maneuver from which
the aircraft could nor revoer. The aircraft impacted the runway
almost vertically. There was no survivor, but no casualty either.
It was a huge remote-controlled scale model flying in the morning before
the actual flying part of the show started. The wing span looked
to be at least six feet. Must have been an expensive crash.
The air-show announcer was following up by saying the cross-wind was
strong and the airplane rolled. No, I was watching it. The
pilot simply did an impossible maneuver. Who was at control should
have waited until it gained some more altitude or lowered the nose to
gain more airspeed before starting the maneuver. It was obviously
a pilot error. The debris seemed to be scattering over the runway.
I was worried about the influence on the real flying part, but runway
was cleaned quickly by authorized air-show crews.
Rob Holland was using someone else's
MX5 until his airplane arrived later in the day 2.
Sean D. Tucker
I used a different
camera setting based on the EXIF information from Day 1. I stayed
exactly the same location as the previous day to take advantage.
But, I moved forward only for the simulated carrier touch & go of F-18F
demo. I was easily take a picture above the people on the fence by
standing on top of my plastic stool. Because I moved forward, I
chose 55mm focal length (equivalent to 220mm in the film camera) and got
The picture with a lady-bug
unbrella was cute, but this one without any clutter is also nice.
tried the photo pass with 180mm (equivalent to 720mm) but again missed
the tip of the wing, and couldn't get a sharp image.
I tried with 160mm (equivalent to 640mm) in the second flight this
afternoon. Had a good picture, but the sun was already behind the
airplane. Also it was still not as sharp as
this one that I took in
the Cleveland Air Show 2007.
the Thunderbirds. Based on the previous day's setting, I chose
55mm (equivalent to 220mm) to get the delta formation almost full-frame
at the best angle. I took it. The size was perfect, but the
solos were already breaking when it came to the best angle.
A poster-perfect delta is such a difficult target. after
all. Instead, the sneak pass after trail-to-diamond roll cane out
very well. I chose 120mm (equivalent to 480mm) for this one.
It a little watery, especially the national flags
and crew names. It may be due to heat haze or may be some water
condensation around the airplane. I cannot tell. But, it
looks to be as good as I could get.
Also I succeeded in framing all
four airplane converging after the high bomb burst. What's unique
about the Thunderbirds is the unbelievable precision of the convergence
in this maneuver. What's more impressive is the four airplanes
form a diamond formation after the convergence without going out of the
visibility of the spectators. I have been trying to capture all
four airplanes converging to a minimum separation with a decent zoom.
This time I tried with 75mm (equivalent to 300mm) and succeeded.
I'll try with 85mm next time.
4 F-16s heading 4 different directions
with minimum separation.
I almost had a
poster-perfect delta when the formation made a last pass over the
airport, but the wind was blowing from north to south and the smoke from
the previous pass was still hanging. The best angle picture was
obscured by the remaining smoke. Also I made a mistake. I
should have kept the nozzle or fin of #4 at the center, but I ended up
aiming the cockpit of #4.
Delta obscured by the remaining smoke.
Also I should have aimed the tail of #4.
So, I missed a poster-perfect delta again. But, I had two more
Day 3. Last day of the air show.
I arrived at the airport around 10:30. While I was walking to the
entrace, I heard a loud jet engine noise. I thought a Cessna
Citation or something similar was taking off before the temporary flight
restriction is in effect. It actually was an F-18F. I could
only watch an F-18F performing a photo pass. It then flew away
instead of landing and taxiing back. The F-18F may have taken off
and flown back to the home base due to some training or maintenance
schedule. There may not be an aerobatic flight of F-18 today.
That's not good. That's how I was worried, but the one flew away
was actually the one on static display. F-18F showed aerobatics
twice in the afternoon.
During the first F-18F demo, I reduced the
focal length to 150mm (equivalent to 600mm). Also I increased the
ISO value to 640 to gain some shutter speed. So, I captured the
photo pass nicely, but the picture was watery again. The camera
was saying it was focused, and it is not stretched in one direction.
Maybe it was due to heat haze again.
of the Harrier was something similar. It was not bad, but it was
watery when shown at 1:1 scale.
I tried 155mm focal
length (equivalent to 620mm) the second F-18F photo pass. Not bad,
but not perfectly clear.
This time, I chose
65mm focal length (equivalent to 260mm) for the Thunderbirds entry.
On the previous day, I used 55mm (equiv to 220mm) and the size was
perfect when the formation came to a good angle, but the solos were
already breaking left and right. Then, I need to shoot slightly
before that timing full frame. That could be the best I could do.
-0.8 exposure compensation and ISO 400. I aimed tail of #4 and
pressed the shutter.
This was the best delta-formation picture I had
in this air show.
My best delta of this Cleveland air
The next shot looks nice.
At least the angle of #1 to #4 are very good. But, if you look
closely, #6 and #5 are already starting to break left and right.
The best indication is the brightness of the vertical tailwing of #5.
It is shinier than other five airplanes, which means that it was banking
to the right and shining with greater specular reflection. So,
this shot is no longer in the delta formation. It doesn't satisfy
the definition of poster-perfect delta.
Better angle, but #5 and #6 are
Nonetheless, the following shot was impressive. It is only
possible at the beginning of a remote show.
It's not a perfect delta-formation
picture, but it is very nice though.
Phot of the sneak pass came out pretty well. I used 120mm (equiv
to 480mm) focal length for this one. By the way, the speed brake
was open. Did the pilot accelerate too much this time?
Sneak pass. I'll try with 130mm next time.
By the way, it was low show, not high show this
time. There were some scattered cloud behind the show center, but
the sky was otherwise clear with no cloud. I didn't see a reason
Thunderbirds could not fly a high show. I thought they flew some
vertical maneuvers, but they were skipping some high-altitude maneuvers.
What mistake I made? I was preparing for the second sneak pass
after diamond 360. But, the second one came after echelon pass.
An extra sneak pass after diamond 360 was in a flat show. Not low
show. I was totally caught off guard and missed one photo
The last delta was not from the forward. Instead,
the delta formation passed from left to right. I took some
pictures, but the sun was already behind the airplanes. I didn't
get a good contrast. It is something I was getting in the past.
It was not as good as the one I took during the entry.
Last delta pass. Well, but the
sun was already behindand not good contrast.
I was able to get a pretty good picture of the delta
formation. I am using it as a background for my new ThinkPad X250.
But, it was not really the poster-perfect shot. Is it easier if I
go to an air show in the desert states because the air is clearer?
Heat haze may be severer though. I don't know. Anyway,
that's why I go to air shows again. I will try again next time.
This was the best delta picture of
this Cleveland Air Show.
I was supposed to go to Waukegan Air Show after this
one. But, the show was cancelled, and the Cleveland Air Show was
the last air show I visited in 2015. I usually visit five air
shows per year. But, only three air shows this year.
If I had known that Waukegan Air Show was cancelled earlier, I had
visited Thunder Over Niagara. But, I noticed about the
cancellation too late. Thunder Over Niagara was over then.
My photography skill rots during the off season, and I will need to
start over again next year. I wish I could visit an air show
during winter, or at least I want to practice somewhere.