09/05-09/07/2015 Cleveland Air Show


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.)

The 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.

However, when 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 formation.

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 difference.


Since 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 unmanned aircrafts.

A drone. 

Sean D. Tucker was energetic as always.

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.)


High-Speed Pass.

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 aircraft.

Photo pass.  Missed the tail a little bit.

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 nice.

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 balanced.

Thunderbirds returning to Cleveland Hopkins International airport.

I saw a rainbow while driving back home near Wexford.

Day 2.  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 this.

The picture with a lady-bug unbrella was cute, but this one without any clutter is also nice.

I 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.

Then came 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.

Sneak pass.

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 chances.

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.

High-speed pass 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 show.

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 already breaking.

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 opportunity.

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.

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