One year ago…
“Can you hear that?”
Silence through the phone. “Nope what was it?”
“The sound of a Hawker Hurricane!”
“Yeah they were the most commonly flown plane in World War II but now there’s only two airworthy ones left in the southern hemisphere! So why are you calling so early in the day?”
“I’m just on my way to Cradle Mountain, we’ve decided to leave Strahan earlier than planned because the weather’s so nice. I’m not sure what the signal will be like there and I just wanted to wish you a fun day at the air show”.
“It’s been great so far! We should go next year when you’re not gallivanting around Tasmania with your photo course”.
And that’s how I ended up being bundled into a car while it was still dark and heading for Wollongong. Here we come Wings Over Illawarra 2019!
I don’t know anything about planes. Well that’s not entirely true. I’ve been on my fair share of Qantas and Virgin flights so I know all about how noisy they are and how salty the food needs to be so you can even taste it. I’m an expert on looking like my overweight camera bag is as light as a feather, getting my allotted elbow space and walking on holding my book because it won’t fit anywhere else. But other than that my plane knowledge extends as far as knowing hornets are super fast and loud, chinooks are a kind of helicopter that make a sound like their name and planes so small they only have one seat on each side don’t serve food because everyone’s too scared to eat, silently hoping the plane will make the flight without a crash landing.
So going to an air show doesn’t seem like my obvious choice for spending a Saturday. But Mitch likes planes, and the photos he got last year make it look like a lot of fun. Besides, the online pitch promised “an aviation extravaganza” with “jaw-dropping solo and formation aerobatics displays” and “classic warbirds”. What more could a photographer want?
After a few hours of driving we wound our way down through the fern filled Macquarie Pass into the Illawarra region. Parking the car we grabbed all our gear and filed onto the shuttle bus which dropped us right at the gates of Illawarra Regional Airport. Now for all you novice air show goers like me the next step is crucial. Find a spot with the best view of the runway and set up camp so no one can stand between you and the barrier while you take photos. Territory claimed, out came the camera gear as the show had already begun. We both brought tripods which were great when shooting video, useless when taking photos and fantastic as camera holders while waiting in between planes.
The rest of the day followed a fairly obvious pattern, plane taxis onto runway, plane takes off and passes in front of us, plane flies past us a few more times then lands and the next one repeats the process. Now I’m not trying to dull it down, but this is what you need to expect…until the stunts start. Now these were my favourite part of the whole day. Instead of just making straight passes it was incredible watching pilots do pretty much everything except turn these planes inside out. They’d do spirals with white smoke trailing behind them so you could see their crazy movements. Fly high up into the sky, turn off their engines and do backflips and spins all while plummeting back to earth before catching their planes and flying low to the ground on their sides waggling their wings like over excited bumble bees.
These stunts were incredible to watch, but then they added more planes so not just one but three planes would be doing spins and cross overs together. And like that wasn’t enough, for some of the old warbirds (I learnt a plane term!) as they flew in close to the runway there would be explosions timed to look like bombs had been dropped with bursts of fire, loud bangs and clouds of black smoke. Not sure if these were to simulate the plane’s original purpose during war or just wake up the crowd after some of the slower moments…
We had the joy of being next to one of the many speakers which played commentary from the communication box all day. Plane facts, history and chats with pilots spilt out of the speaker non-stop. Yet when the stunt performances started so did the music which synchronized perfectly with the plane’s movements. Not only did this really add to the atmosphere but made great background music in my videos (along with the plane noises off course)! The commentary did have it’s interesting moments with an airforce pilot talking about his time transporting things like tanks and folding up helicopters to take them all over the world, even to Antarctica! It was an interesting view on an entirely different lifestyle, which wasn’t lost on organisers with plenty of ads to go and see the armed forces tent and chat about recruitment…I wonder if they want two photographers only willing to travel to picturesque, tropical places?
The skill of the pilots was not lost on me. The commentators talked about the pilot’s time spent flying different planes. The highest one I heard was over 7,000 hours, some may have been higher though as between taking photos and trying to keep planes within the frame for video I was doing well to even hear what type of plane I was looking at. For photography I couldn’t have asked for a better event, there was always a subject going past and the planes look and fly differently so you can take photos of all of them and get completely different shots. Video was a different story. My favourite technique was to focus on a section of runway and catch the plane taking off through the shot or hopefully turned on its side doing some kind of trick in the frame. Trying to follow the plane as it flew in the video was pretty much impossible, especially with the faster jets that have flown past you before you even press start. There’s so many chances during the day that even with these difficulties you can go in as a complete plane photography beginner and still come out with some photos and videos you are happy with.
After standing around all day and walking so far to get the best possie sitting down in the car at the end of the day was particularly satisfying. It began raining and quickly got dark as we drove back up the mountain out of Illawarra. We stopped at Bernie’s Diner in Moss Vale for dinner. This was the perfect place to end the day on a high, with old fashioned malted milkshakes and American style hotdogs, burgers and deli sandwiches. With full bellies and plenty of plane stories to share the drive back to Canberra flew past, me being especially happy I’d survived my first air show!