Thunderbirds Cross-Country Daytona 500 Trip - Mike Killian Photography

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The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds kicked off a busy 2016 on Feb. 19 with a cross-country trip from their home at Nellis AFB, NV to Daytona Beach, Fla., where they performed the National Anthem flyover at the NASCAR Daytona 500.

But they needed help along the way to get there, courtesy of the USAF 6th Air Mobility Wing and a KC-135 tanker crew from MacDill AFB, Tampa. The tanker was loaded with 60,000 pounds of fuel for Thunderbirds 1-6, and before the sun even rose it was wheels up at 6:10 a.m. for a 7.5 hour round-trip mission to New Mexico and back, call sign “Bolt 13”.


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ABOVE: HD video from the flight!

ABOVE: The 2016 U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds 26,000 feet over Mississippi Feb 19, 2016

Dawn's sweeping across Florida’s Gulf coast marked the start of our flight and climb to 36,000 feet. We raced the sunrise west, taking off from MacDill at 6:10 a.m ET. 

Fuel stop #1 would occur in the skies over eastern New Mexico and western Texas. The mission was fairly straightforward; refuel all 6 planes twice with 5,000 pounds each. Fueling takes just minutes,. We met at 26,000 feet above New Mexico, flying through some thick clouds at 400mph, each bird taking its turn as we crossed into Texas. 


The clouds really obscured the birds on our wings, but it also gave some dramatic lighting at times too with the sun low on the horizon 


Shooting was challenging at times. The window for the boom station is small. The operator positions at the window's center, laying on a steel platform as they look ahead at the receiver. On either side are two more platforms, they resemble small beds, just not as comfortable!

It's cramped and you can easily bang your head or knee or elbows (or gear). It can get cold back there too, but the views are worth it.

I shot with a Canon 6D and 24-105mm L lens. This would be my primary glass, especially since swapping lenses on/off while laying down would be difficult and take time away from shooting.I brought a 16-35mm 2.8 lens too, but only needed it for takeoff. That's where the 6D really came in handy thanks to its exceptional low-light capability. 

After takeoff I put the 16mm away for good. 24mm on a full-frame DSLR was plenty to produce both wide-angle and telephoto images. I just didn't need anything wider for shooting from the boom station (full frame DSLR). Better shots need some telephoto as the pilots approach and depart the boom.

Below, Thunderbird #1, aka BOSS, is making a left bank (his POV) away from the boom (105mm, 1/1000 @ F/9).

Hydraulic fluid always risks destroying the view if there is some leaking from the boom. When it does it smears across the window, blurring any otherwise descent images. So working around blemishes was challenging, you have to stay aware of where the imperfections are, while at the same time everything is happening fast. Second-guessing shots or settings can cost a whole shoot at 400 mph.

For the first refueling I took the boom's right side (our POV). The window extends further to the right in the boom station, that is normally where an instructor sits while training new operators. While the strategy worked to an extent, I quickly realized that any shots to the left of the boom would be useless, due to smudges on the window's exterior. I did my best and went for images at the center and right of the boom instead, then replayed my mistakes to capitalize on them next time.

I would only get one more shot, so this time I was gonna shoot from the left side of the window, hoping the smudges on the window's left side would not be as much of a problem to work around (literally, shoot around, instead of being 3 ft away with no choice). 

ABOVE: Note smudging visible as blur all over the jet, where some places are sharp and others appeared smeared. Kind of cool maybe, the nose and pilot is sharp while the jet gives the impression of speed and motion blur!

75mm, 1/320 @ F/9 


The gamble paid off. While there were still minor smears in some images due to the window's imperfections I managed to capture many "clean" images. The boom operators were really cool, excited themselves for the mission and getting a chance to show off what they do, they love their jobs too!

After their second drink Thunderbird #1, BOSS, ordered their signature "Delta Formation", with all 6 birds together and smoke-on over southern Mississippi, their way of saying thanks to the flight crew and giving a  rare air-to-air formation photo opportunity with the team before going our separate ways to opposite sides of Florida.

The flight was a bucket list assignment for me personally, I'm looking at you next Blue Angels!


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