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Dancing with the Stars

 Dancing with the Stars.

Air 2 Air photo Seminar with Moose Peterson

By KT Budde-Jones and Moose Peterson

For the photographer on an air-to-air photo mission, there is one simple goal, getting the great shot.  For the pilot’s involved in the formation shoot, the prime directive is safety then art.  To accomplish both, planning is the key.


Moose Peterson’s Air2air Photo seminar at Stallion 51’s base of operation in Kissimmee, Florida brought together great photographers with great aircraft flown by great pilots. The combination produced incredible results.  Stallion 51 is known for their P-51 Mustang operation but they have grown in their 25 years in the vintage aviation business and have included an historically significant T-6 Texan to their fleet along with a highly modified L-39 for unusual attitude training. Moose Peterson’s photo seminar offered 8 photographers from all over the world a chance to capture Stallion 51’s entire fleet in formation.


The “Moose Shoot” was quite different than most of the hour photo sessions, instead of a couple different poses, Lee had choreographed 15 different formation combinations. Lee’s flight plan was a very aggressive, succinct photo mission with the emphasis on Mission; one that required lots of planning to succeed. The photographers would not only learn how to shoot great photos but by sitting in on the thorough pre-flight and post flight briefings they would learn how to plan a successful and safe photo shoot.


Lee Lauderback was in charge of the pilots and Moose Peterson was in charge of the shooters. Moose was ready for the challenges and great opportunities that Lee’s ambitious flight plan would offer.  “Shooting from the back of a “juiced up” Short Sky Van able to go 160knt, the main photographic view would be shooting straight back.

While a very dramatic view, it does limit formations, but that didn’t stop Lee from creating a very dynamic shooting opportunity. As the photographer, my job for the most part was the easiest, just point and shoot at all the cool subjects literally feet behind us. It was Lee and his team that were working hard.”


Lee and his pilots thoroughly briefed not only the visual aspects of the formation but most importantly the safe execution of the flight. Every movement calculated and fluid; a three dimensional ballet of big iron aircraft made to look effortless. Lee has 25 years experience not only flying Mustangs but flying in formation with the USAF Heritage flight program where he is up close and personal with very dissimilar performing aircraft to the Mustang such as; F-16, F-22, F-15 and A-10. His expertise and military approach to detail is what made the formation flight successful for all involved.


The go between and a key element that makes the communication between the shooters and the pilots work is the air boss. Scottie Foster was the stage director of the ballet,  constantly on the com talking with the flight, calling out which set was next  making sure everyone was on the same page. He also communicated with the flight to make minor adjustments in the formation, making each moment as photographically pleasing as possible. The air boss has to have the eye of the photographer and the mind of a pilot.


“With Lee and his flight doing a great job and with Scottie moving them around, the last great challenge, the challenge that goes with every photograph is the light. With each set lasting really only minutes, there were times when I’d have a great formation in not so great light. And with any air -to -air shoot, you might have great light on a great formation with a not so great background. Lee made a marvelous suggestion from the get go on where to fly our orbits, maximizing background opportunities.” Moose recalls.


The L-39, Mustangs and T-6 have vastly different performance requirements adding to the challenge of finding the right light, right background and right set-up. It was only made easier by the expertise of the Stallion 51 pilots who were experienced in each of the aircraft.  They worked as one with each other; ebbing and flowing into each set up, adjusting to the variables with out hesitation. “ We have all flown together a lot over the years. Even though each formation flight is different and briefed thoroughly, we have a respect and confidence in each others abilities that makes flying in close formation an enjoyable challenge.” Lee shares.


Moose explains; “As I watched the sets come and go, the Mustangs, T-6 & L-39, doing their ballet in the sky while trailing us I looked at the clock. In amazing military precision, we were getting the photo mission accomplished. Shooting with two rigs, the Nikon D3s and 70-200VR2 and D3x with 24-70AFS, at the end of the hour shoot, we had run through all but one set and I had over 1800 captures.”


After landing, the photographers gathered their gear while sneaking a peak at the raw images. The Stallion 51 pilots met to debrief. Even after a seemingly flawless photo mission there is always something to learn. Lee and his pilot shared the plusses and minuses of the flight. Minuscule moments that only they would notice were not perfect, learning from the observations and comments. “It was an exhilarating flight and we were pleased with the outcome. However, there is joy in learning something new from each formation flight. It keeps the flying fresh and fun.” Lee explains.


Moose concludes;  “After the traditional “congratulatory” celebration over beers and dinner, I looked at my images late that night and all I could do was smile. The heart of every photo mission is to come back down on the ground safe and when everything works right, have photographs to share from the mission. We did that and a lot more on this photo mission!”

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