Behind the scenes of a Gripen air-to-air photo-shoot
Executing a successful air-to-air photo-shoot requires quite a lot of planning and a bit of luck with the weather. At Saab Aeronautics communications department we made a formal request to the Swedish Air force to use one of their C-130 Hercules and a Gripen C aircraft to be able to shoot footage of the Gripen C and Gripen E flying together.
When we got the ok, the first step was to find out which of our Gripen E aircraft would be available on the possible dates (one planned date and a reserve slot the day after). As our Gripen E:s are test aircraft, they have various installed hardware/software versions and thus different approved flight envelopes. The dates from the Air force were fixed, as the C130:s are a sought after resource.
The second stage was to consider the flight envelopes of all aircraft involved. The C-130 has an approved top speed with the ramp down of 150 knots. For a fighter jet, especially a test aircraft, this is quite slow which in turn restricts the load-out and maneuvers possible. We had a meeting with one of our test pilots discussing what would be possible to achieve bearing in mind these limitations. Armed with this knowledge, we photographers sat down to create a “wish-list” of the shots we wanted.
The shots were visualized in 3D with descriptions of how the aircraft should position and move. We also had to consider the available flight time and how much time is needed to set up the different maneuvers. Eight poses were selected and sent to the pilots for approval, making sure that our planned maneuvers could be conducted safely.
As the day approached it became clear that the first date would not be possible to use due to the weather. November is not the most reliable month from a weather perspective in Sweden. Driving over to the F7 wing at Såtenäs the day before the shoot, we did not have high hopes of being able to do any flying at all, something that was confirmed when we sat down to do the flight briefing in the afternoon. The forecast called for a compact cloud cover up to around 9.000 feet. At that altitude you are close to the level where you need to use oxygen masks. There was also going to be a cloud layer above us. This would mean that the imagery would be less striking than we hoped as we would not be able to see the ground and the light would be flat and dull from the overcast. When shooting air-to-air you do not want a clear blue sky or a compact cloud cover. The ideal conditions are scattered clouds so you get a sense of scale and reference to the aircraft you are shooting. Especially when filming, flying close to clouds gives you a sense of speed, rather than the aircraft just hanging still in a great blue space. We drove back to our hotel in the rain feeling slightly depressed.
Stepping out from the hotel the morning after, to our surprise, we were greeted by a glorious sunrise with a scattered layer of clouds at about 3.000 ft. We could not believe our luck driving over to the base, and kept our fingers crossed that conditions would stay constant for a couple of hours. The light was magical, and being in November in Sweden, you get a yellow-tinted twilight character to the light for most of the day, as opposed to say in June when the light is hard and flat with extreme contrasts most of the time.
We were greeted by the captain of the C-130 telling us the flight was on, and the load-master swiftly led us to the aircraft to set us up. We received harnesses with cords to be attached to the floor so we could move about on the ramp. We also got headsets so we could communicate with the crew and, through the captain, direct the Gripens movements. About an hour before the shoot, we took off to scout the weather in the designated area over lake Vänern and do our final preparations. We used Canon R5 cameras together with Canon 70-200 f2.8 and 24-105 f4.0 glass.
I was going to do the filming and my colleague shoot the stills. We strapped down a tripod to the ramp as my plan was to use it to get smooth video, but in the air we realized that vibrations were transmitted through the tripod making the video shake. Handheld was the way to go. To make for more flexibility in post production, the video was shot at 4K, 100 frames per second.
No plan survives first contact with reality, and if it’s one thing you learn in this line of work, it is to adapt and improvise as conditions change. The Gripens were to arrive at C-130 simultaneously, but in reality the Gripen E showed up about 15 minutes before the Gripen C. Never the less we had an aircraft behind the ramp so we got cracking doing some solo-maneuvers that were supposed to come later in the shoot. You do not waste an opportunity like this as keeping multiple aircraft in the air for a photo shoot is anything but cheap.
When the Gripen C arrived we started to go through the poses. In addition to giving us perfect visuals, the weather also helped us by being completely calm, so the ramp was rock steady to work on. If you moved to the edges of the ramp you got some turbulence around the ankles, but conditions were great with just the right temperature so we could work without gloves, which is always a plus when fiddling with the camera controls.
We were in constant contact with the pilots and directed them to get the right angles and positions in order to achieve the result we planned. What always strikes me when doing an air-to-air shoot is how your time perception change when you are focusing 100% on the job at hand. It is as if time runs both in slow motion and really fast simultaneously. Slow motion because you are doing a lot of things at the same time; checking image composition, focus, camera settings, where you are in the program, what you are supposed to be doing next etc. Fast because an hour is not really that long and you have to produce results good enough to motivate the invested cost and effort of all those involved in the shoot.
Finally, the Gripen E returned to base and we focused on the Gripen C solo shots. We got some really nice close-ups as the Gripen C is a serial aircraft with a completely opened flight envelope, as opposed to our Gripen E test aircraft. This meant that the Gripen C pilot could maneuver more freely, doing barrel rolls and coming in closer to the C-130. When leaving for home, the last thing the Gripen C did was to light up the afterburner and dive straight down, which had the C-130 vibrating with the powerful sound of a Gripen. It also made for some unusual angles I have never been able to catch before.
When landing back at Såtenäs we were elated. Everything had come together to give us the perfect photo shoot. The variety of the clouds and the lighting conditions resulted in material that looked like it could be the result of half a dozen different flights. Two very happy, but also very tired photographers drove back to Linköping and could not wait to start editing all the good stuff we had on our memory cards.
For more great images of Gripen, please visit Gripen.com where you can find images to download for your desktop or mobile phone.