Reno 2010 – A “First Timer’s” Perspective

Reno 2011 (September 14-18) is less than a year away and I am ready for my second Reno National Championship Air Race and Air Show experience!  Reno 2010 was my first time covering an air race.  My experiences at Reno this year were nothing short of incredible.  As a first timer attending the Reno Air Races, I thought I would share a few of my experiences.

I was fortunate enough to attend Reno 2010 as media with the Photorecon team.  Having media access allowed me to basically be on the “other side of the ropes.”  Media was allowed photograph on the ramp (my favorite spot, but more on that later), the pits, the flatbed trailer, and pylons.

As with any “first time” photo shoots I attend, I tried to do as much homework on Reno as possible.  Everything from where to shoot, to what type of lenses would be the most effective, to how to get the best pictures.  For a lot of the information, I sought out an old friend of mine, Bob Kennedy.  Bob has been shooting Reno since the 1970’s, so to classify him as a veteran of Reno would be an understatement.  Bob was instrumental in frontloading me with a lot of great information and tips.  Bob’s best advice was to serve as my approach and strategy for the week.  That advice was to use this first trip to Reno as a learning experience.  To learn the “ropes,” and simply enjoy myself.  These tips, information, and advice allowed me to have a great time at Reno.

So with my homework done, I set off for Reno.  I have a horrible habit of taking literally all my camera gear for fear of not having the right lens and/or equipment for the event.  I took with me 2- D300 bodies, external flash, multiple lenses (18-200, 70-200, 300f4, 1.4 tele-converter), about 50 gigs of CF cards, and enough spare batteries to power the space shuttle.  I also brought my laptop so at the end of the day, I could download my photos, edit and back them up, and start my next day with fresh CF cards.

On Day 1 I arrived in Reno mid-afternoon on Thursday.  I checked in with the media center, received my credentials, and was off and running.  One nice thing about the air races is that there is flying literally sun up to sundown and pretty much follows the same flight schedule all week.  So even though I arrived mid-afternoon, I was there in time to see almost 4 hours of air racing action.

I made a quick lap through the pits where air crews were busy getting their respective aircraft race ready.  I then headed out to the ramp.  The ramp is where aircraft are pre-flighted, conduct engine run ups, and taxi out to the runway for takeoff.  As media, you could get “ramp privileges” and had relatively free run of the ramp with one exception.  There is a white and red line called the “prop line” where you had to remain behind unless escorted by ramp security.  Ramp security was incredibly supportive and responsive to the needs of the media.  From a personal perspective, whenever I needed to go forward of the prop line to get a particular shot, ramp security was always willing to escort me.

What was great about the ramp was that you could shoot aircraft at between 50-100mm (and that’s being behind the “prop line”), would literally have to move out of the way while aircraft were being towed in and out of the pit area, and where you were able to talk with the crews and pilots as they walked to and from their aircraft.  The ramp area also allowed for some great pictures of aircraft on the taxiway (either taxiing to or from the runway) and doing flybys down the runway (although I moved up to my 300mm with a 1.4 TC for those shots).

I primarily shot from the ramp with my 18-200 or 70-200.  As it turned out, the ramp was my favorite place to shoot because it was close to the action and had people involved.  As I got more in tune with the day to day schedule and “flow and tempo” of the air race, I found myself visiting the ramp 2-3 times a day.

Bernie Vasquez after his P-51 solo.

I ended Day 1 back out on the ramp.  As the sun set, several warbirds were on the ramp giving “backseat rides” to various VIPs, fellow aircrews, as well as conducting test flights and engine run ups. It was on this ramp visit where I witnessed and photographed one of my Reno 2010 highlights – Bernie Vasquez and his solo flight in the #44 “Jelly Belly” P-51 (aka Sparky).  See the article “Bernie Vasquez solos and joins the ranks as a P-51 pilot.”

Day 2 began by being at Reno Stead Airport at 6am.  When I arrived, I was surprised that the airfield was already a beehive of activity.  By 7am there were usually aircraft out on the ramp, starting up engines, and doing some type of test flights.  I hit the ramp for some early morning shots and then started walking the pits and gradually started heading for the military static displays at the opposite end of the flightline.  I later clocked the distance from one end of the flight line to the other and it was ¾ of a mile.  This was a round trip I made several times a day, with and without a Media Center golf cart!

What is great about having media privileges is that when you need to take a break from the sun, get something to eat and/or drink, or check in with your editor via wireless internet on your computer, you could go to the Media Center.

Another “Media Privilege” was the ability to use Nikon equipment.  Nikon is a sponsor of the Reno National Championship Air Race and Air Show.  As a sponsor, Nikon allows media to use literally any of their equipment.  And this isn’t old equipment circa 1995, but Nikon’s latest and greatest camera bodies and lens.  With a pen stroke you could check out a D3X and a 400mm 2.8 (Translated – $15,000 worth of Nikon Pro Equipment).

Although tempting, I decided not to use any Nikon gear that I wasn’t preparing to purchase in the near future.  My idea was to use “my gear” and get proficient with it under a wide variety shooting conditions rather than use gear I am not familiar with and will not likely be purchasing (absent a lottery win) in the near future. I do have to admit I broke down and used a loaner Nikon 200-400 on Sunday.  The Nikon 200-400 has been my dream lens for several years and I had a moment of weakness!

Shots from the flatbed trailer of two Unlimited Class racers as they round Pylon 8.

I experienced another media only spot on Day 2, a place I’ll call the “flatbed trailer.”  This was a flatbed trailer on the north end of the flightline.  The trailer gave you about 3-4 feet of elevation and was a great spot to shoot aircraft taxiing by, taking off, and rounding the final pylon before heading down the straight away to the home pylon.  I used my 70-200, my 300 with a 1.4 TC, and a Nikon Media Center loaner 200-400 from this spot.

The problem with the flatbed trailer is that it only holds 20 photographers.  So I quickly learned that if I wanted shoot from there, I would have to be there long before the race started.  With all that said, one of what I consider my top ten pictures from Reno 2010 was from this position (using the Nikon 200-400).

The T-6 Race from Pylon 3.

T-6 #61 rounds Pylon 3.

It was on Day 2 that I went to pylon #3 for the afternoon racing heats.  When you shoot the pylons, lighting is everything (in my humble opinion)!  From all the advice I got from veteran Reno photographers, some pylons were best in early morning light and some pylons were best for late afternoon light.  I was fortunate to shoot from pylon #3.  Shooting from pylon #3 was an experience in and of itself.  First, to shot ether two pylons, it was a first come first serve!   Next, the bus to take you to the pylons left at 1:30 pm and returned after the final heat of the day, usually around 4-430pm.  So a good portion of your morning and/or afternoon was spent at the pylons.  So you had maybe 2 hours of flying with the 2 hours spent “waiting.”  I viewed the pylons as a trade off.  Yes you spent half your time waiting for two hours of flying.  But during each race you got to see planes racing by the pylons, some in excess of speeds of 500 mph (depending on classification).  This made for getting (or in my case attempting to get) some awesome pictures.

The start of the unlimited heat from Pylon 3. You can see the pace plane (T-33 flown by Steve Hinton) pulling up with "smoke on."

Strega #7 flown by reigning world champion Steven Hinton rounds Pylon 3 at 450mph+.

I have been fortunate enough to see Super Hornets flying in excess of mach 1.0.  With that said when you see an Unlimited class plane fly by at 450 mph+ is an incredible experience.  To say that these planes are fast is an understatement.  The downside to the Unlimiteds is that I found them extremely hard to photograph (at least at my skill level)!  Jets frankly are easy.  No prop blur and shutter speed to worry about.  I was surprised to find that I enjoyed shooting the T-6 class races.  Why you ask? T-6’s flew around at 225 -240 mph, seem to fly more “grouped up” (which made for more dramatic pictures vs. a single ship photo), and were overall easier to photograph due to their slow speed.

Overall, I thought the pylons were a great experience and a true thrill, but as I have mentioned, my favorite place to shoot was the ramp.

Day 3 was a similar repeat of my first two days at Reno.  I visited the ramp (several times), the pits, and the flatbed trailer.

On Day 4, I was hoping to experience the early morning pylon but I was too late to get a seat!  I wasn’t interested in an afternoon seat because I wanted to make sure I had ramp access to cover the launch and recovery of the Unlimited class race.  I was able to secure my afternoon launch ramp access and headed off to witness the races of races – the Unlimited Class Gold Race.

As I walked out to ramp at about 2pm, various unlimited race planes were already on the ramp, or being towing out of the pits in a parade like atmosphere.   The race crews and families were on the wings, cockpit, and tow tugs for the race planes.  Everyone excited about the final race of Reno!  I walked to the grandstand area where the Unlimiteds were being parked. Once all the Unlimited class aircraft were parked, the pilots were announced.

The grandstands on race day Sunday.

The winds at this time were incredibly strong (like flags sticking straight out from their poles).  These high winds and the crash of Super Sport Class plane (non-fatal – pilot walked away thankfully) lead to a first in Reno Air Race history – The cancellation of the Unlimited Gold Race.  Steven “Steve-O” Hinton flying “Strega” was declared the Gold Race champion for a second year in a row.

Team Strega - Pilot Steven Hinton (far right) and Bill "Tiger" Destefani (holding the trophy).

I left Reno 2010, having learned a few things and gaining a little experience that will allow me to be more efficient at next year’s race and take better pictures. I would like to thank Valerie Miller – Media Coordinator for the races. Like I mentioned earlier, Valerie and her staff did an outstanding job accommodating a wide variety of media.

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