The Big Year

Posted by on March 4, 2015

At some point toward the end of 2013, I was sitting on the couch with my wife as she flipped through channels trying to find a movie for us to watch. She stopped on a movie called “The Big Year,” starring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black, who play bird-watchers who are each attempting to spot more different bird species than any other bird-watcher in the world. My friend Ken Koller, another photographer who shoots a lot of aviation stuff, had suggested the movie, so my wife and I decided to watch it.

As we watched it, I noticed a lot of similarities between bird-watchers and aviation photographers, especially with regard to the film’s portrayal of what gets bird-watchers really excited – rare birds. The movie got me thinking about how many different types of aircraft I see and photograph in a given year, and I thought it would be fun to keep track of all the different types I see and shoot throughout 2014. Being that a lot of my shooting in 2013 was assignment-based, aviation photography started to feel like “work,” which was good in a way, but it also made me feel a bit isolated from the doing-it-for-fun motivation that got me into photography in the first place. I thought this project would be a good way to reconnect with my “roots.”

My first aviation image of 2014, an American Champion 8KCAB Decathlon, shot at the January breakfast fly-in at Coolidge Municipal Airport.

My first aviation image of 2014, an American Champion 8KCAB Decathlon, shot at the January breakfast fly-in at Coolidge Municipal Airport.

 

I started casually, simply keeping a list of all the aircraft types and variants I photographed. Some issues arose pretty quickly, like how to count aircraft like the Cessna 172, which has well over a dozen variants, or the F-16C/D, with separate production blocks that vary significantly from one another. In the end, I decided to play it conservatively, limiting my inclusion of variants of different aircraft. I settled on two each for the Cessna 172 and 182, decided to treat all F-16C/D production blocks as a single variant, and limited my listing of airliners to hundred-block variants like 737-200/300/400 etc, without getting into the nitty-gritty sub-variants ordered by the separate airlines, except for in the case of freight versions.

 

With no US operators aside from the famed “Janet Airlines,” the 737-600 seemed like a longshot.  Thankfully, Canada’s WestJet airline services Phoenix Sky Harbor with -600s.  Living under the eastern approach into PHX allowed me to catch several airliners with relative ease.

With no US operators aside from the famed “Janet Airlines,” the 737-600 seemed like a longshot. Thankfully, Canada’s WestJet airline services Phoenix Sky Harbor with -600s. Living under the eastern approach into PHX allowed me to catch several airliners with relative ease.

 

As the year went on, I started making checklists of aircraft I could reasonably expect to see at different airshows, military exercises, or during day-to-day operations at various airports, and I checked them off as I shot them. At some point in the spring, I decided it would be cool to put together a matrix-type mural with shots of all the different aircraft I shot, and started to create 300 x 200-pixel jpegs of everything I shot.

 

A few of the lists that I made throughout the year, with aircraft I could reasonably expect to see and the airports I was likely to see them at.

A few of the lists that I made throughout the year, with aircraft I could reasonably expect to see and the airports I was likely to see them at.

 

Most of the shots I was taking were the shots I’d normally take, in good light with the frame filled, but more and more I was finding myself shooting photos in unfavorable conditions – too far to fill the frame, backlit, etc – simply because I saw an aircraft I wasn’t sure I’d catch again. By early June, I had amassed over 200 different aircraft, which was what I had expected to catch during the entire year. For such a casual project, I was doing far better than I thought I would.

 

IAI Kfir at Willie.  This was one of my first big surprises of the year.  It seemed that no matter how exhaustive my lists of potential “catches” was, I was always being surprised by aircraft that I had no reasonable expectation of catching locally.

IAI Kfir at Willie. This was one of my first big surprises of the year. It seemed that no matter how exhaustive my lists of potential “catches” was, I was always being surprised by aircraft that I had no reasonable expectation of catching locally.

 

Then “it” happened.   I had maxed-out capacity on my primary hard-drive and started using my backup external drive as a temporary primary storage drive until I could afford another backup. Murphy reared his ugly head and my backup drive crashed, taking with it all of my original shots from 2014 and a good chunk of 2013. While I had backed-up shots from my paying gigs and whatever I posted to the web, everything else was lost, including most of my shots from this project. I had maybe 100 shots on my primary drive that I was able to recover, as well as some that were still on my CF and SD cards.

With half the year gone, I considered abandoning the project, but the thought of starting over again in 2015 annoyed me. I made a list of what I was able to recover and another list of what I needed to shoot again to catch up. Once I committed to regaining lost shots and accumulating new ones, however, it ceased being a casual “let’s just see what I can get” project and became an obsession to get as many aircraft types as possible. Instead of shooting aircraft that just happened to be wherever I was taking photos at the time, I started checking FlightAware religiously, watching the arrivals and departures for all local airports for any aircraft I hadn’t shot yet.

 

 

While Scottsdale Airport proved to be a goldmine when it came to catching business jets, the Dassault Falcon 10 proved elusive through most of the year.  Frequent monitoring of Flightaware finally allowed me to catch one during a lunchbreak in late November.

While Scottsdale Airport proved to be a goldmine when it came to catching business jets, the Dassault Falcon 10 proved elusive through most of the year. Frequent monitoring of Flightaware finally allowed me to catch one during a lunchbreak in late November.

 

As the summer dragged on, I was once again in the 200s, thinking I’d max out around 300. When I passed 300, I thought the ceiling would be somewhere between 350 and 375. Every “ceiling” I thought I could reasonably expect kept getting smashed through. The Copperstate Fly-In pushed me well into the 400s, and I started eyeing 500, a number I simply did not think possible when I started this. I finally punched through the 500 mark in November, and thought I’d plateau around 525, as my daily Flightaware surveys were not yielding anything I hadn’t shot yet.

 

 

Kitfox Classic IV at the Copperstate Fly-In.  Copperstate yielded more than 100 aircraft types I hadn’t shot by that point in the year, including six distinct variants of the popular Kitfox.

Kitfox Classic IV at the Copperstate Fly-In. Copperstate yielded more than 100 aircraft types I hadn’t shot by that point in the year, including six distinct variants of the popular Kitfox.

 

As I went into December, I realized that there were a lot of local opportunities I had missed and decided to take a day off of work to visit several airports on the west side of town that I didn’t get to very much to see what they might yield. In a matter of a few hours, I had visited Buckeye, Goodyear, Glendale, and Deer Valley airports, as well as Luke Air Force Base. A friend showed me around various parts of Deer Valley and helped me get shots of over a dozen aircraft, none of which were on my list (Wilga, Paris Jet), and a few I didn’t even know existed, like the turbine-powered Luscombe. After this, I was right around 530.

 

Outside of this project, I likely never would have taken a static shot of an ultralight trike.  While a snapshot would have worked, getting low with a fisheye allowed me to get a frame-filling shot that I’m actually quite pleased with.

Outside of this project, I likely never would have taken a static shot of an ultralight trike. While a snapshot would have worked, getting low with a fisheye allowed me to get a frame-filling shot that I’m actually quite pleased with.

 

Though I had made up most of what I lost in my hard-drive crash, there were several California-based warbirds I had shot at the El Centro airshow that I’d have to make a trip to re-shoot. I reached out to my friends in AzAP to see if anyone was up for a one-day, out-and-back trip to the Inland Empire to hit Chino, Cable, and Palm Springs, where several of the warbirds I lost in the hard-drive crash were based. My friend Scott Colbath loved the idea, and on December 19th, we made the trek out to California in his Corvette and visited Chino, Cable, Palm Springs, and Flabob airports, bringing me to right around 570.

 

One of over 30 aircraft types I photographed on a one-day trip to California’s Inland Empire with Scott Colbath.  This Schoenfeld Firecracker replica is part of the Tom Wathen collection at Flabob Airport.

One of over 30 aircraft types I photographed on a one-day trip to California’s Inland Empire with Scott Colbath. This Schoenfeld Firecracker replica is part of the Tom Wathen collection at Flabob Airport.

 

The last week of December was the holiday cargo push at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, and it was a few trips out to PHX that got me the number I finally ended up with, 580. Technically, I photographed more aircraft than that, but there were some that I lost in the hard drive crash that I simply could not shoot again (AC-130W, KC-130J Harvest HAWK, Piasecki H-21, etc), or could not replace with prior shots that I had on hand. This last part may seem like cheating – for those aircraft that I lost shots of and would not have the opportunity to shoot again in 2014, I used older shots I had taken in previous years. Luckily, I wound up getting a few opportunities to re-shoot some of these aircraft and used my 2014 shots to replace the older “placeholders,” but the truth is that I DID see and photograph aircraft like the F-15E and Yak-50 and KC-10 and HH-65 and I wasn’t going to let a hard drive crash change that fact if I could provide photos of those aircraft, even if not from this year. There are also aircraft that I shot and still have shots of, but did not include because the next “griddable” number of images was 588, and I simply didn’t have the shots to get there. These aircraft, as well as the types I used older “substitute” shots for are noted at the bottom of the list on my Flickr stream linked below.

 

A shot I never would have been excited about outside the context of this project, let alone even taken.  Cessna 404 Titan, backlit, under a sunshade, and with a ridiculous amount of background clutter.   Having never photographed or even seen a 404, I never expected to see one.  Sadly, this was far from my most embarrassing shot of 2014.

A shot I never would have been excited about outside the context of this project, let alone even taken. Cessna 404 Titan, backlit, under a sunshade, and with a ridiculous amount of background clutter. Having never photographed or even seen a 404, I never expected to see one. Sadly, this was far from my most embarrassing shot of 2014.

 

Overall, this started out as fun, but felt increasingly more like work as it went on, especially after the hard-drive crash. I got particularly tired of spending my entire lunch hour driving 30 miles to shoot an inbound aircraft I saw on Flightaware, spending all of two or three minutes at an airport to photograph it, then heading the 30 miles back to work. While it did reconnect me in a way with the type of shooting-for-the-hell-of-it photography I started out with, shooting for quantity at the expense of quality just never felt right. There were several garbage shots that I NEVER would have taken outside of the context of this project. Aside from a few embarrassingly-bad images, I did try my best to include good, solid shots. I’m proud of hitting a much higher number than I thought I would, especially after the setback of the hard-drive crash, but I’m also fairly certain that without the crash, I would not have gotten the resolve to shoot as many aircraft as I eventually did, and would have ended the year with 100-150 fewer aircraft total. As proud as I am of hitting 580 (592 if you count the shots I lost in the hard drive crash, didn’t include in the big matrix shot, and saw but simply forgot to shoot), the whole endeavor wound up being a huge pain in the ass that isolated me from the type of shooting I want to do. I have no plans to try and beat my own number in 2015, or within the foreseeable future, and will instead focus on creating images that I find compelling or otherwise satisfying to me as a photographer.

 

My final aviation shot of 2014, a Piper Cheyenne I on the ramp at Willie.

My final aviation shot of 2014, a Piper Cheyenne I on the ramp at Willie.

 

For a full row-by-row list of all the aircraft I photographed as well as a larger version of the matrix shot below, take a look at the original over on my Flickr stream.

 

The Matrix.  This image shows 580 of the 590 aircraft I photographed in 2014.

The Matrix. This image shows 580 of the 592 aircraft I photographed in 2014.

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