10 Days In September!
Every September for over 50 years now, the quiet Reno-Stead Airport comes to life with the sound and excitement of aviation. This event is known as the National Championship Air Races, and not only offers excitement, but the opportunity for aviation photographers to go crazy with their passion. The event typically kicks off on a Wednesday and comes to a head the following Sunday with the Unlimited Gold Race to crown the ultimate champion in air racing. But for some of us this journey begins much sooner and offers far more than just air racing. Those of us photographers who make our way "home" every September to spend early mornings and late nights on the ramp, not only begin our planning months in advance, but also arrive days before the gates open for the crowds to arrive.
This year's Air Races ran from Wednesday September 14th through Sunday September 18th, but my arrival was actually on the afternoon of Thursday September 8th. Some people call us crazy, the photographers that are on site before the first planes arrive, the first barricades have been set in place, or the first sign of life has even begun on this sleepy airport. What they don't understand is that this event is more to us than a chance to shoot photos of airplanes, this is a chance to capture the ups and downs, emotions, victories and defeat of the human spirit and its quest for aviation greatness. Some of these feelings come from the people involved, while others can come from a lone airplane sitting on the tarmac as the sunrises or sets for the day. In order to capture these moments you must be there from the time the first plane arrives till the last one departs, and every moment in between.
The early part of the week is spent easing into things, catching up with friends, and a very relaxed atmosphere of shooting and freedom. A small portion of the nearly 170 photographers granted access to this event call themselves the "Dan Patrol". These are the photographers that wake up before the sunrises, get to the airport to see whats on the ramp, and spend the morning drinking their coffee (or in my case Red Bull) as they capture the sunrise over whatever aircraft has graciously been left out on the ramp for out morning subject. While this does continue through the entirety of the event, the rules and regulations become stricter throughout the week, not only restricting where we can be, but what can be left on the ramp over night. This is part of why we find it so important to get to the event early, before our access is tightened up.
As the first weekend before the actual event approaches, the aircraft begin to pour in so that they arrive before the cut off time, and can begin testing and tuning their machines for optimum performance. This is when you will start to find aircraft of every class performing run ups on the ramp, test flights, and repairs. The ramp then begins to come alive with the sights and sounds of the event which is soon to take place. As photographers we still enjoy the unlimited access and the chance to capture aircraft which in some cases may not make it to race week. In between photo opportunities we all share stories of races of the past, whats going on in each others lives, rumors and stories floating around the pits, and a lot of laughs. This early time on the ramp the bond between us is reformed, and new photographers are welcomed into a circle of family and friends with a passion that keeps us connected.
With the first weekend coming to an end, things start to tighten down, but are drive for the perfect shots gets even stronger. Photographers have to check in with the media ops personnel, get your access for the week, and learn the rules being put in place so that we can make sure we get our shots while staying in compliance with the restrictions that grow tighter each and every year. While we may get discouraged a time or two with some of the restrictions, we quickly realize that the access we have is still amazing, and that we always find a way to get the shots we are after.
Wednesday has arrived, with the first day of the actual event taking place. Not only does this mean more action, more people, but it also means access to the pylons which the aircraft race around. These are not only the shots most photographers come for, but its the experience that most race fans dream of. We are taken out in groups to pre-planned pylons where we can shoot the aircraft racing around us as low as 50 feet off the ground at speeds of up to 500 mph. While we fire away trying to capture the perfect shots, we also take time to put the cameras down and just take in what is happening around us. There is a certain feeling, that as hard as we try, can not be captured in a photo from being on a pylon.
As the week continues into the weekend, the spectators in attendance, the speeds of the aircraft, and the shutter count on our cameras continue to rise. Myself I try and be specific in what I shoot and keep my shots under 2,000 a day, but there are others who will shoot upwards of 5,000 shots a day. All of this is to ensure that we get those shots that we can not wait to get home and process at the end of the event. Many of us have specific teams and pilots that we have connected with and make the extra effort to ensure we capture not only great shots for them, but also the shots they can use for their current and future sponsors. In order to get a good set for a team it takes time devoted to not only shooting with them, but also planning the shots around a busy schedule for everyone involved. Not only is the race and event schedule fluid and every changing, but a shoot with an aircraft can be changed at the last minute should they run into an issue that requires them to work on the aircraft. In the end they are in Reno to race, not for photos.
Sunday brings us to the main event, the day everyone has been waiting for, the gold race for each class to see who is the best of the best. I have learned over the past few years, that after already shooting for 9 days straight, that on Sunday it is okay to set the camera down and be a spectator and enjoy the events in ways other than through the lens. While most photographers are still firing away to get every last moment captured, I have found that while I am there to take photos, its okay to spend a day making memories that will only live on in your head, and shared with those around you at the time they are happening. Sunday evening usually ends with an awards banquet followed by relaxing time with family and friends, reliving and sharing the moments of the last week. Come Monday morning we will all be packing up camp to begin our journeys home, while the airport begins its process of going back to sleep until next September.