For once, I spent more time watching than photographing

We had a behind the scenes meet-and-greet with the US Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration squadron Friday in advance of the Northern Thunder air and space expo at the Grand Forks Air Force Base, and it was a fantastic way to spend a Friday! The pilots and crew were gracious hosts, answering all our questions and clearly enjoying themselves when talking about their jobs and their aircraft.

That’s not to say that I didn’t snap some photos during practice, though! I have a new camera for 2022, and some of the lenses I always dreamed about, so of course I want to wield them for stuff like this.

Naturally I had a few questions about the F-16, with some particularly technical questions about how it compares to the F-18, F-22, and F-35. The Thunderbirds pilots are rated on a number of aircraft, including my beloved A-10, so it’s a blast getting their impressions of the various equipment.

Due to my line of work I have to protect my hearing, so I have custom molded ear plugs which I’ve worn religiously while racing, working around noisy equipment, or attending airshows. I do, however, remove them for a bit whenever fighters are nearby. What can I say, I love the sound of freedom!

Those with an eye for detail will notice that Kyle’s number 5 is upside-down on his flight suit. It’s actually upside-down on his aircraft, too – what started out as a joke is actually pretty practical. He spends so much time inverted during the program that this allows his number to be upright in all the photos!

This isn’t Kyle, by the way. But the number on the intake is the one I’m referring to. In shots where aircraft number 5 is inverted aside another Thunderbird, both aircraft have numbers properly oriented for the photographers.

I didn’t spend that much time photographing the practice, really! This is it. It’s funny how many times I took the camera in and out of the bag, though. I didn’t bring any lenses longer than 200mm, so it wasn’t really an ideal photography circumstance anyway. When I’ve shot the Thunderbirds in other states I’ve rented really long glass so I can get the shots I want. 400-600mm is ideal, with image stabilization of course, and it takes a lot of practice. At that kind of focal length it’s like looking through a straw, and following the action is a challenge.

I didn’t make it back up to Grand Forks AFB Saturday to just be a spectator, but I’m looking forward to the next time I get to see a fighter demo squadron in action! As far as how much time I spend looking through a viewfinder instead of just enjoying the show…we’ll, we’ll have to play that one by ear.

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