Red Flag 14-1
Article and Photos by Steven Valinski
When the U.S. Government is not haggling over the budget, four times per year the exercise entitled: Red Flag takes place. Not to be confused with a similar exercise titled: Red Flag Alaska, this exercise takes place at Nellis Air Force Base located north of Las Vegas, Nevada. Simply put, Red Flag is one of the most realistic combat exercises in the world. As stated in the Nellis AFB press release: “Red Flag is a realistic combat training exercise involving the air, space, and cyber forces of the United States and its allies”. This exercise is an opportunity for the United States and it’s allies to plan and execute combat scenarios using strategic, tactical and operational assets.
Red Flag 14-1 is scheduled from Jan. 27 – Feb. 14 2014. The exercise is currently in it’s final week. The list of participating aircraft is very impressive. In addition to U.S. Military aircraft, the United Kingdom is participating with their Typhoons, Tornados, and an E-3D and Australia is participating with their F/A-18 Hornet’s and an E-7 Wedgetail. The full list of aircraft that are participating in Red Flag 14-1 is located here.
I had an opportunity to spend four days in Las Vegas photographing some of the aircraft activity. Seeing some of these aircraft in person was very impressive, but, being able to photograph them made the experience much more enjoyable. The weather was my biggest challenge of the experience. Out of the four days I was there, only one of the days was not impacted by cloud cover. While photographing with heavy cloud cover is not ideal, it did provide me with an opportunity to improve my low light photography. Most would say I am spoiled photographing in Arizona where 85% of the days are full sunshine, so I needed see how other photographers adapt to these challenges. While the experience was frustrating at times, I was able to get some decent shots.
The activity during Red Flag went/came in waves. While the morning launches were mostly local Nellis traffic including the U.S.A.F. Thunderbirds, the first Red Flag Launch was at approximately 12:30PM daily followed by a second launch at approximately 7PM. A typical launch consisted of sending up the strategic assets first. The bombers, tankers, and large electronic warfare assets were the first to launch. After the “heavies” launch, the adversary aircraft would launch. The last launch included all of the remaining participating aircraft. In this case: F-16’s, F-15’s, F-22’s, Hornets, Tornados, Prowlers, Growlers, and Typhoons.
Photographing the departures was challenging. Most of the aircraft climbed very quickly which yielded mostly “belly” shots. The afternoon arrivals were always fun to shoot. When sunlight was available, it was best when the afternoon arrivals were coming in on runway 21 R/L. In most cases, the departures were on runway 3 R/L and the arrivals were on runway 21 R/L. Any exceptions were on departures with the heavy aircraft which can be more dependent on wind conditions. Another challenge was the amount of “reach” needed in some cases. For example, for arrivals on runway 21L a focal length of at least 800mm is required. This is where crop-sensor DSLR’s and long glass shine. If you could manage the “reach”, shots of arrivals on runway 21L often yielded a beautiful mountain backdrop which enhances the quality of the photos produced.
The opportunity to photograph aircraft during the Red Flag exercise is an experience no aviation photographer should miss. Photographers from all around the world travel to Nevada to photograph the participating aircraft and mingle with other aviation enthusiast/photographers. Along with the pleasure of seeing aircraft I do not normally see, I met a lot of wonderful people with a common interest in aircraft and photography. Some people would say I was boring. Taking a trip to Las Vegas and not gambling or drinking, only taking photographs of aircraft. I would argue with these people that the experience Red Flag provided is far superior to one provided by gambling and drinking…and I did not lose my shirt.