Red Flag 14-1

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.

10 thoughts on “Red Flag 14-1”

    1. Yes, between the time of day of departure (poor lighting) and the angle of departure, the departure shots are weak for the Red Flag aircraft. In the AM you can get shots of the local stuff departing on 21…I had a T-Bird buzz over me at about 200 ft then go vertical just as he passed. My right ear is still hurting from the experience…but I enjoyed it.

  1. Theres so many awesome pics in there i dont know where to start first. Love the B2 bomber and the F22s. Awesome write up to bud!! You know your shit! Dave lets plan on making this next time??? Deal?

    1. Thanks Bryan. The next Red Flag is in early March and it’s mostly F-16’s and F-15’s..the one to plan for is Red Flag 14-3 in July. If you can deal with the heat, the aircraft lineup should be interesting.

  2. Great article, Steve. As for the pictures all I can say is WOW! My favorites are……..all of them.

    I’ve had my fair share of days shooting in low light, non optimal conditions and I have to say you did very well. Yes, it is both a challenge and frustrating but it looks like you were a quick study. Were you sharing shooting techniques with other photographers?

    As for you being boring, you can count me in for being the same. If it were not for Nellis being in Las Vegas, I’d never step foot in the city.

    One of these days I’ll make it to RF and will try to do so when international units participate so I can see some of their airframes.

    1. Thank you Bill! The key to the “foul weather” shots was to overexpose enough for the sensor to capture enough detail. At times, I was shooting +1.3 and +1.7. In those cases there will not be much detail in the sky.

      I think we all need to get together for a Red Flag….we can call it an Airwingspotter’s convention.