2024 Red Bull Air Force Aviation Camp

Earlier this year, in Mid-March I once again had the honor of working with the Red Bull Air Force. The Red Bull Air Force is a team comprised of the best sky divers, wingsuit B.A.S.E. jumpers, and stunt pilots in the USA. Hanging out with them is like hanging out with Superman and Superwoman. Practically nothing is impossible and that is a huge part of why this crew continues to push and evolve their respective disciplines. I have worked with the team for the last fifteen years. This was the sixth team training camp I have photographed among many other assignments with them–and they have all been memorable.

The 2024 training camp was held in Louisiana. The weather was touch and go on a few days but overall the team managed to do a bunch of skydives and also try out some new formations and maneuvers that they can use for their air show demos. My assignment, as usual, was to document as much of the action as possible and also to create portraits, lifestyle images, can in hand images (images of the athletes drinking the product) and a team photo incorporating all of the athletes. The team photo is at the top of this big post.

The team photo itself was tricky to pull off. Trying to fit eight skydivers, two stunt pilots and an aerobatic helicopter into one still frame is challenging. The helicopter is pumping out some serious downforce just behind the skydivers standing on the tarmac. Aaron Fitzgerald (in the helicopter) also had to keep that bird steady as a rock while two stunt planes flew right over the top of him. He held the Helicopter there for five minutes or more as the stunt pilots Kirby Chambliss and Kevin Coleman tightened up their formation on five successive flyovers. I started farther away from the team not knowing how far out the pilots would be from the ground and then moved in closer and closer on each attempt to make the skydivers bigger in the frame. The Air Force has had some iconic team photos over the years (many that I created with them) so the pressure is always on to top the last one.

The whole point of the team training camp is to get the whole team together, which rarely happens, and practice the air show that they perform throughout the year at various air bases–and also to come up with new ideas and concepts and practice those as well so they can incorporate those new stunts into future air shows and events. One of the stunts they have been doing at air shows lately is scenario where Aaron takes up Miles Daisher or Luke Aikens in the helicopter and they jump off the skid of the helicopter just as Kevin Coleman buzzes the bottom of the helicopter as shown below. Kevin comes in at 180 mph (289 kmh) and his tail fin is only six to ten feet away from the bottom of the helicopter. From the ground it looks pretty epic as can be seen below.

When I was working up images back at home, I showed the above image to Katie, my other half, and asked her what she thought. Her response was that it was so out there she could barely even understand what was happening or where I was in relation to the action. I would say that is often the case for a lot of skydiving images and perhaps many of the images in this blog post. For some images it is easy to tell where I am in relation to the athlete and in others not so much. My hope is if the photograph looks this crazy to the viewer they have some sense of just how out there it looked in real life.

Of course, a huge part of the training camp is to skydive as much as possible–both for fun and to get a lot of footage that they can use to promote the team and Red Bull in general over the course of the next year. In the image below, team members Andy Farrington, Miles Daisher, Sean MacCormac, and Jeff Provenzano let loose while skydiving. For a lot of these skydiving images I am using either remote mounted mirrorless cameras or GoPro action cameras mounted on the team members helmets. They are all experts at using a GoPro or an Insta360 style action camera and they pretty much all have at least one (sometimes two) recording video on every single skydive. To get still images I have my GoPros running in time-lapse mode and firing off two frames every second. As you can imagine, that ends up being an incredible number of images in the end.

The Red Bull Air Force team members are true professionals. They know how to make something look off-the-charts cool. And they know how to play to the camera. Andy Farrington, the skydiver smiling into the camera above, is not only one of the best skydivers and wingsuit pilots on the planet but he is also one of the best at filming skydiving. Hence, every time I put a camera on someone’s helmet they seemed to make some magic happen. At some of the training camps we will have a few extra aircraft for myself and the video crew to shoot out of but at this Aviation camp we had just the team, myself and an incredible drone pilot working to document the action. This meant that I had to rely on remote cameras a bit more than usual. Even so, hopefully the images speak for themselves.

The GoPros were also mounted in the cockpits of the stunt planes (as shown below) and also on the wings of the aircraft as well. In the three images below, all created with GoPros, the top image is of Pete McLeod buzzing the tarmac, the middle image is of Kevin Coleman doing the same and the bottom image is of Kirby Chambliss upside down with the ground reflected on his wing. In all we created over 35,000 images on the GoPros over the course of four days. I am never quite sure what we are going to get but one thing is sure–there are always a few epic GoPro images.

Of course, there are plenty of opportunities to get up in the air as well. When Aaron Fitzgerald isn’t practicing his aerobatic routine, I can often hop in the helicopter and photograph the action out of an open door. Flying with Aaron is a huge privilege. I have spent many hours in the back of his helicopter and it never gets old or routine. He is one of the best helicopter pilots on the planet and what he can do in a helicopter is literally mind-blowing. I have been in the helicopter once when he ran through his entire aerobatic routine–and that was one of the highlights of my career just to be there. This year I got a sweet image from the back seat of him just flying along normally but the light was just right and shows what the view looks like out of the front of the helicopter. Of course I also got some wild images from the ground of him practicing a new routine as well.

Of course, I also have a lot of other obligations on the shot list when on assignment at the Aviation camp. Cheif among those are to create new portraits of the team that will be used for all the air shows and events they participate in. The team is constantly traveling and it seems almost every weekend they are skydiving into a Formula 1 race, performing at an air show or some other major sporting event. They don’t stay in one place for long and their portraits are displayed on giant LED screens to give the audience a sense of who it is falling out of the sky right in front of them.

I take the portrait part of these assignments pretty seriously and try to create portraits of each athlete that they and I can be proud of. The hope is that they actually like the portrait of themselves as well, which is usually a much higher bar than just how cool the image looks stylistically.

Shown above are portraits of Kevin Coleman (top left), Amy Chmelecki (top right), Pete McLeod (bottom left) and Miles Daisher (bottom right). These portraits are produced on the fly so to speak. Typically, as with this occasion, I set up a little studio space inside a hanger and leave it set up for the entire camp. For this setup we used a gray background and lit it with three Elinchrom strobes (big studio flashes). When there is some down time I grab a few athletes and we hammer out some portraits of them in various poses. Usually these mini-sessions last no longer than five minutes per athlete. We get serious straight on portraits, then to the side, profiles and then we just let go and get some funky off the cuff moments as shown below. We try to have some fun with it as getting your portrait taken is never all that much fun. All the athletes know the drill and are professional about it but still I like to make it painless.

It isn’t often that I see the team members take selfies but during this camp there was a moment that was hard to pass up. The image below was from right at the end of our team photo session. It isn’t everyday that the team has everyone together and a helicopter hovering right behind them. They had been standing there getting blasted by the rotor wash for five minutes or so when Jeff Provenzano pulled out his phone and snapped what has to be one of the coolest selfies ever created. Luckily I saw this happen and snapped off a few images of them taking a selfie together.

Another part of the assignment is just documenting the behind the scenes happenings in-between the skydives and aerobatic routines. On the average training camp day the team might make six skydives or a dozen or more depending on what is happening. Hence, there is a lot of parachute packing in-between skydives. Communication between the skydivers and the pilots is also critical for safety so there are a lot of group discussions that I try to document. These images aren’t necessarily portfolio images but all just part of the story.

Over the course of the week, the stunt pilots Kirby Chambliss, Kevin Coleman and Pete McLeod (from Canada) and Aaron Fitzgerald (flying the aerobatic helicopter) are constantly going up to practice their routines and work on new maneuvers as well. Sometimes I am in the air to document these flights but more often I am on the ground. Seeing the stunt pilots go through their entire routines is pretty wild. As shown below, these planes can go full vertical at any moment like a rocket launching into the sky. In the image just below Kevin Coleman flew down the length of the runway and then went vertical. In the image below that, Kirby Chambliss is performing the Cobra maneuver. For that image of Kirby, I was photographing him with a wide angle lens so you can tell just how close I was to the action. I was standing out in clear view next to the runway and Kirby came through this flight path several times. Each time I moved in closer and closer. I could see him look at me so I knew that he was aware of where I was. At one point he flew past me at over 150 mph (241 kmh) with his wingtip only ten feet from me. I didn’t flinch and we got a wild shot of him just a few feet off the ground as shown in the third image below.

By far, one of the most intense moments of the aviation camp was when Luke Aikins was flying his plane (that has an air brake attached to it) while the rest of the Red Bull Air Force skydived around him. As shown in the three images below, this resulted in an absolutely mind-blowing set of images from the remote cameras. All of the skydivers rotated around the plane as it descended. At one point Jeff Provenzano reached out and grabbed the wing of the plane as they all descended at the same rate. The air brake that Luke has attached to the plane allows the plane to fall at the same rate as the skydivers, which is terminal velocity (for a human body)–about 120 mph (193 kmh). The video from this stunt is even more compelling than any of my still images and can be seen here and here on Instagram.

I wasn’t in the plane for this first skydive but shortly there after they tried the same thing with wingsuit skydivers and afterwards Luke ran over to me saying we gotta get you up in the plane to photograph his perspective out the door. I knew that if Luke was excited about the perspective it was going to be pretty wild so I jumped in the plane to head up. After climbing up in altitude for about ten or fifteen minutes Luke engaged the air brake and we immediately slowed down and started descending rapidly. I was waiting for the wingsuit skydivers to show up and seconds later they were right there just outside the open door. In the image below team members Andy Farrington, Mike Swanson, Jeff Provenzano, and Miles Daisher are floating just next to the plane. They seemed so comfortable it was almost comical.

I didn’t know what to expect or how long this would go on so I had the camera cranked up into the 20 fps mode and I was blasting away as Andy Farrington (the closest to me) just outside the door flashed me the “rock on” hand signal. They flew next to the plane for thirty to forty seconds–much longer than I expected. I had so much time that I framed up a variety of compositions. This one shown above that includes the door frame, the wing and the plane’s wheel seemed to give the best sense of the scene. I even stopped shooting a few times as my right eardrum had pressure building up in it so rapidly it was painful. We fell over 10,000 feet (3,048 meters) in those thirty or more seconds. Because the air brake wasn’t fully deployed we weren’t falling straight vertically at the ground but we matched the glide path of the wingsuit skydivers which is a 3-to-1 glide ratio. Hence, we were falling roughly at a 35-degree down angle as can be seen the image below.

In the image above you can see my foot and part of my upper body sticking out of the plane door. Usually I try not to break the plane of the open door as there is a lot of wind pushing you around if you do, but in this instance I was trying to get a different composition without the door frame. When I am photographing out of an open door on an aircraft or a helicopter I am typically tethered in but in this instance it was a serious safety hazard to be tethered into the plane. Hence, I was wearing a parachute and was not tethered to anything in the plane–just in case I fell out. Being tethered in is a safety hazard in this instance because if the parachute somehow gets deployed while I am still in the plane and I am tethered in then the plane is going to crash with all of us in it. Being untethered meant that if somehow the parachute opened while I was still in the plane it would pull me out of the plane and we would hopefully all survive. It is definitely not a good thing to have your parachute deploy while you are still in the plane so I made sure not to accidentally catch any part of the rig on something inside the plane or accidentally pull the release while photographing the wingsuiters. Regardless, it was pretty comfortable sitting on the floor of the plane next to Luke and photographing out the open door. To get a sense of what it was like photographing the crew wingsuiting next to us in the plane check out Luke Aikins behind the scenes video he created while I was photographing the team here on Instagram. And then consider that he was flying the plane in a 35-degree nose dive and filming that on his iPhone at the same time.

There are endless images I could share here. That is a huge problem with these types of assignments–you have to photograph everything and often at high frames rates to make sure you don’t miss it since the action happens so fast. In all I created almost 60,000 images. That took a week just to go through them all and find the keepers–and then another week to work them up. It took Red Bull even longer to figure out which ones they wanted to put up on Red Bull Content Pool. Hence, posting up images from this gig has taken a while.

My sincere thanks to Red Bull for hiring me yet again to work with the Air Force team and to the team members themselves for allowing me to be a part of the action. This collaboration with the Red Bull Air Force has become one of the longest professional relationships I have ever had. All of the team members at this point are good friends. I have seen and done so much with them over the last fifteen years that I truly feel a part of the crew. Even with all of our work together somehow I have never gone skydiving but we are going to take care of that this summer–and I will finally go on that skydive with the team. For now, we will leave this here. I will post some other images on Instagram so stay tuned for that. If you made it this far, thank you for reading this entire blog post and checking out the images. Until next time….

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