The Remarkable Story of the First Wide Angle, Head-On Photographs of Flying Fighter Jets

The year was 1977: the magic of digital and all the technological advances of today were decades off. And yet, the ingenuity of one photographer created these remarkable photos without even seeing what he was shooting.

Richard Cooke had some pretty successful shoots under his belt with the Red Arrows (the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team) when he had an idea: head-on shots of the fighters mid-flight. This meant mounting a rear-facing camera on the bottom of the photographer's plane and operating remotely without any view of what the camera was shooting. The problem was that in 1977, there were no remote monitors or controls, only a mechanical setup to trip the shutter and the trust that your expertise had resulted in correctly exposed and focused images. And so, Cooke (that name must explain why he's so smart) had to get clever.

And so, after some help from colleagues engineering and manufacturing a mount and control for the camera (a Nikkormat EL with a 24mm Nikkor lens and polarizing filter, plus an autowinder since he couldn't manually wind the film from inside the plane), he spent some time on the ground with a pilot determining the exact focusing distance he wanted for a correctly framed shot (at 24mm, these were very tight formations) and to train the pilot's eye to that distance. He then dialed in the appropriate settings for his Kodachrome 64 film and the situation and proceeded to wrap his lens barrel in white tape. This accomplished two feats. First, it locked in his focus and aperture, ensuring they wouldn't drift, particularly as the planes were pulling multiple-g maneuvers. Second, it provided the pilot leading the maneuvers a sight: if they could see white on the barrel, they knew they were out of position, but once they only saw the black of the polarizing filter, they knew they had the image. In an age of technology capable of getting almost any shot, it's very neat to see how a bare minimum of gear and a lot of cleverness pulled off these spectacular photos. 

[via PetaPixel]

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Lovely image - really spectacular - all with 36 frames of film.....amazing!

Interesting to note the Red Arrows with still flying Folland Gnats at the time......thanks for posting.

Beaut images and he told his story very well. What an amazing experience!

Wow - amazing photos - time to pull my Minolta out again tomorrow!

I was a technical groundcrew member of the Red Arrows at the time and I remember the amount of work that we put in to get the camera into position and all the airframe and electrical systems operational. In the days long before Go-Pros and Wi-Fi we were chuffed to see the results and proud to have been part of the setting-up. Special mention should also go to Squadron Leader Al Voyle, the Engineering Officer on the Team at the time who made it happen.

Mike, that's amazing!! I'm jealous! :)

Ditto - what an experience!

Thank you so much for posting this. I love his Youtube channel. So many great stories.