The Star Wars Canyon, also known as the Jedi Transition or Rainbow Canyon, is a popular spot for aviation enthusiasts who wait there to get a glimpse at military jets flying between the hills. But photographer Eric Larson didn’t expect to capture that type of specimen that day. According to Mr. Larson:
It was a sunny day in Death Valley, right about half past noon when I started hearing the distant strains of approaching jet engines. I looked in the direction of the engine noise and I noticed the aircraft's wing appearing around the bend of the canyon but I kept seeing more and more wing. It seemed like it didn't end! Eventually, the whole aircraft was in view and I immediately recognized it as a C-17 cargo aircraft.
Usually, the Jedi transition route is taken by nimble fighters or strike planes such as the F-16 or F-15 conducting training in the vicinity of the Edward Air Force base. The pilots like to fly inside the canyon before exiting toward the flat and desolated flat land to the east.
But that day, the C-17 crew decided to ride the Star Wars canyon. Despite the impressive nature of the images, the C-17 aircraft is more than able to handle this type of flight. Designed as a strategic cargo, the C-17 can perform a great variety of missions including tactical flights thanks to its excellent maneuverability and reserve of power. The aircraft in the picture is part of the 412th Test Wing based at the Edwards base. Needless to say that these pilots are among the elite of the Air Force who master every aspect of the flight envelope of their machines. The canyon is part of a restricted airspace zone (Owens MOA) reserved for military operations. As the C-17 approached, Mr. Larson started shooting with his Canon 1D X and a 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L II telephoto lens.
Due to the size of the cargo aircraft, the photographer had adapted to the unusual situation. He says that “I was fully zoomed in and had the aperture wide open, shutter at 1/1250 to ensure the sharpest image but at one point I noticed the whole aircraft wasn't fitting in the viewfinder. I had to zoom out to prevent clipping the tail. By the time the aircraft was adjacent to me, I had racked the zoom lens all the way back to 100mm. That never happens when you're shooting fighter aircraft transiting the area, but this one was different, this aircraft was huge.”
Images used with permission.