Pulling up to the security gate at the South West corner of Long Beach airport, we meet our support team for tonight’s planned photo shoot of the Ameriquest Soaring Dreams Airship, registration N606SA A brief visual confirmation of identities, and the gate slides open. Forming a mini caravan of three vehicles, we enter the airport proper. Josh Spurway, acting crew chief for tonight, and several ground support personal occupy the lead SUV. Followed by my self, with two photographer friends, Scotty and David. ( both of whom have asked several times to join me on a night photo shoot, As this promised to be a difficult shoot, it seemed the perfect opportunity, I gladly accepted their help) Bringing up the rear was the final company van holding several more ground support crew.
Josh in the lead vehicle, holding short of taxi way Bravo, call for and soon receives permission from ground control for his vehicle “plus 2” to transition the airport environment. Moving together in single file, we roll onto the taxi way, head lights on and blinkers flashing, in a sort of slow motion parade. Turning east bound at intersection “Juliet” we are soon transiting the active runway 34 Left, continuing our drive further out across the expansive airport network.
Trying to stay in the moment, I can’t help but ponder the great amount of effort required, all leading to this final event. Starting over 6 weeks previously, with dozens of phone calls and easily twice as many e-mails. The process was protracted at best. Finally contacting a man ( I should say he contacted me, as my inquiries were bumped up the chain of command, so to speak) with the authority and vision to take a chance on a photographer and his crazy request. Based solely on my word and a few photos samples Mr. Jerry Ockfen, from Passage Events up in Seattle WA. went far out of his way to make all this possible.
Driving on, I’m brought back to the moment by Scotty and David’s shouts of excitement upon catching their first glimpse of the massive airship. “Oh Wow!” “I can’t believe you got access to this thing!” David adds, “Its Huge. Beautiful.” “Good Job Eric!”
Coming astride the staging area for airship operations, the lead vehicle pulls off the taxiway, carefully navigating between the taxi way parameter lighting. Following close behind, we head 300 yards further out into the no mans land of grass and dirt between the runways.
Arriving at the support truck / mooring structure, I’m careful to slide in tight within the “shadow” of the mooring mast. As the airship does pivot 360degrees on it’s hinged mooring, it’s critical that no part of a vehicle comes into contact with the airship. Having visited this site twice before over the last 8 days I’m confident I had a good handle on any situation present at the date and time of our final shooting. Performing test snap shots, talking to ground crew and researching weather patterns and how they affect the relationship between the support truck and airship. Making every effort to minimize on site location time, it was imperative that all best possible camera angels were determined ahead of time. Wind heading determines where the airship lies, and consequently optimal location for camera set up.
Even with the investment of all that preparation, I must admit, I wasn’t quite prepared for the situation awaiting me outside our vehicle. Upon exiting, I’m struck by how different the actual situation was from my pre conceived idea of what to expect. Winds must have been 10-12 knots out of the west. Hardly a gale, but as far as the airship was concerned, it might as well have been, she was pivoting on her hinged mooring a good 30 degrees from both sides of center. For a craft this large, the aft end was traversing about 80 feet through the arc. Earlier that day, myself and chief pilot Captain Jose Bernaola had been in constant contact. Winds had been forecast for only 1 knot, at 10:00 P.M. out of the west. Currently, it’s 9:30 P.M. and blowing 10 knots plus. Not good!
Next, there seemed to be a tremendous amount of light out here center field. I incorrectly assumed this staging area being far from all the airport perimeter lighting, would lie in a much darker ambient light zone. Not true! Add to this, we had heavy aircraft conducting flight operations on two runways just north and south of our location. (This is after all, an active federal airport) Finally, for airship night watch there was a gas generator on scene, creating electricity for the support truck, automated control systems of buoyancy for the airship and some few flood lamps to designate the operational area. Being somewhat sensitive to loud noise, the roaring wine of this heavy duty generator seemed to pierce my head. Talking any where near the support truck and airship was almost impossible.
Feeling a bit over whelmed, it did take a few moments to regain my composure. Having no other option, other that to go forward, we quickly began preparing for the shot. Luckily not all of my preliminary home work was wasted. Talking to Josh, together we made a best guess as to where the airship will settle down when and if the wind lets up. Next we set up a tripod and camera system, followed by movement into place of heavy helium cylinders and different gas containers. After ‘tweaking” the set for about an hour, winds had finally stabilized enough that Josh and the ground support crew could actually wrestle the airship down into a single some what stable position. Coming to rest not where expected (of course!) the camera had to be repositioned, along with all the equipment lying in the foreground of the shot. Ten minutes later were ready to roll, now the real fun begins, photography.
This next little surprise really knocked me back. Hooking up my powerful hand held spot lights, to large portable battery packs I was shocked to see the out put of light seemed so week. Switching from a one million candle power spot, to my three million power spot, it still felt feeble. Is it a system problem? Fusses, connections, battery shorts? Walking up underneath the airship bow, towering overhead and directing my 3 million power spot upon her skin 30 feet up, the effect was negligible. “I see”, with so very much ambient light, these diffused spots of mine aren’t powerful enough to “stand out”. For the second time tonight I felt at al loss. Standing there for several seconds, staring up at this massive craft, easily the size of an apartment building, a solution was needed, fast!
If this had been a professional photo shoot for hire I probably would have cancelled the session. These were extreme conditions, technically very challenging and certainly not conductive to creativity. As it stood, that wasn’t an option for me on that particular night. Not because of an opportunity lost, I certainly won’t be invited back to try again , extreme circumstances or not. More to the point, many people have gone through great lengths to bring me here to this exact spot at this precise moment. Being just a lowly photographer, and not privy to decisions made at the corporate level, I have since learned that Mary Kenny from Airship Management Services has also taken a risk by pushing access for this night photo shoot through at the last minute. (A weeks worth of storms were heading our way, tonight is the last clear night available before the window is gone. After that, the airship will be leaving to Arizona for the for seeable future.) If this shot was not successful, it’s easily possible to imagine negative consequences arising, after all the time and money already expended. Discretion prevents me from explaining the full details of these individuals considerable efforts. Suffice it to say they went out on a limb in my effort to capture this image.
Mentally returning to the present, contemplating the current situation, it seemed there might be one other option still open to me. In this battle of photons, I definitely needed to up the antae, - more power is required!
Discarding my hand held spot and battery, I walked out to one of the very powerful perimeter flood lights lying on the ground. Looking down upon it, “Certainly it seemed powerful enough.” With nothing to loose and no other options, this has to work. Hefting the ridiculously bright flood in both hands, being care full not to touch the head with my bare hands, or gaze near the light directly as my night vision would be temporarily lost. While standing there, trying to get a sense of this new tool, the memory of a scene from “Terminator II” struck me. Just after Arnold entered an underground weapons bunker, while still cradling a massive M-79 40mm grenade launcher, his young adolescent friend, upon viewing the scene comments “That’s so you.” The analogy might not be totally applicable, but I must admit, the thought did cross my mind.
Returning towards the bow, underneath this massive airship, flood in hands, I tried again. Eureka! It worked. Instructing my assistants to quickly rig 100 feet of electrical cable along the length of the gas bag fuselage, we tried a couple test exposures, while checking the video monitor for brightness and density. These floods weren’t bright enough to light up the entire airship in a single long exposure, but by chopping the photograph of the airship’s fuselage in to six smaller pieces it was possible to pump enough photons on to the selected areas, one at a time, and over power the ambient light. Still dealing with the mental distraction of wind and loud generator noise , I had to shout to David (standing half way back towards Scotty operating he camera) at the top of my lungs “OPEN”. David repeating the command as loud as possible to Scotty, and the camera would open. Painting with the flood for only about 8 seconds, ( any longer and the ambient light would ruin the image by generating too much “ grey noise”) we as a team exposed close to 250 frames during that 4 hour long airship session. Using the flood for all airship pieces and my smaller hand held spots lights to paint smaller items, such as helium cylinders and fuel containers etc.
Ultimately, the shooting and final photo were successful. As far as I understand it, the people at Airship Management Services Inc. and finally, Ameriquest Mortgage company’s Soaring Dreams Foundation are pleased with the final results.
After all that has transpired, it seemed like a smart tactical move on my part, that everybody involved first receive their big prints from this night photograph of the airship. I plan on asking once again for access to yet another airship at some point in the future. This time in a hanger, under going maintenance. It could be a great shot.