It is an unlikely morning for a sunrise photo shoot. A ghostly veil of fog hangs over Steve Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, leaching the brightest colors from the airplanes parked all around us at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual AirVenture fly-in. But pilot Bruce Moore and EAA chief photographer Jim Koepnick are undeterred, and soon after Moore removes the Cessna 210’s left rear door, the sky clears and we are trundling down runway 27 in formation with two Bücker aircraft: a white Jungmeister and a pale gray Jungmann, vintage aerobatic airplanes typical of the beauties that show up here every year. And every year, for the past 20, Moore and Koepnick have worked together to capture air-to-air portraits of the airplanes flown to Oshkosh—and to Lakeland, Florida, for the Sun ’n Fun Fly-in—for EAA’s four membership magazines.
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This morning, I fly along in the right front seat as safety pilot and observer, taking notes on the pair’s teamwork and steady-Eddie style. Koepnick, with a safety harness around his waist and several cameras slung around his neck (he uses a digital single-lens reflex camera, most of the time with a 70- to 200-mm lens), sits in the open doorway of the baggage compartment. The opening offers him a chest-high window from which to survey the passing scene.
As we turn north, away from the airport and well clear of the area to the southwest where hundreds of airplanes stream into the traffic pattern all day long, Koepnick and Moore begin their working patter. Moore does most of the talking; he radios coded directions to the airplanes beside us and gives Koepnick a running commentary on upcoming scenery highlights. Their dialogue is cryptic, and sometimes it seems telepathic. Once Koepnick is absorbed by shooting, he says almost nothing.
“Gray Bücker, go to the rear,” Moore says over the radio. The Jungmann slides out of the picture frame. “David, start a right turn.” We are following aerobatic champion David Martin, who flew his Jungmeister in the airshow yesterday. The pilot-photographer pair know Martin; he is the only pilot Moore calls by name. All the rest of the flying subjects—five to seven a day—are addressed by their airplane types.
Moore directs, choreographs, suggests scenes, and puts the airplanes in the best light, while Koepnick shoots and shoots and shoots. Scanning the horizon, Moore says, “Cornfield coming up. Delta where the Fox River comes in. Sparklies on the water but the water’s kind of dark.” Cornfields and the sun’s reflection on water make photogenic backdrops for airplane portraits; Moore constantly watches and advises.
“David, level off,” he says. “That where you want him, Jim?”
“Yeah, we got…” Koepnick trails off.
“Straighten out, David. The photo plane has the lead,” Moore says. The Jungmeister slips behind our left wing, and Martin flies formation on us. He is a pro, but most of the people who fly with Koepnick and Moore are amateur pilots who have built or restored some marvelous machine that the EAA editors want photographed and shared with the members. The editors scour the airfield for interesting airplanes and owners who will agree to be photographed, then give the names to Koepnick; Moore prepares the pilots for the flight.
Yesterday, I sat in on Moore’s daily, hour-long pilot briefing. He is a longtime formation flying instructor and has been a guest instructor since 1996 at the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Maryland. With military precision, he previews the flights and delivers the simple but critical basics of formation flying: Maintain eye contact with the photo plane at all times, match your wings to the leader’s bank, do everything slowly and in small increments…
Since I used to fly formation aerobatics for a living, I know how much concentration, practice, and precision are required. When I learned that the Jungmann pilot had never flown formation, I had misgivings about the photo flight’s success. Now in the air, I try not to take my eyes off the other airplanes.