Pointer and Shooter

To nail the air-to-air shot, pilot and photographer have to work together like, well, this pair.

Pilot Bruce Moore (left) and photographer Jim Koepnick have teamed up to shoot more than 800 airplanes since 1991. (Chris Miller)
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Moore explains to me, “We watch how they are flying, very carefully, especially in the beginning. Then that is Jim’s job for me. He is looking at them more than I am because, once I take the lead, I look for fields and backgrounds, where the sun comes from, and watch for traffic.

“A few times we’ve had problems,” he continues, “and I got on the radio and said, ‘Look, you’ve got to watch us all the time.’ If the pilots truly can’t fly formation, I will fly on them even though that means being in the lead position looking back, craning my head over my shoulder so Jim can get all the different shooting angles he wants.”

Usually things go smoothly, but occasionally someone will fly a little carelessly, zigzagging too much, or not paying attention to the photo ship, like the man who refused to wear a radio headset because he wanted his portrait in his 1930s airplane to look authentic. During the flight with no-headset man, Koepnick said, “Bruce, he isn’t looking at us.” The man kept his head down, looking at some distraction in his cockpit instead of at the nearby photo plane. Without a headset, he could not hear an alarm call, so Moore added power and zoomed away to their next encounter.

While they are flying with one airplane, another one or two orbit above a pre-determined landmark. Moore’s Cessna takes off with the first aircraft and spends about 20 minutes with that subject, then flies on to the next, a sequence that has been planned the day before. In the air, Koepnick shoots the airplanes from the rear, side, front, top, level, turning, backlit, sun on the cowl, prop a blur, above the nubby tree tops, over glittering water, in the curve of a shoreline. Then he says, “I’m all done here,” and the two rendezvous with the next airplane, whose pilot by then will have radioed from the rendezvous point.

The operation is smooth and efficient, but it didn’t start out that way. Koepnick was a reporter and photographer for the Oshkosh Northwestern before coming to the EAA in 1984. A couple of his AirVenture ground shots became Associated Press photos of the month, but he did not do aerial photography before joining the EAA. When he began, he flew with any pilot who would donate time and an airplane. The results varied with the pilots’ experience and cooperativeness. When he tried to direct one pilot into the positions he needed for photographs, he was told, “You shoot the pictures and let me fly the airplane.”

Moore, on the other hand, is not only a willing pilot but also a serious photographer. (One of Moore’s photographs was exhibited for several years at the National Air and Space Museum.) The two met at Sun ’n Fun in 1991 and hit it off immediately.

After Martin and his friend in the Jungmann peel away, two American Champions—a red Decathlon and a black-and-white Citabria—take their place to our left. I recognize airshow pilot Greg Koontz in the Decathlon.

The photo area is busy now. “Debbie, watch for airplanes,” Moore reminds me. Two P-38s slip by under us. Airshow pilot Greg Poe’s MX-2 and his photo plane, a Bonanza, pass low to our left. Then we see a couple of Corsairs. “Must be the Warbird Digest guy,” Koepnick says, then asks about the Champions, “Whose assignment is this?” Moore tells him it’s for the EAA’s Sport Aerobatics magazine, the publication of the International Aerobatic Club, adding, “So we need a vertical for a cover.”

“Red Champion move to 7 o’clock for in-trail shots,” Moore says, then resumes his background chatter. “Well-defined fog over [Lake] Poygan; interesting clouds over [Lake] Winnebago; warm clouds over there.”

Koepnick says, “Need him five right, two down, then five forward.” Pause. “Just waiting for the light.” Pause. “I think Reggie [the Sport Aerobatics editor] will like that.”

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