It all started with a conversation and a napkin… Standing in the pilot’s lounge at Miramar Base, the very spot where Top Gun filmed the “love and feeling” scene, an idea began. It was a conversation between some friends, myself and one of the pilots (Rob “Scratch” Mitchell) from the Patriots Jet Team. We waxed poetic for hours, drawing out ideas of what it would take to film Top Gun’s scenes without the luxury of the Hollywood green screen. At times the conversation was tense, and at other times we were crying laughing at the ludicrous idea of recreating them ourselves. Unfortunately the latter won out, and this photoshoot was born.
I wish I could go into all the details, but in my attempts to hang with a fighter pilot’s drinking ability left me a bit fuzzy on what was discussed. However, I still had the napkin that outlined a shoot that was dangerous, painful and would become reality in the coming months.
It wasn’t long before I found myself sitting in another fighter jet, the engine starting to whine as the auxiliary power wakes the beast. Moments later the ignition happens and all that enters my mind is “oh fuck, this is happening again.” My mind was flooded with a world of thoughts, everything from checking settings on the camera once more, to the more unnerving one of, “if something happens, I have to jump out of this jet because we disabled my ejection seat so that the camera wouldn’t accidentally hit it and send me and my pilot into the jet we are inverted over.” Even now I look back at that one and it freaks me out.
Back in the cockpit, and the three jets begin to jerk forward, as if they are thoroughbreds fighting the gate to be let out. Within moments, we are screaming down the runway, but unlike my previous flights, there is a jet right beside mine as if we were drag racing, watching the world fade off into a blur. I hear my pilot call for rotation and we are flying. The jet that, only a moment prior was mere meters away from my plane, moves into formation and is now merely feet away. The sight of it is absolutely breathtaking. For those that have not experienced it, I would liken it to being on a boat and watching a large whale jump nearby. It is mesmerizing to see something so large perform so gracefully; I was in awe, both due to the sight and the respect for the men flying the machines. What never crossed my mind in all the years that I have watched planes fly in formation at air shows, is just how much they are moving. Fighting undulations, air pockets and sheer physics, what looks smooth from the ground is nothing less than the last true cowboys carving the air in a dance that in one wrong move could become deadly.
Another thing that was different from my previous flights, was that on this flight I didn’t have a g-suit helping to keep me conscious as gravity tried so hard to take the blood from my brain. Add this to the weight of the Hasselblad H6D with a 35-90mm lenses attached, and my body was getting destroyed at a rate that no gym workout could compare to. Don’t get me wrong, I was having fun, but I was in an immense amount of pain. This was apparent after we landed and saw that the capillaries of my shoulder had exploded from the pressure.
Thirty minutes into the flight we found ourselves at the moment of truth, it was time to find out if we could capture the image that Goose took in Top Gun. In order to do this, my jet would roll inverted at 500 feet off the ground. The second ship would roll in and ever so slowly creep closer, as I tried to take the photo all while calling out positioning to my pilot who relayed the info to the ever closing jet below. If this sounds insanely complicated, that’s because it is.
The preparation that had taken place before this point was equally as immense. I had spent hours laying upside down off the side of my bed in my hotel room the night before so that I could learn how the camera operated while inverted. I went to the gym six days a week and exercised with a trainer that helped me build my endurance while being on top of my hick breathing to stay conscious (check out AGSM for fun). For an hour before we got in the jets I went through neck exercises to see if I could loosen it up enough to look behind myself more or less. All of this work boiled down to a shot that still would be 90% luck.
I set the camera to it’s max shutter speed and used the first pass to dial exposure and distance rather than try to get the shot. Dangling by my shoulder straps looking straight down at the Earth speeding by below, a large jet started to emerge. I would call “forward, forward, forward,” and I could see the pilot below as he slowly dialed his plane faster all while looking me right in the eye, it was one of the more surreal moments I have ever been in. From there I would place the front element of the lens (which we had put layers of black tape around) flat against the canopy and shot as fast as the camera could shoot. All the while I was getting a countdown called by my pilot (Scott “Banker” Ind) telling me how many seconds of fuel we had left in the tanks that power the plane specifically while it is inverted. Then he said, “rotation in 10, 9, 8, 7…..” I knew at 3 seconds I had to pull away from the canopy and brace the camera, for if I stayed in position and swung the camera back too hard, I could hit the stick and accidentally fly the plane into the one below. We did this many times, going back and forth over the Northern California terrain until the call came across, “we are at bingo fuel, time to return to base.” To be honest, I had no idea what kind of shot we had, nor did I even look on the flight back, I was too damn tired. At that moment I wanted nothing more than a bottle of water, followed quickly by a glass of scotch.
Looking back on it, I am overwhelmed and grateful. To all the incredible people that put in so much time, effort and money, just to see if something drawn on a napkin was possible, I am eternally grateful. There are so many people that worked on the planes, rigging GoPros to them, making sure they were safe and piloting them, each and everyone of them worth their weight in gold as I consider them family. This job has given me opportunities that I could never dream of and showed me the kindness and support of strangers that I have never earned. I know I say this a lot, but damn do I hope you know how much you all mean to me.
As you can imagine, this project would not have been possible without the help of many organizations and people I am grateful to call friends:
The Patriots Jet Team: Thank you all so much. You are one incredible family of the kindest people I have met. From Randy to Rings, you are the people that made this possible and I will forever be grateful.
Rob “Scratch” Mitchell: Thank you for standing at the bar table and helping me think up ways to make this happen, planning the flight and piloting it.
Jaron Schneider: Thank you for shooting this one for me. I know the idea of flying in a jet with a hole in the canopy is not the most comfortable situation, but you handled it well while somewhat staying conscious .
Toby Harriman: You are a drone master my friend and a damn hard worker, I genuinely appreciate it.
Hasselblad: Thanks for the camera to use on this one. I hope I didn’t break it as much as it broke me…
Bremont: Thanks for the timepiece that was fitting for this piece. Grateful I didn’t earn the MB the way some have.
by Blair Bunting