By Steven Comber of the Center of Aviation Photography (COAP)
Aviation photography has been a passion of mine for over five decades covering all aspects within the UK and more comprehensively through world travels. I’ve always been interested in museums and the history of flight, thankfully the invention of the camera came before man could fly, and whilst a relatively new concept as mankind daringly took to the skies almost all revolutionary flying exploits were captured on film or celluloid for us all to watchfully wonder at over a century later. With such a massive library of imagery to refer back to, it’s easy to immerse oneself in the day the pictures were captured. These images tell a powerful story marking time and history. It’s the people behind the flying machines of wood, fabric, and metal that add to the imagery from the first days of pioneering flight, WW1, the Roaring Twenties, WW2 into the Cold War, and the revolution in civilian airline passenger travel in more recent decades.
So why not shoot imagery replicating past events? The UK is blessed with numerous aviation events held throughout the year, some of them feature re-enactment groups adding to the ‘flavor’ of the event and imagery. Not content with these ad hoc shoots I sought out more focused photographic opportunities based on my experience attending TimeLine Events, steam railway and historic bus outings, it was clear there was an opportunity to expand into aviation-themed photoshoots. Aviation museums, warbird operators and preservation organizations within the UK offer a rich source of subject matter to organize photographic shoots around. Once engaged, understanding the concept of capturing time-travel imagery with reenactors hosts are only too keen to participate and share their passion in aviation’s relentless pursuit.
As part of the Centre of Aviation Photography (COAP) I was keen to push the boundaries, only held back by airframe availability together with reenactors wearing the correct flight gear & equipment, all of which are generally rare, collectible, and expensive to attain. Arranging time travel shoots is never easy, arranging all the elements required together at the same time is a miracle in itself. Social media has spawned many reenactor groups, networking has proved invaluable, ‘another world’ exists in a parallel universe: time travelers living in the 21st century! Themes feature heavily in time travel shoots attracting photographers of all skill levels ensuring event interest remains ‘fresh’. Generally based around aviation collections and historic anniversaries themes vary every year and also vary with new airframes & additions to collections. Reenactors’ groups are also keen to request certain scenarios be ‘played out’ the enthusiasm is welcome and always adds an element to the success of the shoot.
My favorite number one time travel shoot is a classic example, COAP’s B-17 Memphis Belle/Sally B two-day shoot replicating the US 8th Air Force Bomber Group operations in the UK during WW2, held at North Weald airfield in the summer of 2022 following the completion of filming the Apple TV series Masters of the Air. The series’ actors with incredibly accurate full kit and additional equipment including trucks, jeeps & tents simply couldn’t wait to spend two days in front of the cameras again but this time for fun. The photographers were keen to capture the essence of what it was like for those brave young airmen to defend liberty and freedom. It’s all about history at this point, every detail counted, the resulting imagery spoke volumes and it is most likely that weekend was a one-off ‘moment in time’, traveling back in time – sometimes you have to be ‘in it to win it’. Choreography of almost all setups over the two days was based on research of military images taken in 1943/44 on the front line. This strategy plays through most historic shoots ensuring the accuracy of events.
This leads to an interesting point from a photographic perspective. Modern-day DSLR, mirrorless cameras and even mobile phones deliver quality not possible during the ’40s. To replicate imagery taken in the 1940s surely you need to use a fixed 35 or 50mm lens similar to focal lengths available at that time, not modern zoom lenses which give a different perspective and ‘imagery feel’ to that of a color wet film camera regularly used by the U.S. military photographers of the day. Some photographers deliberately chose to shoot with older format cameras to replicate images more accurately. Directing the weekend shoot at North Weald only allowed practical use of my iPhone, however with modern-day post-processing techniques you would never know from the results!
Number two in my chart of all-time greats takes me back a couple of years to RAF Wittering and COAP’s Harrier Shoot. Four different versions of Harriers in set piece scenarios including off-base woodland operations during the day under camouflage netting moving off into the afternoon and evening on an ‘operational’ ramp through the blue hour into the night under lights. Another COAP shoot on February 24th, 2024 with the Harrier Heritage Collection should reap new imagery in planned setups.
The third on my list of chart-toppers dates back to November 2023, or should I say 1983? COAP arranged a shoot with the Bentwaters Cold War Museum at RAF Bentwaters, Suffolk featuring their live SEPECAT Jaguar. Capable of taxi runs the Jaguar can be set up on areas of the disused airbase resembling its former Cold War West German base at RAF Bruggen. Complete with Land Rover, ground crew, and in a perfect geographic setting it’s hard to determine images taken in 2023 from those in books and magazines published in 1983.
Of the 30-plus events I’ve directed up to now, there are several others with different airframes from memory that stand out: Battle of Britain at Imperial War Museum Duxford in September 2023 with two Hurricanes and three Spitfire Mk.Is; live Sea Harrier FA.2 at the former RAF Church Fenton; Vulcan XM602 at Woodford with TimeLine Events; Handley Page Halifax Friday the 13th at Yorkshire Air Museum; C-47 night shoot at the Duxford 75th Anniversary; COAP Mirage III and IV and SEPECAT Jaguar GR1 with Yorkshire Air Museum; Lancaster Just Jane with TimeLine Events at East Kirby; and not forgetting the three English Electric Lightnings with COAP and the Lightning Preservation Group at Bruntingthorpe. Occasionally overseas trips to airshows offer opportunities impossible to arrange from the UK.
The Italian Air Force 100th Anniversary was no exception, held in 2023 at Practica di Mare with Italian airframes and reenactors: truly priceless imagery capture. With this in mind, COAP has several ideas for shoots in the USA but despite web searches, we still are looking for reenactment groups to contact – do they exist? Any contact from groups would be most welcome.
Testament to the quality & success of these COAP events photographers travel from mainland Europe and as far as Australia to attend, the quest for time travel photography continues. Where to next this year in the UK: 1994? 1964? 1954? 1945? Just a few ideas without giving anything away.
For more information about COAP, visit www.coapwings.com