Privateering Over the Desert – COAP Action Report

Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer BuNo.66302 cruising over the Arizona desert during COAP's recent photo-adventure to America's southwest. (photo by Steven Comber/COAP)

For those interested in taking part in some of the world’s finest, organized aviation photography adventures, it is hard to imagine a finer team to work with than Rich Cooper and Steven Comber at the Centre of Aviation Photography. Better known as COAP, the team features a broad tapestry of exclusive opportunities across the globe for aviation enthusiasts to photograph their favorite subjects (whether ancient or modern) in magnificent settings from the air or on the ground. COAP recently organized a series of marvelous photo-sorties in America’s southwest, and we feel very fortunate to be able to share the following story and images…

Privateering Over the Desert – COAP Action Report

by Richard Cooper with images from Steven Comber

Arizona is aviation rich. COAP was based out here for a week to undertake a number of air-to-air projects with owners and operators around the Phoenix area. Arranging and executing such flights is a logistics mountain, sprinkled with luck. I could list the barriers and challenges that need to be overcome, but there are just too many. You have to be professional, flexible and comfortable with uncertainty at every step. Nothing is guaranteed. Ever.

Our team based ourselves in Goodyear and worked our network along with Arizona-based Joe Copalman to establish a broad subject base. We’d made the decision early on not to work with the military this time, but concentrate on warbirds and contractors. Super pro guys that just love flying and have interesting stories to tell.

Mustangs at the Palm Springs Air Museum. (photo by Steven Comber/COAP)

Our first day of action (after a relaxed couple of days visiting Flabob and Palm Springs) saw us climb aboard a Dillon Aero AB412. The dark gray beast headed out into the desert to drop us where no man had set foot to shoot their gunship testbed down low amongst the Arizona cacti.

The next day we strapped into a Caravan at Buckeye and launched to Casa Grande to brief the jovial crew of the Privateer, maintained and operated by Goshawk Unlimited. The field is out in the desert, yet had an oasis feel to it all. The briefing was smooth and the route was set for some stunning mountain backdrops. It’s an absolute monster of a warbird that makes you smile and shake your head at every angle you look at her. With the weather having been so bad over here, there was a lot of colour on the ground, with the bulky silver machine standing out nicely against such a dramatic backdrop. Despite her massive size, the Privateer was surprisingly responsive and spritely in the air, diving around Mount Lemon and defying her age; a super experienced crew showing their mastery.

Consolidated built this PB4Y-2 Privateer for the U.S. Navy as BuNo.66302 at the tail end of WWII, although it went into storage shortly after its delivery. In 1949, the aircraft underwent conversion into a P4Y-2G for service with the U.S. Coast Guard, a role in which it served until 1958. Following its sale to a civilian operator in 1959, the aircraft received modifications to become a water bomber. The aircraft was one of the last WWII-era bombers to serve in this role, retiring from such activity shortly before the liquidation of its final operator, Hawkins & Powers Ltd. of Greybull, Wyoming. Presently, the aircraft is based with GossHawk Unlimited in Casa Grande, Arizona, where the famed restoration shop maintains the retired water bomber for its owner. (photo by Steven Comber/COAP)

The next sortie was a mammoth orchestra of four sessions in two airspace locations involving four different aircraft. First up was the Dillon-owned T-33 in a strikingly colourful USAF Thunderbirds scheme. We positioned him over Lake Pleasant to make those details really stand out, with Steve Comber calling the shots to get the light and the backgrounds to match the beauty of the scene. Superb flying! It’s all about the photography. Always!

Canadair CT-133 Silver Star Mk.3 (NX230CF) once served with the Royal Canadian Air Force with s/n 21024. The aircraft, a Canadian-built variant of Lockheed’s famous T-33 Shooting Star, is presently based with Dillon Flight Test in Scottsdale, Arizona. (photo by Steven Comber/COAP)

The T-bird was then joined by Red Thunder with their two Yak-50s. Stunning! A beautiful flight, expertly flown. Looking down on the camouflage patterns against the desert fingers crawling into the lake below, it could have been a different planet. Extraordinary scenes.

Red Thunder forms up on the CT-133 Silver Star. (photo by Steven Comber/COAP)

The plush meter turned up a notch in terms of aviation for the third and final subject, with a gorgeous Learjet joining over the Estrellas mountains. One of the challenges in aerial photography is the often-found differential in airspeed and throttle response between the photo-ship and subject aircraft. This join took careful management for such an unusual subject, which darted smooth, white gold through the jagged rock faces.

Learjet 35A N421SV. (photo by Steven Comber/COAP)

We had planned two additional air-to-air photo flights that week, but sadly these did not materialise due to a handful of things on the “What Could Ruin Your Day” list. But we solidified these sorties for later in the year. It’s not all about the flying either. We’d just come off the back of three extensive bought shoots in the UK preservation scene, which continued at the Pima Air & Space Museum – honestly one of our favourite places in the world.

The Pima Air & Space Museum’s massive Convair B-36 Peacemaker silhouetted against the evening sky. (photo by Steven Comber)

Aaaand it’s not just about the aircraft, either. It may be a cliche, but the people you meet, the beers you raise and the steaks you savour together as a team are priceless…. and that’s what COAP is all about. The absolute best of both worlds.

So what’s next? We’ll be back in the States in May, visiting the Seattle area and also engaging with the incredible Erickson Aircraft Collection in Madras, Oregon. After that, it’ll be the fall, with a return to California, Nevada and Arizona in November for yet another journey of epic proportions!

BAe Sea Harrier F/A.2 ZH798 simulating her active days with the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm during a COAP-organized night shoot at former RAF Church Fenton on April 3rd. (photo by Steven Comber/COAP)


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