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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

They are among the most famous images in human history. The Robert Capa Life Magazine D-Day photos.

Blurry, poorly exposed and framed in terror, the images transcend photography and achieve a higher level of journalism: they are visual experience.

Robert Capa, whose real name was Endre Friedmann, was a Hungarian willing to go where no other war photographer would. He was the only news photographer on Omaha Beach with the early waves of the allied invasion force, hitting the beach with the second wave. Capa went on to shoot photos in five wars. His friends included Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck.

Photojournalist Robert Capa, the only photographer on the beach during the second wave of the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944.

Robert Capa cut a dashing figure with handsome features and a jaunty smirk on his face. He did, in fact of matter, laugh at danger. He seemed to revel in it. Capa was 30 years old when he landed at Omaha Beach and shot his photos. His mannerisms and exploits defined modern journalists like Dan Rather, Wolf Blitzer, Christiana Amanpour, Geraldo Rivera, Peter Arnett, Robert Pelton Young, Evan Wright, and John Simpson.

The enormity and perfection of Capa’s D-Day photos cannot be overstated. They are, in every way, perfect photographs. Robert Capa’s D-Day photos not only depict what it looked like to be in the first wave of the Normandy landings, they demonstrate how it felt to be there. Horrifying, Chaotic, disorganized, polarized, distinctly black and white and desperate. Had Capa’s photos turned out to be well composed, in focus and correctly exposed with the negatives arriving to the darkroom undamaged our perception of D-Day and, in fact, warfare overall, would be different today.

The black and white medium speaks to the absolute polarization of the conflict. The battle of Normandy was not just the allies against the axis, it was a clash of good against evil. No battle since has been so clearly delineated in the public conscience.

The blurriness of the photos accurately chronicles the chaos of D-Day. Troops landed in the wrong place. Landing craft were swamped. Soldiers drowned before firing a shot. Those who survived the landings were shredded by machine gun fire from fortified concrete bunkers. Artillery from naval ships rained onto the beach indiscriminately killing both friendly forces and the enemy. More so than even Dante’s Inferno, the Capa photos are the visual depiction of hell.

In point of fact, Robert Capa’s D-Day photos changed the world to a similar degree the invasion itself did.

Along with photos of the Apollo Moon Landings and the funeral of John F. Kennedy, the Capa D-Day photos are the most famous photos in history. As media evolved into the video and then internet age the relevance and impact of still photos waned. People were hard to shock with a single image. Our brains became trained to interpret visual information differently, cameras became more common and higher quality, the transmission of images became instantaneous and every person with a smartphone became a reporter. But even with this evolution and proliferation of media Capa’s D-Day photos still stab with a sense of horror and violence.

Capa shot the D-Day images using two Contax II cameras both fitted with 50mm lenses. He carried redundant equipment in case one camera malfunctioned or was destroyed in battle. Capa shot 35mm film negatives. He carried additional rolls of film with him, but changing the film without accidentally exposing it and keeping it dry was nearly impossible on D-Day.

Although Capa shot a total of 106 frames before, during and after the landing of the second invasion wave he accompanied, most were destroyed by a fifteen-year-old lab assistant named Dennis Banks working for Life magazine in London. Banks accidentally set a film negative dryer too high and melted three complete rolls of film. In a bizarre allegory, it is as though those lost images symbolize the soldiers lost on Omaha Beach that day. Even Capa’s ruined images remain significant.

Page layout from the original Life Magazine D-Day issue on June 19, 1944.

Only 11 total photos by Robert Capa of the D-Day invasion survived the darkroom error. Capa never mentioned the loss of the images. He took the matter completely in stride, the horrors and loss of battle having hardened him.

Life magazine published ten of the eleven photos on June 19, 1944. The feature was a splash-photo spread with short captions that were partly inaccurate. The captions didn’t matter. Capa’s photos told the story of the horror of D-Day most effectively without words. The images live on, almost more impactful now in retrospect than in the month following the D-Day landings.

On May 25, 1954 Robert Capa was killed when he stepped on a landmine while reporting on the French involvement in what went on to become the Vietnam War. Two journalists accompanying him, Jim Lucas and John Mecklin also from Life magazine, reported that Capa held his camera even as he was evacuated to a forward area field hospital, where he died from his wounds at the age of 41.


 

Author Tom Demerly is a U.S. correspondent for TheAviationist.com, the foremost military aviation blog in the world. He is a former U.S. Army Long Range Surveillance Team member and has visited all seven continents. He has written for TACAIRNET, Outside, Business Insider, Velo-News, Bicycle Guide, Bicycling, Inside Triathlon, Triathlete, Triathlon Today!, USA Triathlon Magazine and many other publications around the world.

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Lofting along on rising waves of turbulent early summer heat boiling up from the fresh blacktop his variable geometry swept wings make minor trim adjustments to change his flight attitude.

At 130-feet of altitude and a leisurely 10 knots of airspeed he spots a target just east of the fire station south of the old tennis courts along Outer Drive at Dearborn High School. The Rouge River has flooded here driving targets north into the open fields and making for, what seems like, an easy kill. Easy that is, if it weren’t for these flying conditions in the strangely hot spring afternoon.

He banks hard right, pulling 3.5 G’s in a turn a fighter pilot would be envious of, especially this close to the ground.

His target is acquired, a scurrying field mouse driven up from the Rouge River basin by the heavy rains and rushing floodwaters from the past week.

He locks-on his target with eyesight that is nearly eight times better than yours and mine. He has eyes like a hawk, because he is a two-year old red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis).

The aerodynamics of a hawk compared to a U.S. Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bomber.

He commits to the attack, wings quickly swept back, angle of attack tipping downward to nearly a 70-degree dive exactly like a fighter plane in a diving attack. In an instant his weight and efficient, aerodynamic body shape allow him to accelerate to over 60 MPH, almost straight down. Even though he is only two years old, his targets seldom escape. The local environment depends on him even if few people notice his daily aerial patrols.

Nearly every hunt over this suburban wilderness area near the intersection of Michigan Ave. and Outer Drive in Dearborn, Michigan is successful.

But not today.

He made a rare error, however slight, in his attack trajectory. His angle of attack relative to the scurrying target was just a bit too steep. His vision is optimized for locking on and tracking a distant target camouflaged against the colors of the ground. It’s not optimized to detect fence tops and power lines when in a terminal attack dive.

Speed, normally part of his arsenal, now becomes his enemy. As his target grows in his telephoto eyesight he suddenly detects a minor miscalculation in dive angle. But at over 70 MPH of airspeed, it is too late. Just as he drops the feathers at the trailing edge of his 3&1/2-foot wingspan to generate more lift and deploys his razor-sharp talons as airbrakes he hits the top of the 8-ft fence. Hard.

The impact is crushing. His right knee is torn, leg broken in three places. The collision with the high fence at the edge of the tennis courts causes him to flip tail over beak in uncontrolled, tumbling ballistic flight. The impact with the fence top stunned him, and he has momentarily lost situational awareness. Any pilot will tell you, losing lift and situational awareness this close to the ground with no room for recovery is usually fatal, especially at high speed.

Hitting the pavement stuns him. He’s not used to this. He is always the alpha, the hunter, firmly on top of this suburban food chain occupying the only rung above the silently stalking feral cats that hunt on the ground mostly at dawn and dusk. Even the cats know they are vulnerable to the hawk. There was the occasional fox in this area, but they haven’t been seen for five years now.

For a moment he is motionless, wings akimbo and sprawling, upside down on the hot, black asphalt. Hard wired instinct sends the alert that when he is on the ground he is vulnerable. Vulnerable to a cat or a fox or a dog or to the greatest threat in his environment, a human being.

He rights himself, but cannot fly. Shakes his head to clear it. Cannot get purchase on the air for more than a few meters at a time. He tries to fly, but his landing is uncontrolled on his shattered right leg. In only a split-second the buffeting ground turbulence, target fixation and collision with the fence top moved him from the top of the food chain to the bottom, now vulnerable to predation from anything on the ground.

Spectators at the soccer game at Dearborn High School on Tuesday night spotted the wounded juvenile red tail hawk alternately lying in the field and trying to fly and posted a photo on the Dearborn in The Raw community group on Facebook.

Mark Trzeciak, a local community baron, educated man and teacher, alerts me with a tag in the Facebook post. I grab my car keys. There is already a backpack in my beat-up old Ford Escape loaded with what I need to rescue a cat or an owl or a snapping turtle. But this is my first red-tailed hawk rescue.

I do a quick Google search: “How to rescue an injured hawk”. Then I am on my way.

I can’t find him. Searching the upper tennis courts, the entire lower field close to the Rouge River where Dearborn High School’s track is, I divide the area into a grid and carefully walk each section looking for him. I ask where he is on the Dearborn in The Raw page, but the replies in the thread are disorganized. One of the custodians at Dearborn High School notices that I am walking around with a backpack looking for something.

“Are you looking for the hawk?” asks Will Denton of Dearborn High School. Will has been keeping an eye on the hawk since he had his accident a few hours earlier. “He’s up here by the top tennis courts, just flew over there and landed. Doesn’t look like he can fly well.”

Mr. Denton directs me to an open gate behind the school and points out the juvenile red tail hawk sitting calmly in the grass, alert, looking around, but not moving.

I resolve to spend the night there with him but a friend messages me about Dr. Kevin Smyth of the Morrison Animal Hospital. Dr. Smyth is a veterinarian and specialist in birds and raptors including hawks and owls. I text him at about 9:30 PM. He replies quickly, “Call me”.

 

After I pick up the wounded hawk and drive him home my girlfriend and I make a nice temporary house for him on our back porch, safely sequestered from our three cats who are now very curious about our large, feathered overnight guest.

The hawk is majestic, even in his wounded condition. His body is massive and his wings huge and muscular. His talons are nearly the size of my hands, with inch and a half long hooks optimized for his high-speed diving attacks. But he is weak, seriously broken leg bleeding on his new, soft white sheet.

The next day we’re at Dr. Smyth’s office first thing. Transporting a large, wounded raptor is a bit tricky but we manage to keep the Mr. Hawk calm and comfortable.

At the veterinarian office Dr. Smyth handles the large hawk with confidence and the raptor responds with calmness, allowing the doctor to hold him and test his vision.

The news is not good.

It would appear the hawk’s vision is compromised in one eye, possibly from his crash. His right leg is broken severely in three places, including directly through the knee joint. The hawk is dehydrated and weak. Dr. Smyth gives him a mild anesthetic and administers I.V. fluids for the hawk’s dehydration. He is comfortable, but very weak.

We cannot know how a hawk thinks. Since we have begun observing and writing about them we’ve ascribed a nobility and power to hawks. Throughout the night, the hawk rests at the veterinary office. I want to say that he somehow knew we were all trying to help him. That he did feel a little better from the I.V.’s and the pain medication. He sat normally in a large cage on a soft blanket, maintaining his noble appearance throughout the night and into the next day.

But when the sun came up his spirit took flight, and his broken body remained grounded. Despite the best care of the doctor and the efforts of rescuers, he did not survive the morning. He died a peaceful, pain free, dignified death in the company of people who revered, cared for and respected him.

The loss of the Dearborn High School hawk is significant. He controlled the population of mice and other pests every day. He could have started a family of hawks that would have managed pest populations on each side of Michigan Ave. from Telegraph Road all the way east to Military, where the hawks from the Henry Ford Nature Preserve take over. He could have patrolled the two Kroger parking lots and the parking structures near the Village Plaza building.

But instead, he died from a collision with a fence we put there, in his environment. WE seldom give thought to the animals we share the city with. They occasionally show up in a Facebook post, or on a smartphone photo. For the most part people don’t pay attention. But their role is critical in maintaining the delicate and complex balance of nature in our neighborhoods. Losing the Dearborn High hawk is a significant loss in maintaining that balance.


If you want to help protect and care for local hawks, owls and other large birds in Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Garden City and the surrounding neighborhoods you can make a contribution directly to Dr. Kevin Smyth at 33607 Ford Road in Garden City. His phone number is (734) 425-6140. His website is morrisonvet.net. Dr. Smyth, a 1980 Dearborn High School graduate and Dearborn native, cares for wounded hawks and owls on his own. He did not charge anything for his extensive emergency care of the hawk we brought him. Contributions to his practice are used to pay for the expenses such as food, supplies and drugs used to rehabilitate hawks and owls and return them to their environment once they have recovered. Dr. Smyth’s contribution to our community is significant and worthy of support.

 

 

Author Tom Demerly has petted most things with legs, fins, feathers or scales.

 

 

 

 

 

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Photos and Story By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Aqua Cat’s engines purr a low hum as she glides on blue-glass crystal seas casting a dark shadow on the white powder sugar sea floor. A squadron of flying fish flutter their skimming escort across low wave tops at our bow. The golden sun simmers the water in comforting warmth. Besides the gentle chortle of our engines at low throttle, there is a blissful, structural silence here in the eastern Caribbean.

We have left the earth as we know it, transcending turmoil and scarcity and fear. We skim across open ocean to a new world, a world so fantastic and exotic and improbable it can only be described with fictional analogies. Nothing on this earth is- in fact- this remarkable.

Fiction is full of this: The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, Star Wars. These made-up tales of unlikely journeys to unreal places with fantastic creatures. But this journey is real, and our gravity-enslaved earth is only separated by the thin surface tension of the sea to a place where we float and fly and glide like superheroes, where frightening beasts displace us down the food chain but become our companions, guides and guardians.

And amongst their opulent welcoming embrace, the sea and its beasts convey quiet worry.

We are tourists. I make no apology for that. We are aboard the dive ship “Aqua Cat”. She is a three-level, 102-foot live-aboard with a luxurious 35-foot wide beam. She draws only about 6 feet of water. As a broad, stable catamaran, she is fast, quiet and maneuverable. She transits rolling seas in comfort. Aqua Cat sails from Nassau, Bahamas east across an open Atlantic strait to the Exuma island chain. It’s about 100 miles of open ocean.

Three weeks ago, I knew little about the Exumas. Few people do, mostly only SCUBA divers, billionaires and cocaine traffickers. Lying as the first real landfall of substance along the latitude between the African Western Sahara and the Americas, the Exumas are the natural reef fence that separate the inner Caribbean with the vast ocean wilderness and abysmal plains of the deep Atlantic. Beyond the Exumas, there lies only the bottomless wild sea.

For the 32 divers aboard Aqua Cat, the gate to the wild, open sea and the deep Atlantic has been left open. We gaze beyond it and even swim through it.

Now I hover in silence 60 feet below the surface gazing into the true abyss, the blue-black transition to the open Atlantic. This is where the continental shelf plummets to depths measured not in feet or fathoms, but miles. I watch in silence, waiting. Perhaps something will emerge from down there. Something really big.

Michele, call her “Shell”, is our divemaster. When we reach the abrupt cliff at about 40-feet of depth plunging into the abysmal plain of the continental shelf, Shell gestures with both arms like an underwater ballerina taking a bow in front of the vast submarine theater. As Shell is a prima ballerina of the undersea world, her gesture seems appropriate. This is it, she indicates, the end of the continent. Shell is one of our instructors back in the U.S. where we got our NITROX diving certification. Shell’s goal on this trip is to complete every dive, five dives each day including a night dive. It’s a tough schedule with about 4 hours plus of underwater time per day. She has inherited us as human pilot fish during our dives. While I gawk around looking for creatures and adjusting my camera, she makes sure I don’t wander off underwater, run out of NITROX and forget to surface. It is so remarkable down here that’s not out of the question.

Terrestrial travel is encumbered by gravity and the hard platform of earth with its constant horizon. Not down here. Down here the rules are completely different. We don’t even breathe normal air. Each inhalation through my SCUBA regulator is enriched with more oxygen than we breathe in the atmosphere. The NITROX gas in my large capacity SCUBA tank allows me to stay down longer and recover faster on the surface so I can return to the edge of inner space more quickly. But should I descend too deeply or rise too quickly, that same benevolent gas mixture of oxygen and nitrogen could put me in a dangerous corner of the dive envelope. To avoid trouble floating in inner space I watch a bank of computers on my arm measure my depth, pressure, time and remaining NITROX gas. But it is hard to stay focused on the numbers down here. It is just too… fantastic. And this NITROX goes down pretty easy.

Billionaires’ superyachts transit the Exumas regularly.

Our undersea party skirts the drop-off to the Atlantic abyss at the edge of the Caribbean in a “wall dive”. It’s a dive along the edge of a deep drop-off that forms this underwater cliff between the coastal shelf and the deep sea. Some of our divers descend deeply along the wall past 100 feet. At that depth color and light are filtered by the water overhead to merge into a blue-grey monotone less sensational in appearance to the human eye than the moderate depths I favor. My party is contented with the middle-depths of 30-80 feet. There is more life here, more color. And less danger.

A placid nurse shark rests on the white sand bottom.

Our schedule aboard Aqua Cat this week has been brisk. Wake, eat, dive, dive, eat, dive, dive, eat, dive. Five dives per day are available to divers on Aqua Cat, although few divers will do every dive, except, of course, Shell. There is too much else to do.

During breaks from diving we laze on the upper deck in Caribbean sun, watch the rocky islands slide by, stay on the lookout for passing whale pods (we spotted rare pilot whales during dinner) and take excursions to shore on one of our two dinghies.

The barren islands are worth exploring. The weather here in May is calm and warm. One island harbors a shallow saltwater marsh with crystal clear water, home to exotic great hammerhead sharks. We take the dinghy to shore amidst a covey of weathered, practical sailing yachts and a pair of mammoth, billionaire luxury superyachts crewed by polo-shirted Ken dolls scrambling around the decks in hurried chores.

It would appear someone lives here, at least part time. An island caretaker who watches over the yachts moored in the lagoon and makes sure that the same number of people who land on the island each day actually leave it. Beyond that there are only scrub plants, palms, an assortment of reptiles ranging to quite large iguana, sea birds and the fish, sea animals and crustaceans that occupy the littoral environment.

On one expedition from Aqua Cat to a remote deserted island my girlfriend Jan Mack and I discover a hidden trail into a low mangrove thicket. A sign has fallen into the sand at the trail’s entrance. It offers only one word, “DANGER”. We follow the overgrown trail and discover it is, in fact, quite treacherous. Coral and rock outcroppings have been eroded to razor-sharp sinkholes easily large enough to swallow a person. Fetid pools draped by spider webs lurk at the bottom. The crusty terrain feels unstable under our amphibious sandals. After a half-mile push inland we retreat, satisfied that there is slim chance of finding anything remarkable in this low jungle mangrove. As it turns out, we are wrong. Four days later another person from Aqua Cat in the same region shoots a photo of a mammoth hammerhead cruising through the mangrove shallows. It would have been a spectacular sight.

A remarkable slipper crab seems excited to pose for a portrait.

Before we are barely able to savor our experience, Aqua Cat is crossing the open strait back to the Bahamas at the end of our expedition. There has been too much to digest, too much to take in, too much to experience. We’ve packed a month into a week aboard Aqua Cat. To try to take in the grandeur of the sea in a one-week trip is an absurdity, like trying to get a satisfying drink from a gushing firehose. There is simply too much to contemplate, too much to absorb, to many sensations to manifest.

A great barracuda guards our boarding ladder beneath the Aqua Cat.

But as remote and pristine as the Exumas felt we heard a quiet cry from her waters and her beasts. They are threatened, retreating, shrinking, dying. On the remote beach we found, Jan Mack and I spent the first thirty minutes picking up plastic waste and trash from a passing yacht crew who had made a bonfire on the empty beach and left their offal behind. In these waters plastics are dangerous to turtles, rays and sharks. They take years to decay, if at all, and can trap marine animals and strangle them or choke their digestive tracts. Some of the big sharks who guarded each of our dives showed signs of fin damage from boat propellers or had fishing hooks lodged in their mouths. On one dive, I swam after a cloud of drifting plastic bags to retrieve them before they drifted into the deep where they may wind up in a whale’s stomach.

Divers Phyllis Indianer, Divemaster Shell Robinson and diver Jan Mack surface after a drift dive.

I knew we would see the impact of man even in the remote Exumas. Part of the reason we wanted to be here was a looming sense that the clock ticking toward environmental calamity has passed the point of no return. That we are losing the Exumas and all places like her at an irreversible pace. I hope that is not true, and I’ve made an internal effort to manage my life at home in Michigan so I use less plastic, recycle more trash, drink from reusable water bottles and give to the organizations that protect the sea and her creatures.

Sailing on the Aqua Cat gave us a look into the wild sea and her massive expanse, exotic wilderness and remaining pristine beauty in a way no other experience could. That is priceless and ephemeral. It is something to be treasured and protected for as long as we can.

 

 

 

 

 

Author and photographer Tom Demerly has to be kept from petting things underwater around the world.

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for Tom Demerly.com

Only a mile and half at its widest, The Detroit River has been a geographical barrier between opposing tribes, rum runners and nations. Few rivers hold this much history. Globally, the Detroit River shares its historical relevance with the Mississippi in the United States, the Bosphorus in Turkey, the Rhine in Germany, the Ganges in India, the Volga in Russia, Paris’ Seine River, Egypt’s Nile, China’s Yangtze and other globally significant waterways like Iraq’s Tigris and Vietnam’s Mekong.

Last Wednesday, as members of the Detroit History Club, my girlfriend Jan Mack and I sailed the historic Detroit River on the 85-foot long Appledore IV two-masted schooner. Appledore IV transports its crew and passengers back in time as soon as they step on board. It is a fitting vessel for a trip back into the remarkable history of Detroit and its unique river.

Our guide on board Appledore IV was Miss Bailey of the Detroit Historical Club. Her encyclopedic knowledge of Detroit history was matched only by her wit and talent. She delivered a fascinating running narration of Detroit’s sensational history from Native conflicts to daring rum-runners driving modified Ford Model-T’s across the frozen river in an occasionally unsuccessful attempt at defying prohibition.

After casting off from the dock in front of Detroit’s Renaissance Center and General Motors headquarters we set sail on moderate winds and calm waters north and east toward Belle Isle and the Hiram Walker distillery. As we sailed across the Detroit River the strong and delicious scent of baking bread drifts off the Windsor shore from the Hiram Walker complex. The yeast processing for spirits production at the distillery produces the delightful aroma, lost on powerboats to their exhaust smell but blissfully preserved onboard the sail-driven Appledore IV.

Once at the top of the river we reversed course under jibbing canvas sails, ducking under swinging booms and picking up winds that brought us downriver toward the majestic Ambassador Bridge. We sailed under, marveling at the incredible volume of truck traffic engaging in the free exchange of goods between Canada and the U.S. that typifies the relationship between the two countries.

To the south we saw the dark silhouette of the industrial monolith of Zug Island, formerly one of the most polluted places on earth, now in the midst of reform into at least a slightly less toxic habitat. Today foxes, peregrine falcons, feral cats and other unusual species share the island with its heavy industrial tenants like steel mills and coke ovens. A rare species of sturgeon lives on one side of the island because of the deposits of coal cinders that collect on the bottom of the river from the industrial activity.

Mystery surrounds much of Zug Island, a private, manmade industrial otherworld that has produced an undefined loud humming sound to the distress of residents as far as ten miles away. Some say it is the sound of wind through industrial structures on the island. Over a million dollars has been spent on studies to find the source of the bizarre sound but the maker of the mechanical music remains a mystery.

Shipping traffic is a huge part of the Detroit River. During our cruise we saw two passages, one a massive ore freighter and the other a smaller cargo vessel, our radios crackling to life with instructions from the river traffic control as Customs and Border Patrol vessels zipped back and forth. The Detroit River is one of the busiest commercial rivers on earth, and ship spotting along its banks is a popular pastime.

This cruise aboard Appledore IV with the Detroit History Club is a rare and intrinsic perspective on Detroit, and one all Detroiters ought imbibe in. People who live in Detroit and its suburbs often have a deep affection for something undefinable about the city that makes it unique. An intrinsic authenticity and resilience belonging to a place that survived riots, wars, fires and economic collapse. Detroit has produced iron and steel, innovation and art. But few people own the deep historical context of Detroit’s remarkable and repetitive penchant for survival and prosperity.

To join the Detroit History Club and enjoy their many fascinating and varied events follow this link:

 

http://www.detroithistoryclub.com

pharewell50

When I was a kid, about 8, a neighbor took me to an airshow. It was 1970.

There were Army Rangers there with a giant boa constrictor. You could put the snake around your neck and have a photo taken. Famous test pilot Bob Hoover, who flew with Chuck Yeager when he broke the sound barrier in 1947, flew a Rockwell Aero Commander prop plane with both engines shut off. There was a real P-51 Mustang there too.

For the finale of the airshow the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds would fly in their supersonic Phantom jets.

After the Thunderbirds landed the father of the kid I went to the airshow with, Alan Larraza, decided we might as well wait there instead of sitting in a hot car in a big traffic jam. Al’s dad heard a rumor that the Thunderbird pilots would sign autographs after the show if you waited. Of course, a rumor like that could never be true.

We waited on the wide expanse of the open airfield. There was smoke in the air and the smell of jet fuel. A fence separated us from the important men who got to walk close to the airplanes and actually touch them. The fence also separated us from the tall, thin men with sharp chins and crisp uniforms who looked like statues and wore their hair stubble short in perfect haircuts that looked like they were done this morning. Everything about these men was perfect- how they stood, the sunglasses they wore, the places they were from, the angle of their jaw.

These men were pilots.

I waited on the other side of the fence, where the regular people had to stay. I came from a single parent home where my Mom barely made ends meet. I wasn’t a great student in any subject except English, which wasn’t really even a subject since it was so easy. I knew, even at 8 years old, that I would always have to stand on this side of the fence at an air show. Only the tall men with the perfect haircuts, patches on their crisp uniforms and polished flight boots got to go on The Other Side Of The Fence.

The Thunderbirds were the biggest, most incredible, most important, loudest thing I had seen in my life. The sound, the smell of jet fuel, the incredible speed of their planes and the giant crowd that came to see them, even at the height of the Vietnam war protests (some hippies were kept outside the gate because they were protesting the “war show”). It was boggling to me that something could be so… big, so serious, so vast, so important.

Men on the other side of the fence in uniforms handed out a free pamphlet with photos of the Thunderbird pilots on the front. The photo on the front showed six men kneeling, one knee up, the other knee down, with big smiles and thin pilot hats. Every man was positioned identically in front of a giant, red, white and blue Phantom jet. These men were the actual Thunderbirds. And I got a free picture of them.

“If ya’ll stick around son, the Thunderbirds’ll be sign’n autographs soon e’nuff”, said a tall man with a cowboy accent in an Air Force uniform from the other side of the fence. He handed out the free pamphlets. Inside the pamphlet were diagrams showing maneuvers the Thunderbirds did, the “Diamond Roll”, the “Knife Edge Pass” and the “Roll Back to Arrowhead Formation” were some of them. On the last page was a photo of a real F-4 Phantom jet with all the numbers about it; how wide its wings were, how fast it went, how far it could fly. Everything you needed to know.

The crowd got thicker at the fence. Six tall men in blue jumpsuits and thin pilot hats were standing out on the concrete near the actual Thunderbird planes. All at once the men began walking up to the fence. The crowd pushed forward. People started holding out their pamphlets as the men got closer to the fence. When they got to the fence, people started snapping photos on their Kodak Instamatics and holding up pens.

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In a tradition that dates back to the first airshows, the U.S. Navy Blue Angels pilots sign autographs at the fence line after their flight demonstration at the Cleveland Airshow this summer.

The men in the blue jumpsuits shook hands, leaned over and let people take photos with them, smiling wide grins with their special sunglasses and shaking hands like they knew each other or came from the same town. The men would sign their autographs next to a photo of themselves with the number of plane they flew on the free pamphlet.

I held out my pamphlet. “You gonna be a jet pilot someday son?” One of the Thunderbirds asked me when he signed my pamphlet. He took a pen out of a special pocket on the shoulder of his jumpsuit. I was too stunned to answer. He was very tall. Every part of him seemed… sharp. Perfect. His life must be the opposite of mine, everything in order, everything decided, everything perfect. Everything sharp and perfect and clean

I wanted that. But I never got it.

I joined the Army and did minor work in a special operations unit that gathered intelligence. I wound up with the guys who had the snake at the airshow. It was good, great even. We won a war, spied on the enemy and knew secret things.

But it was never- perfect. Not like the clean, crisp tall men with the red, white and blue Phantom jets at that first airshow.

A month or so ago I found out the McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom II, the “Phantom jet”, would fly its last flight with the Air Force at the Aviation Nation airshow at Nellis AFB in Nevada. My girlfriend asked me what I wanted for my 55th birthday. I told her, not entirely seriously since it was such a big thing, that I wanted to see the F-4 fly for the last time. It was 47 years after that first airshow with the Thunderbirds and their Phantom jets.

In the way she works her magic my girlfriend, Jan Mack, got us to Las Vegas just a few miles from Nellis for the airshow. I write for an aviation website called http://www.tacairnet.com and wanted to do a story on the final flight of the F-4 Phantom II.

Jan and I meet co-contributors to TACAIRNET (Tactical Air Network) Melanie Mann and Ethan Garrity, both pilots from Texas. We’re sitting up front in the VIP area with catered food, our own bathrooms and chairs on the flightline and about 50 cameras.

There are two McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom II’s here at Nellis AFB for its last official airshow. These last surviving two of only about seven left in the U.S Air Force, are called QF-4E’s. They have been modified to be flown by remote control without a pilot or with pilots. When they are unmanned other planes can practice shooting them down. Some of the QF-4E’s will die a fiery death, shot down by live missiles fired from brand new F-35 Lightning II’s out over the open ocean in tests.

One of the QF-4E’s here today is on static display so we can touch it and see it up close, the other will be flown in the final airshow demo by Lt. Col. Ron “Elvis” King and retired Lt. Col. Jim “Wam” Harkins of Holloman AFB, New Mexico.

I get to see the last F-4, touch it, look at how it has aged and weathered. I wonder where this aircraft has flown, when it was built, about what happened to the pilots who flew it and where they are today. There are old men here wearing F-4 Phantom hats. They’ve come from around the world to see it fly and touch it one last time. Some of them flew the Phantom a long time ago. One of them may have flown in that first airshow I was at 47 years ago.

There’s a convention that a pilot always says whatever aircraft she or he is flying is the absolute best. Pilots pick careful language to describe a plane they fly, and if you listen closely enough, you get a feel for what it must really be like.

I meet Air Force Lt. Col. Jim Harkins and Lt. Col. Ron King near the QF-4E they will fly today. A bunch of maintenance guys are tending to the tired old plane. Like an old person with difficulty controlling their body, she is leaking everything- fuel, hydraulic fluid. She needs a lot of maintenance to keep her in the air now.

“She’s old, but she still flies good.” Lt. Col. Harkins tells me. “We’ll be taking her home after this, then… that’s about it…” He signs prints of these two QF-4E’s I brought to the show with me. He writes the date of the last flight on the posters. I get a few signed, including one for my friend Lance who is back in Michigan taking care of Jan and my cats while we’re gone.

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I shake the pilots’ hands. Thank them for bringing the F-4 out one last time. “You’re welcome. It’s a pleasure”, he tells me. We pose for a photo that Jan Mack takes of us.

And that is it.

The QF-4E flies its last demo. I’m focused on getting good photos of her but during one of the passes I lower my camera and just watch. The smoke and smell and sound are exactly like 1970. It’s 47 years ago and I’m a kid at that first airshow all over again. There’s a new plane here, the F-35 Lightning II, and pretty soon we’ll get a chance to see it fly, talk to the pilot, maybe even touch it if we’re lucky…

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Photo and Story by Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

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Silence fell over 200,000 people when the announcer’s voice dropped off…

A half million eyes turned up and left, looking to the west.

“And… Ladies and gentlemen, from left of show center- your- United States Air Force F-35A Lightning II..!

It is the first time I have seen a major new aircraft introduced in nearly four decades. It is history. Likely the last time in my lifetime this will happen.

So I look left and up…

A small, grey spike, angled slightly upward, drifting silently toward us at moderate speed. Suddenly its speed gathers. The utter silence is eerie- so many people holding their breath, eyes turned upward, necks craned left. Fingers point. There it is!

It’s flight is like an arrow from a bow until- flame. A tongue of orange perforated fire leaps from the rear of the small grey spike. With unlikely acceleration it angles slightly nose downward and hurtles in front us. Still no noise. Silence. Then…

Like a roar from a movie monster there is a deep growl of fiery thrust, then a sharp, shrill whine above the deep, flaming bass. It’s unlike any sound I’ve heard.

Inside the F-35A USAF Major Will Andreotta, callsign “D-Rail”, cranks his right wrist toward his thigh and pushes his left hand forward. His F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter heels over in the gathering crush of centrifugal force as g-forces accumulate. The Lightning II turns one huge, flat, fiery circle in front of us.

Then it is gone.

There are no stunts. No rolls, loops, tail slides. There is a lingering tinge of afterburner noise as the grey spike rapidly fades into blue sky over Lake Erie.

That’s it.

I had one pass to get a decent photo, and my cameras are old and beat up. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. I get lucky. At the outer edge of my camera’s ability to catch a high resolution image I bag one good shot from a sequence of many. A little Photoshop to tweak color, shadows, light and contrast and I have what may be the most significant photo I’ve shot in four decades: the first time I’ve seen an F-35, an airplane that will still be flying and fighting when I die.

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The next morning I get an audience with the pilot of the F-35A, “D-Rail” himself, Major Will Andreotta. Major Andreotta has a tough job flying the F-35A for airshow audiences. Not everyone is convinced the F-35A is a good aircraft. There are protesters outside the airshow holding signs that question how many schools could be built for the price of one F-35A (Quite a few schools could be built, one F-35A costs the Air Force an estimated $98 Million).

Major Andreotta has to chat with everyone from 8-year olds to F-35 protestors to aviation geeks and hybrid journalist/aviation geek/intelligence gatherers like me. But once D-Rail and I begin chatting behind the F-35 demo team tent he senses he’s in relatively safe territory. I ask him pointed questions about F-35 capabilities. My inquiries are laced with attempts to get him to reveal something the rest of the media hasn’t reported on- some new capability, some new feature to report on for the publication I write for, The Tactical Air Network (www.tacairnet.com). D-Rail throws me a bone. He hands me his flight helmet, the nearly half-million dollar helmet that has been a part of the controversy about F-35. They don’t let just anyone handle the $400,000.00 helmet.

It is absurdly light, like a bicycle helmet, and covered in beautiful carbon fiber. The visor looks like crystal and the shell is criss-crossed with communications cables and data cables. With the helmet, D-Rail can “see through” the floor of his F-35.

“It takes a little getting used to, and we don’t turn it on unless we need that capability.” He tells me.

I get no new scoop, no new nugget of previously secret intel about something amazing the F-35 can do. But I do get a series of pregnant pauses and measured responses from D-Rail that hint at many things unsaid.

I also get a handshake, autograph and an F-35 patch, just like the one on D-Rail’s flight suit. My girlfriend Jan Mack shoots a photo of me holding the helmet, standing next to D-Rail with an idiotic grin on my face like a starstruck teenager with a pop star.

But most importantly, I got that one photo when Lightning struck for the first time.

 

Photos and story by Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com.

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I didn’t move to Tucson, Arizona by choice. I was a refugee of the American Recession.

In a migration that mimicked a modern day “Grapes of Wrath” I took a job with the world’s largest triathlon retailer in Tucson and moved there after losing my own business in Detroit.

TriSports.com flew me to Tucson for an interview. Following the interview I was convinced I was finished in this business. The founder, Seton Claggett, asked some tough questions. I left with my head down.

But I got the job.

I did a little of everything at TriSports.com’s massive headquarters. Marketing, sales, promotion, writing, photography, video commentary, employee training, managing, sweeping floors, bike fitting, driving stakes in the desert and cleaning up trash by the roadside. Working there was immersive. The H.R. director counseled me that I couldn’t work as many hours as I did because it wasn’t good for me. But in reality, it was exactly what I needed: self imposed exile to the desert gulag.

Today we’re on a photo shoot.

I saw a road headed south from Mt. Lemmon, Freeman Road, that makes a lumpy black beeline toward the Mexican border. It looks like a black snake laid across washboard desert sand. It will be perfect for a photo shoot.

There are a few problems. Firstly, it is beastly hot in Tucson. Shooting in natural light with the sun overhead means working in the open desert at noon. Temperatures are well over 100 degrees. There are rattlesnakes, ill-tempered desert pig-bears called “javalina”. Every plant on the shoulder of the road is wearing knife-like thorns that pierce clothing and implant flesh with barbed needles.

Secondly, I have a clear vision of what I want the photo to look like, but without an aerial camera platform that shot is impossible. I want to show a cyclist riding south on the oddly rolling black road set against the desert backdrop. I chat with a couple local private pilots about the possibility of flying me over this road for the shoot, but the logistics and expense of getting a small aircraft over the road while coordinating with the cyclist/model on the ground make that impossible. We don’t have camera drones yet, and even if we do, getting the resolution and type of image I want would be tough from a small drone.

So, we load up the tallest stepladder from the warehouse, grab one of the big company trucks and recruit Debbie Claggett, a founder of the company, as fashion/action model for the day and head into the desert.

Debbie is a dream to work with. She is pretty, fit and knows how to ride. But it is a little awkward giving photo direction to one of the founders of the company you work for.

I describe the photo I want. We set up the stepladder on firm enough sand to keep me from falling into a prickly cholla cactus, and Debbie sets off south on her bike.

“Ride for about thirty seconds past those lumps in the road then do a U-turn and come back toward me. Keep doing those loops.”

Debbie does a few out and back circuits. I shoot a few frames. It looks pretty darn good. I’m careful to frame the photo so there is space to drop text in the upper left corner. It is a lot of work for a pretty simple photo. That said, the weird looking lumpy road is kind of cool, but it could be anywhere. Something is missing.

We need something that defines this photo as being distinctly Arizona. Distinctly Tucson.

We need a cowboy.

On queue a man who looks like he dropped out of a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western rides a beautiful horse onto the road. We could have spent hours in wardrobe and costume and not done as well. When you look up “Cowboy” in the dictionary, there is a photo of this guy. He is John Wayne, The Marlboro Man and Clint Eastwood all rolled into one with a dash of Boss Hoss for good measure.

Jackpot.

Debbie recognizes the opportunity instantly. Without a word she wheels around, glances over her shoulder to check if I am getting this (I am…) and she makes a few riding passes by the cowboy. Smoke is coming off my cameras this is so good.

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She stops and pets the horse. More incredible images that say, without a word, “Cycling in Tucson is extraordinary, there is no place like it in the world.”

We thank the cowboy and horse, load up our gear; brush off the dust and race back to the warehouse to see the photos.

This one photo describes riding a bike in Tucson, Arizona better than any single image I’ve seen, thanks to Debbie and the mid-day rider of Freeman Road in Saguaro East.