Sunday, November 29, 2009

What ever happened to the old-fashioned, fire-eating press photographer? 1

"What ever happened to the old-fashioned, fire-eating press photographer?"
-Sign attached to the heavy wire mesh photo coop at the Kansas City Star, 1965.


Hard to tell if it was my inner voice or indigestion, but whatever it was it told me to "Inflict some more boredom and tedium upon the world with another blog. After all, the world is pretty chaotic and humans need an excuse to doze off and relax a bit."

So, heeding the mysterious call from within, I am herewith offering from my 50+ years in the photo business a collection of my experiences, recollections and observations, mostly but not entirely true. The phrase a "novel from life" springs to mind; never let the facts stand in the way of a good story I always say.

I know not how many entries there will be. They will varied and not all about me. I do know that the photojournalism life has been so much a part of me as to be indistinguishable and inseparable from the rest of whoever I am.

I will unhesitatingly tell you that it has been, in the main, a fun ride. At times spectacular, actually. While I achieved perhaps ten percent of what I had hoped, and made about an equivalent amount of money, the places I've seen, the people I've met and the things I've done are, in MasterCard terms, priceless.

This first installment is "The B2 bomber: A Christmas story."


Some UFO-ologists (self-described students of the Unidentified Flying Objects phenomenon) firmly believe that the advanced technology used in the stealth aircraft of the United States Air Force was cloned from the presumed flying saucer that crashed near Roswell, New Mexico in 1947. It took some forty years to comprehend and put into practice what the military weapons brains learned from that other-worldly craft, and from the grey, big-headed, huge-eyed alien pilots' dead bodies, so the theory goes.

In any event, and however the technology was derived, on December 22, 2001 I found myself driving to Whiteman Air Force Base near Knob Noster, Missouri. The purpose: To photograph the B2 Stealth Bombers based there.

Reading the skinny sheet from the New York Times picture desk while I drove (a no-no; I am aware) I picked up the essentials: The plane cost nearly $1 billion to develop, and each of the then 21 aircraft cost more than $700,000,000. Each. The wingspan is 172 feet, a flying wing configuration. Translation: Very pricey airplane, and you don't even get a fuselage, rudder or stabilizer for your money. The generic name of the B2 is "Spirit" and each plane also carries the name of one of the 50 states. The unique shape, construction of the aircraft and the special radar-deflecting coating applied by robots (the stuff has to be put on to exacting tolerances beyond the scope of mortals) help to make it virtually invisible to enemy detection systems.

The obligatory Media Information officer (PR guy) met me and gave me a tour of the base offices (you've seen one Air Force headquarters, you've seen 'em all), painted in the ubiquitous Air Force puke green.

There was, so far, not much of a photo op.

What seemed to me to be at great length, it was time to visit the hangers where the B2 bombers lived.

Now this was more like it!!!

It could very easily have been a frame grab from one of the Star Wars sagas. Because the B2's surface is a light-absorbing grey-black, in order for the ground crew to make proper visual inspections, many lights surrounded the bombers, giving the otherwise plain Jane/Joe hanger a very hi-tech. sci-fi look.

After about an hour of inside hanger and outside tarmac photography, I asked if I could shoot a take-off.

Yep, I sure could; In fact "now is the perfect time" I was told. The B2 bombers ran early morning and early evening test flights. It was 4:00 PM and on this late December day, it would be dark soon.

Traveling along the road that led to the end of the runway, I noticed some house trailers parked a few hundred yards back. I inquired of my PR escort as to why people lived so close to the airfield. He said that the owner of the land had worked out a leasing agreement with the Air Force, and since the land owner was also a US Senator, the military sort of looked the other way. Whatever...

The road stopped on a small rise. Dead ahead lay the 12,000' black runway with a series of yellow dots down the center.

While awaiting the first departure, a boy of about ten joined us.

"Hi. My name's Tom. I just like to watch them take off. They take off every night about this time," he explained to me, obviously pleased at informing the uninitiated.

Silence for another few minutes. I could kind of tell that Tom wanted to talk some more, so I asked him which trailer he lived in.

"The third one down the hill," pointing that away.

"The one with the Christmas lights around the window?" I asked.

"Yeah, that's my house."

"We have a Christmas tree too. It has some big red ornaments. We got no tinsel, 'cause my dad says it costs too much. But my mom loves tinsel. She is real sick and I sure wish I could get her some tinsel."

Then, off in the distance we saw the faint outline of the black, super-beast flying machine hurtling down the runway directly at us. It seemed to stay on the ground an awfully long time, and for an instant I considered ducking, as if that would have done any good.

At what I thought was the last minute, but was probably routine, the B2 lifted off and that now- classic, black, jagged wing silhouette appeared in front of us and a split second later, overhead. Another few seconds and it was out of sight.

Operating in stealth mode, the thing cannot even be heard until it is directly above. But on takeoff, the noise is, I would estimate, five times louder than the last heavy metal concert I shot. The deep-pitched roar was quite literally deafening. My ears ring yet today.

"Wow!" Tom shouted. "Wasn't that great!!!?"

The PR guy and I shook our heads in agreement.

I noticed that the PR guy had been on the radio with the tower just before the plane became airborne. I assumed he was telling them who we were and why we were there.

Almost dark now, and just one more B2 to depart.

Once again, a massive bomber lined up on the runway, its take-off lights shining brighter in the dusk. Once again it came within a few hundred feet of our spot before liftoff.

But this time, immediately after it passed overhead, something began dropping out of the sky. It was long strings of shiny metal. "What is THAT?" I asked Mr. PR guy.

"It's chaff, what some bombers use to help confuse enemy radar and air-to-air missiles," he replied.

I did not see any ATA missiles and had to assume that enemy radar was not an immediate problem.

I then realized that Tom was busy scurrying around collecting the delicate, long strands of shiny metal.

It looked, for all the world, like tinsel.

Hmmmm...quite a coincidence I thought.

No one spoke. Tom rushed back down the hill to his trailer, "tinsel" streaming along behind him.

It was now nearly dark, and getting colder.

I packed up my photo gear and climbed into the PR guy's van. Still, neither of us spoke. As we pulled up to the base offices, he finally turned to me and said, "What the heck, the United States are still the good guys."

I thanked him for his help, bade him a merry Christmas. On the drive back to Kansas City it occurred to me that the story of the day was not the B2 bomber, with its awesome firepower equivalent to 75 ordinary aircraft. It was not even the dedication of the pilots, ground crew and staff.

The real story was the act of kindness of a PR guy, the pilots and the air traffic controllers in the tower, who helped make Christmas brighter for a little boy and his ailing mom. And the upshot was that I had not even photographed it...

I hope the photos are self-explanatory.


  1. Really a very nice post. Thanks for sharing the valuable information regarding press photographers.

  2. This brought tears to my eyes.

    Mickie McMillin