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Blue Angels photographers push the limit

PENSACOLA NAVAL AIR STATION, Fla. — U.S.
Navy fighter jet pilot Lt. Ryan Chamberlain has flown in war zones,
logged more than 300 landings on aircraft carriers and thrilled millions
since 2013 with breathtaking maneuvers as part of the Navy’s elite Blue
Angels demonstration squadron.
But Chamberlain says his career’s
most memorable moment came after he took detailed instructions from the
petty officer riding in the backseat of his F-18 Hornet.
Chamberlain and Navy photographer Terrence Siren flew over New York
City with the Blue Angels in 2013, and Siren captured an iconic image
of the blue and yellow jets streaking past One World Trade Center tower.
“I will always look back at that image. It captures what we do, what we are about,” Chamberlain said.

Siren, an accomplished Navy combat photographer, will
finish his tour of duty with the team in November. The New Orleans
native is one of five photographers, all petty officers, assigned to the
Blue Angels for three-year stints to capture images of the six-fighter
jet team.
Siren said it took time for him to feel confident enough
to make suggestions to the world’s best pilots despite having been a
photographer for the Navy Seals and making various tours as a combat
photographer.
“At first, I was thinking `There is another plane 6
inches from my head; I’m not going to talk to this guy,”‘ he said. “But
during photo shoots, there is a constant communication going on because I
cannot move the plane and he cannot move the camera.”
During
demonstrations, the team reaches speeds of 700 mph, and the pilots and
photographers can experience 7.5 times normal gravity during spins,
turns and other maneuvers. The g-forces make a 10-pound camera feel like
75 pounds.
Blue Angels do not wear g-suits, which are designed to
keep someone from passing out by pushing the blood toward the head
using inflatable bladders in the legs. The team’s tight formations,
sometimes just inches apart, require careful control of the flight stick
and the suit bladders could interfere with that. The photographers also
fly without g-suits and must learn breathing techniques and stay
physically fit to avoid passing out.
“It is like trying to take
photographs while riding a roller coaster — a roller coaster on
steroids,” said Katy Holm of Naples, Florida, another team photographer.
The
Thunderbirds, the U.S. Air Force’s aerial demonstration team, have a
similar program for Air Force photographers to fly with the team. Based
at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, the team flies six F-16Cs and two
F-16Ds. The location of the flight stick does allow Thunderbird pilots
and photographers to wear g-suits.
Navy photographer Andrea Perez
of Inver Grove Heights, Minnesota, has passed out and thrown up while
riding in the back of the Blue Angels’ jets.
“It helps to be
focused on the lens and not worried about what is going on outside —
whether the ground is above your head or whether you are spinning in
circles,” she said.
After a ride in the jet, Perez said she feels
drained. But the exertion is worth it when she reviews her photographs
of the team flying wingtip to wingtip in tight formations.
“You have a viewpoint that no other photographer is going to have,” she said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
The
Blue Angels usually perform four or five times in Florida each year.
For 2016, the Blue Angels are slated to perform April 2-3 at the
Southernmost Air Spectacular at NAS Key West, June 25-26 at the Vero
Beach Air Show, July 16 for the Pensacola Beach Air Show, Nov. 5-6 at
the Birthplace of the Blue Angels Air Show at NAS Jacksonville and Nov.
11-12 for the Blue Angels Homecoming Air Show at NAS Pensacola.
The 2016 schedule for the Air Force Thunderbirds will be released in December.

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