At the 2009 Wings Over Houston airshow this past weekend, the organizers set up a special photo pit for serious hobbyists. This was their first time to do so. I suspect they were motivated by photographers requesting press credentials but having no specific media relationship. Whatever the motivation, it proved to be a good idea, I think.
I purchased a pass for the Saturday, October 31, photo pit when they first came out, on June 25. I had seen a reference to them on the WOH web site earlier in the year, when the organizers had requested feedback about possible interest. For $75.00, I received the following:
- Passholder-only entrance to a fenced-off area on the flight line, limited to 50 passholders.
- A small riser for obtaining a better view of the field.
- Special parking near the field.
- Coupons for $20.00 worth of food.
- Port-a-potty located within the pit (most are located well behind the public viewing area).
- Tented area with a cooler of water, plenty of cups, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, and Halloween candy.
- Tables for eating, drinking, and more importantly, sorting through photographic gear.
- Numerous folding chairs.
The location of the photo pit was interesting. The pit was located several hundred feet to the right (south) of show center (see the map), rather than at show center. Surprisingly, prime view seating, at only $40.00, is located at show center. On the one hand, show center is a prime reference point for the performers, and some of the key action occurs there. On the other hand, the sun crosses the sky south of the airfield, so more of a plane’s pass in front of the crowd will be to the north,Â allowing the lighting to be at the photographer’s back for a longer portion of the pass, especially in the morning.
While the WOH web site showed the photo pit was sold out, the pit on Saturday did not appear to contain 50 people, even though the weather was outstanding (clear skies, temperature in the 70s) and the show set a record for attendance (estimated at 100,000 over the two days). I didn’t make a count, but I would guess the number of photographers was closer to 30. A few people even seemed to have paid for admittance but were taking no photos (family members were not supposed to be allowed in the pit without a pass, so I guess these people just paid for the view).
Riser space was limited, and it didn’t help that several photographers brought tripods and set them up on the riser. One photographer even brought two tripods for his medium-format Pentaxes, and occupied about a quarter of the available space. If I remember correctly, the riser was never able to accomodate more than about seven or eight photographers at any one time because of its size. The pit had plenty of space for more riser length, so the organizers should consider a longer riser in the future. It didn’t help that the riser had no guardrails, so each photographer had to be careful about not stepping off and taking a two-foot fall. I also think each photographer should be limited to a single tripod.
Other than the riser, most of the other photographers were able to grab some space at the fence along the flight line, but it did get tight. I moved between both the fence and the riser during the show. I probably preferred the riser but don’t think my photography suffered by having to go to the fence.
Since the 2009 show was the first to have the photo pit, some things naturally weren’t as smooth as they might have been. The security people and volunteers directing traffic apparently had no idea where parking for photo pit pass holders was supposed to be. I was directed to an area that was reasonably convenient, but the lack of recognition of the pass was a bit disconcerting.Â Some vendors would not accept the food coupons. I tried to purchase a frozen lemonade, but the vendor pointed at the tents staffed by organizations affiliated with the airshow (JROTC, etc.) and said they were the only ones accepting coupons. A couple of the photographers in the pit complained that a runner for food would have been nice, especially given that we had coupons anyway, but that seems a little spoiled to me. I must admit, however, that a number of professional sports stadiums do have waiters for the expensive seating areas, so maybe the thought isn’t out of line.
I talked with a few other photographers during the day. Most were serious hobbyists, and some had some very expensive gear ($5,000+ lenses, for instance). Surprisingly, a few people were using non-SLR cameras. A few of the photographers were from out of town, including one who had traveled from Los Angeles and another who had traveled from the UK.
Having been to WOH for a number of years, a few other comments are in order about the show with relationship to photography.
- Ellington Field has two primary runways, 17R-35L and 4-22, and one secondary runway (17L-35R). The airshow action always occurs along the length of 17R-35L, and the flight line and viewing areas run parallel to this runway. Consequently, the sun is always to the right of the viewing areas. In the morning, the sun shines onto the spectators, making photography to that end of the field difficult. By afternoon, however, the sun has swung over behind the spectators, and photography becomes much easier. Fortunately, the headline act, such as the U.S. Navy Blue Angels for the 2009 show, is always the last act of the day.
- Pyrotechnics and smoke are a big part of the WOH airshow. The biggest use of pyrotechnics is for the Tora! Tora! Tora! show, of course, but they are used elsewhere during the show, too. A small breeze picked up in the afternoon and kept the field relatively clear, but last year’s TTT show became almost impossible to photograph because of the lingering smoke.
- Several of the photographers in the pit brought tripods or monopods. About half of them gave up at sometime through the show and went handheld. Even with heads made for swinging a camera and large lens freely, I don’t see how anyone can track a jet aircraft with a camera on a tripod, especially at high angles. More power to those hardy souls, of course, but my recommendation is to leave the tripod at home.
Other comments about the show this year.
- This show was one of the fastest paced shows I can remember. There were more military aviation demonstrations than usual and fewer stunt pilots. Also there were no rocket trucks, as in past years, which the kids love (but I don’t care for because the crowds pack the fence lines to see them). One of the reasons the two photographers mentioned above wanted a food runner was because of the fast pace.
- The year’s show was the first time that the Blue Angels have been to WOH since I moved to Houston in 1998. I’m sure that was one of the reasons for the record crowds.
- For the first time that I can remember, the show had a flight demonstration from a Douglas A-4 Skyhawk. For safety reasons, I assume, the A-4 flew well away from the flight line and proved hard to photograph with any dramatic impact without a lens larger than 400 mm.
- This year’s show had three heritage flights, which was a first. There was a C-17/C-47 flight, an A-1/A-4/A-26 flight, and a P-38/P-51C/P-51D/F-15 flight.
- I continue to be disappointed that WOH cannot get a Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor at the show, either as a static display or especially as a flight demonstration.
- For some reason, the show started late. The first flight, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet demonstration, was supposed to begin at 9:30 a.m. It didn’t begin until around 10:15 a.m. No doubt, this delay contributed to the need for a faster-paced show.
- WOH food vendors downsized their soft drink cups to a pathetic eight ounces for $3.00. Ouch! I remember when they sold ballpark-size souvenir cups for only $4.00.
- Traffic getting to the show was a disaster this year after 10:00 a.m. I arrived at the airport a little after 9:00 a.m., but didn’t get to park until after 9:30. My brother left his home (about the same distance away) about a half-hour later, and didn’t park until around noon. Somewhere around 2:00 p.m., the announcer told the crowd that the parking lots were full, which was a first.
In summary, the photo pit pass proved to be worth the money to me. I was able to maintain a good sightline to the action and didn’t need to leave the pit except for a bite to eat. If WOH sets up a pit next year, I will probably purchase a pass.