On October 8, I attended my first Fleet Week Airshow in San Francisco, with family in tow. Overall, it was a great experience. We had a good day with regard to the weather, with the morning fog breaking more or less by showtime. The headline acts were the U.S. Navy Blue Angels and the Canadian Forces Snowbirds. Neither act disappointed. Other highlights of the show included a B-2 Spirit flight and a V-22 Osprey flight, both firsts for me, and a great F/A-18F Super Hornet high-speed pass that generated tremendous condensation bursts as the jet flew just below the speed of sound in the moist, cool air above the bay.
We purchased tickets at $35.00 each to the premium box seats well in advance, in late July, when I first realized that a business trip and vacation coincided with the airshow. The box seats were located at Marina Green, and we were able to get our pick of tickets, with the exception of many front row seats. Because I wanted to stand and guessed correctly that standing was discouraged in the seating area, I chose seats in the back corner of section 1, which was the closest to show center. I had no idea what we would find when we arrived and found both positive and negative surprises. There were vacant seats around us, so walking up and buying a ticket was certainly possible.
Among the positive aspects of the box seats was that they were in a fenced area to control access, and that area included both plentiful porta-potties and two food stands. Our seats were located about 30 feet from shore and gave me the easy ability to get up and walk around behind the seating area to get better angles on the planes. The center line for the show is along the North Bay shore, so the seats were in a good position in that regard (which would have been an astounding disappointment if they weren’t).
The biggest disappointment in the seating was that show center was clearly located to the east, somewhere around Fort Mason. Many of the two-plane passes were just too far away to get a dramatic shot, even at 400 mm. Compounding the displacement from show center, there were a number of obstacles in the sight line to show center. The bay was filled with sail boats and cabin cruisers watching the show, and their masts cropped up in my viewfinder way too often. In addition, section 1 seats were next to a small building (bathhouse, perhaps) associated with the green, and it obscured the view to show center, forcing me to walk west, away from show center to get a good angle. The same freedom that I had walking around behind the seats was used by a host of people during the show (especially later in the day), many of whom were not photographing planes but simply chatting (to give their backs a rest, I guess). Consequently, getting a good shot of the Blue Angels low-level passes without heads in the way proved difficult.
In spite of the drawbacks of the box seats, I did take a number of photos that I liked. If I attend the show again (and I hope to), I will think hard about trying to get to the Fort Mason Green area early and staking out a patch of ground. If I go with the box seats again, I’ll try to get seats on the back row of one of the sections between 10 and 15. They’re further from show center, but they aren’t obscured by the building.
Marina Green is, in general, the center of the airshow activities. The U.S. Armed Forces were well represented there with various interactive and static displays. Additional food vendors were located on the green, and porta-potties were available along Marina Boulevard. Many people set up blankets and folding chairs on the green and watched the show for free. On the east end of the green were various children’s activities (including several large inflatables).
Saturday is the best day to see the show for several reasons. One reason is that all of the flying performances are available on Saturday. The B-2 did not fly on Friday or Sunday, which is no surprise since it literally left Missouri Saturday morning and flew back in the same day. The foremost reason, however, is that the Fleet Week parade of ships occurs on Saturday morning. Ships from the U.S. 3rd Fleet in San Diego sail up for Fleet Week, and this year they were led by the U.S.S. Carl Vinson (CVN-70). The Carl Vinson sailed in under the Golden Gate in the morning fog at around 11:00 a.m., with her sailors on deck and rendering honors to the city. She was followed by a number of other U.S. and Canadian ships, which was a spectacular way to kick off the airshow.
A third and less obvious reason to see the show on Saturday is that the weather in San Francisco is notoriously unpredictable, particularly with regard to fog and haze. We actually arrived in San Francisco on Friday afternoon when the Blue Angels started flying and made it to the view point on the northeast side of the Golden Gate Bridge before the show ended. I was able to get a few photos, but the haze looking back at the city was awful. Also, for those who might be tempted, the airshow can be seen from the Marin Headlands, but the distance back to the show center line is just too far for good photos. On Sunday, the Blue Angels show was shortened for safety reasons because a fog started to move in. Consequently, planning to attend earlier and then having one or two days as back-up is a smart thing to do if you travel a long distance for the show.
By the way, even on Saturday, while the sun was shining, the air had a haze to it. I’ve had to warm up my raw images in post-processing because the daylight color temperature setting was just too cold.
If you enjoy seeing the take-off and landing drills of the flight demonstration teams, you’ll miss that at the Fleet Week airshow. The performers take off at San Francisco International (SFO) and fly in over the hill.
I found that the biggest challenge overall for the airshow was getting there. I had read several postings online discussing the horrid traffic once the flying begins and more so when it ends. We were staying in Marin County, and I struggled with driving in and trying to find a place to park or using public transit. In the end, I decided to use Golden Gate transit. We took the 80 bus from the San Rafael Transit Center (the 70 or 101 buses will work, also), got off at the Lombard and Fillmore stop, and walked the half-mile to Marina Green. We arrived before 10:00 a.m. and found that time early enough that we could have staked out a place on the green or perhaps even parked nearby (numerous others did and then schlepped chairs and coolers to the green). On the return, we thought we would try to eat along Chestnut Street somewhere, but every yuppie in the Marina District was already out partying at 5:00 p.m., so we just hopped the bus and headed back to San Rafael. It was a slow trip back across the GGB, but it was nice to let the bus driver deal with traffic.
For those readers who don’t photograph airshows regularly, I’ll offer a tip. You need a big lens, in general, for airshow photography, and you need one even more for this particular show. Most airshows are at airports, and the show center line is over the field, not that far from the crowd. In this case, the center line is further out over the bay. I use a Nikkor 80-400 zoom, and at most airshows, I frequently have to back off the zoom when the action is nearby. I rarely backed away from 400 mm at this show. In many cases, I would have been much happier with 500 mm. Nevertheless, the Nikkor 80-400 is a decent compromise for airshows. It’s much lighter in weight than the Nikkor 200-400 and much more portable, especially if you have to walk or use public transit. It’s a bit slower lens than the Nikkor 200-400 at the long end, but you really don’t need lens speed on a sunny day. The biggest issue with the Nikkor 80-400 is the focus speed. It hunts for focus way too often, and if you aren’t tracking the plane well, or a patch of smoke (or a mast) pops across the auto-focus sensor, you can lose focus fast at the wrong time. Of course, the price is 15–20 % of the Nikkor 200-400 or the Nikkor 500, so that can be an overriding factor.
In summary, if you get lucky and have a sunny day, this is a great airshow. The ambience of sitting by the bay watching the show with the GGB, the Marin Headlands, and Alcatraz in front of you and the city behind you can’t be beat. My only advice is to plan ahead and be prepared to change plans if the weather doesn’t cooperate.