PENSACOLA NAVAL AIR STATION, Fla. (AP) — 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.
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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.”