Photographer & pilot Scott Germain on what it’s like to photograph planes, his life-long love of flying, and why racing his own plane at the Reno Air Races is his proudest accomplishment.
– scotty germain
Can you tell us a little about you and your background?
I was born and raised in Glendale, California. Dad worked in commercial real estate development, but was also a commercial pilot. I say “commercial” because he had that rating, as well as instrument and multi-engine, but he never flew professionally. He took me to airshows since I can remember, and took me flying – probably weeks after I was born. One of my earliest memories is sitting on my mom’s lap in a Cessna watching desert go by. Pretty typical upbringing… Played baseball, golf and volleyball, got a little better than average grades, and always was drawing airplanes in the margins of my school papers.
Always loved airplanes, always knew I was going to be a pilot. I started flying with Dad around 9, began lessons at 15, soloed on my 16th birthday, and then went to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona. I was there from 1987 – 1990, and graduated with a BS in Aeronautical Science, and all my ratings up to multi/commercial/instrument, and CFI.
Sometime in junior high, dad bought me a Pentax ME Super 35mm camera – my first. I really loved taking photos, and would constantly hound him for film before we went to airshows. He’d always say something like, “Isn’t two rolls of film enough?” TWO? I wanted ten! Or more! But dad had to pay for the film, as well as processing, so I tried not to make a stink about it.
In high school, I happened into the classroom being used for the high school’s newspaper. I got involved with that the next year, and began as the photographer. But every member of the staff had to write at least one story for each edition, so I did some entertainment and general writing. I found that I really enjoyed all aspects of it, and ended up winning an award from Columbia University’s school of journalism. In fact, our paper won best high school newspaper for several years in a row.
During this time, I got a Nikon F3, and I was off to the races after that. The Nikon served me well through college, and in fact, that’s when I took my first air to air photos. I was merely riding along with some of my friends from the Prescott Airport, so I’d open the canopy on a T-6 and start taking photos. Later on, that would lead to doing air to air; actually planning and briefing the mission, and directing the aircraft for the photos I wanted.
While at ERAU, I resurrected the college’s newspaper, and began submitting stories to various small aviation publications. I thought it was pretty cool when I got checks in the mail for my writing and photography! I kept up on that, being published in everything from Pacific Flyer to FlyPast, and many others. From 1996 until now, I’ve covered the Reno air races almost every year. That lead to my becoming the editor for Warbird Digest magazine later on.
Career-wise, after college I scraped by as a flight instructor and chief flight instructor, then flew bank checks in Cessna 310s. I went on to fly Chieftains out of Burbank to the Grand Canyon, carrying Japanese tourists. All of the flying was great, but the pay really was bad. I needed to move on and finally get some return on the investment!
I was hired by Trans States Airlines out of St. Louis, Missouri, where I was a first officer on the Jetstream Super 31. I upgraded to captain after a little more than a year, then got hired and America West Airlines after another year. I was based in Phoenix as an Airbus 320 First Officer. That’s where I live now, but we bought US Airways and adopted their name and brand. I’m still in Phoenix, still fly the A319, A320, and A321.
I’m guessing I have somewhere around 18,000 hours now in just over 100 different types of aircraft. My immediate career is to continue flying for the airline and upgrade to captain when the opportunity comes.
First plane you ever remember capturing your imagination?
They all did in one way or another… But my first real “Wow!” moment was the Mojave air races in, I think, 1978. I was ten, and my dad and I were watching the unlimiteds race. Steve Hinton was flying the Red Baron RB-51, and it went by… It made an insane sound to me, and it was moving pretty fast. I remember looking at my dad saying, “I want to do THAT!”
Other than that, if it was a warbird, I was into it. All of them. Little trainers, the bombers, especially fighters. I built countless Mustang, Corsair, Lightning and Thunderbolt models. I could tell you the differences between a Focke-Wulf Fw-190A-8 and a -D9. I was a freak at that stuff. My dad would drive me out to the Chino Planes of Fame museum to kick around. It’s really cool that a lot of the pilots out there are friends of mine now.
My first thought when I came across your photos was — how the heck is he pulling this off?
Well, sometimes I don’t pull it off!
The basic premise of an air-to-air photo session has a camera plane that I ride in, and one or more subject aircraft. This requires all of the pilots to have some competent level of formation flying skills in order to be safe, and maneuver properly to get the shots.
A successful air-to-air flight is the culmination of lots of planning and coordination on my part as the photographer. Or the person with a need for photos. Or an idea. I want something, so I have to put it together. Once in a while, a client comes around, but the initial stage is always planning, coordinating people, airplanes, and schedules.
As we get closer to the day of the shoot, I’m watching weather. If we don’t have proper weather, then I coordinate with everybody involved and prepare them for a scrub and come up with an alternate date. But if the weather is good, we move forward.
Air-to-air photography is not an “I” activity… It’s a “we” activity. There are always a number of people that work together to make it all happen for that one 1/125th of a second when the shutter releases and an image is captured. Sure, I’m there, but without the subject aircraft pilot, the camera plane pilot, the crew that got the airplane ready, the owner that agreed to do this – it won’t happen.
I think the real answer to your question is this… Once we gather to brief the photo flight, I feel I bring some unique attributes to the table. I can mix being a pilot, a warbird pilot, a formation pilot, a safe pilot, as well as a photographer, into a package that puts everybody at ease. I can speak their language, and understand what will and won’t work. I want everybody to feel like they know how it’s going to progress, what’s expected of them, and how we’re going to run the flight.
It’s easiest, I found, to tell the pilots what I’m looking for, and suggest some formations and maneuvers that will allow me to get those images. That could mean briefing the flight to stack down the subject aircraft on the inside of the turn at the proper moment, begin the turn, and get the subject over the proper terrain that makes a good photo. I could make a radio call or a hand signal to fine tune the aircraft’s position. There are a million little moments on every flight, and about four seconds of real magic. You have to be proactive in making them happen, and present in them to capture it. It’s a real challenge at times, and I enjoy that challenge a lot.
And sometimes, the magic never comes.
So, I feel it’s all a juggling act, and I’m in the middle making requests, suggestions, or stopping something if it’s unsafe. It’s really an extreme form of multi-tasking. I have to be a pilot, a photographer, a communicator, a technician, and an artist all at once. You balance shutter speed, ISO, autofocus, exposure and composition all while putting the subject aircraft – sometimes a formation of them – where you need them. Is the light right? Are there houses on the ground ruining an otherwise good background? Where are we headed, and what airspace do we need to be concerned about?
There are literally a thousand things going on all at once, and you’re trying to play it like a concert pianist. Oh, and you’re hanging out of an airplane thousands of feet in the air!
Biggest challenge in shooting flying airplanes?
For me, it’s getting the chance. You give me the chance, I will always make the most of it and perform. It’s the tension in me on this subject I dislike… “Will I get the chance? I want it so bad… Just get me in there, coach! Please.”
The rest of it..? Well, you’re balancing people’s abilities and comfort levels while in formation with two or more airplanes. It’s a challenge when a pilot’s comfort level doesn’t allow him to place his airplane where you really need it. But that’s ok; we’re going to stay safe and not push anybody.
How much preparation and homework do you put in prior to doing a shoot?
Most of my prep centers on getting my gear ready and having what I need if I’m traveling. I keep everything as simple as I can, and stow gear in my flight suit or in a pouch within easy reach. Trust me, if you drop something – a lens, a memory card – it’s either going to be out of reach or fall out of the airplane. Both are very bad things.
To me, all the hard work is getting people to say yes to a photo flight and getting all the ducks lined up. Once you’re there, the easy stuff – for me at least – is about to start.
Once I strap into the camera aircraft, I say the photographer’s prayer, “Dear God, please don’t let me screw up!” When it comes to all airplanes, and especially warbirds, there is expense involved. I want to make the most of the situation and the sacrifices people make to fly their airplanes for me. I want to make the most of every situation and not screw something simple up – like a wrong camera setting. I’m thankful, so far I feel like I only screwed up one shoot out of… Oh, I don’t know how many I’ve done.
How do you get in the right spot to capture the shot you want to get?
In a general sense, it’s easy. “Can we fly over here and do right 360s? Kind of put this spot on the ground off your right side, and we’ll step the subject aircraft down?” Then, as the photographer, or aerial coordinator, I look ahead to where we’re flying and make some fine-tuning adjustments. I usually can talk to both the camera plane and subject aircraft pilots on the radio, so we all hear what’s going on and can expect the next move. I try to keep all of my communications simple.
You can always say “more bank angle” to the camera plane pilot, or shoot a quick hand-signal to the subject aircraft to move them the 5 feet you need to get the shot you want. And I’ll tell you one thing… Guys like Steve Hinton, John Maloney, and Bob Odegaard actually can move their airplane that tiny amount and stay there to get that shot. Working with guys like that is a sincere pleasure.
There are times when you don’t need to do a lot of moving around, and then there are time when your subject plane pilot is all assholes and elbows. That’s the breaks; you do the best you can. But most missions fall near the good side of the spectrum. As long as somebody can fly a reasonably close formation, we’ll get something really good.
Your camera and lens set up?
I’m currently using a Canon EOS-5D MkII, which was a huge step up from the original -5D. There are faster cameras, but I chose this model for image quality and autofocus ability. I am not disappointed whatsoever.
I use Canon L glass. My usual air to air lens in the 28-105 IS USM. That’s a super air to air lens, but I wish it had just a little more reach. If I shot more out of B-25s, I’d also want the Canon 70-200 IS. I bought the 28-300 IS USM for this reason, but never really used it, so I sold it.
How fast are some of these vintage fighters going?
It’s dependent on the camera airplane a lot of times. If I’m in the back of a T-6 with the canopy open, my pilot is usually running 30 inches of manifold pressure and 2,000 rpm. (No, that does not make for very good photos most of the time!) That’s max continuous power for that airplane – it’s shaking and rumbling and groaning. If I’m shooting a fighter next to me, they’re at the lower end of their speed range, so it’s a challenge to make two relatively incompatible airplanes compatible.
I’d say the speeds at that point are around 190 knots, not fast by most people’s imaginations.
If I’m lucky enough to shoot from a B-25, it’s capable of faster speeds. If we’re doing 230 knots, then everybody is comfortable in terms of speed. You have to match up the camera and subject aircraft in terms of performance, but if your pilots are really good, they can make almost anything work.
I was once at the Oshkosh Air Show, and the biggest thing that surprised me was the sound of these WWII fighters coming in hot and heavy over the runway.
Ain’t it great! A lot of the time, I hear the plane next to me in the air. THAT is cool!
It’s always amazing to me that some of these WWII planes are seventy years old and still in excellent flying condition…what keeps them from being in museums and collecting dust?
People. The people involved in warbirds are several things. Sure, they are mostly very well off financially. But they’re also historians, aviation buffs, patriots, and they are willing to put their checkbook out there to preserve and share pieces of American history. I feel like we owe these people our thanks, and it thrills me to share my images of some really great American hardware.
Racing at the Reno Air Races is your favorite accomplishment…can you tell me more about this?
Oh boy. Yeah… I feel like my three years of being a race pilot is a huge accomplishment for me.
First off, I kinda threw down when I told my dad I “wanted to do THAT!,” at the Mojave air races. Since that day, I lived, dreamed, thought about and schemed air racing. I got involved on some racing crews starting in 2000. Everybody, and I mean EVERYBODY at the Reno air races knew I wanted to be a race pilot. I wouldn’t shut up about it. But nobody asked me to race their airplane for them. I think that’s one of the hardest things to come by, and for those that do get asked, I hope they know how lucky they are.
Anyway, I was going to have to make it happen for myself. There was no way in hell I was going to ever afford a Mustang or a warbird to race in the unlimiteds. So now what? Biplanes are ok, but they are only two-use airplanes: Acro or racing. Can’t afford a T-6… I won’t fit in a Formula 1 racer… So it came down to the Sport class. I looked at a bunch of different designs, and it looked like the cost versus speed curves crossed at the Lancair 360. That was the fastest airplane I could afford to borrow money for to buy!
The short story is I found one I liked, and sacrificed every nickel I had to get this airplane, get it insured and hangared, and get it ready for Reno. I went deep into debt to do this, but it was my dream. It was right now.
To be quite honest, I also wanted to do this while my dad is still around. If I didn’t do this, he may have never seen me realize my one true dream in life. Now, that one true dream is to race and win in the unlimited class, but quite frankly, that’s a tall order. But I did what I could do, and here is the best part… I did it with my dad. We went air racing.
I can’t tell you the very deep sense of satisfaction I got out of racing those three years with my dad at my side. He has given me everything in my life, made sacrifices for me, and shown me how to be a man. I felt like I gave something back to him, and acknowledged his gifts to me by doing this. There is no amount of money in the world that I would trade for that feeling, that experience. My dad is really a hero to me, and we did all of this together.
There is also another scorecard to my racing that most people overlook. Just getting an airplane to Reno is a victory. A lot of people don’t make it that far. We did it three times, and by “we,” and mean my dad, my crew, my friends, my sponsors, and me. Total team effort. In no way did I do any of this alone.
Racing at Reno is about having every conceivable obstacle placed in front of you, and you have to overcome it. It’s about hanging your butt out over the redline and being able to handle the consequences. It’s also about pushing machinery to the point it will break, and being ready for that moment. It’s about sacrificing everything you’ve got to come down the start chute and hear, “Gentlemen, you have a race!”
There is also another satisfaction… There are people that say things and try and tear you down. They criticize you and what you’re doing. But it’s okay… I raced, and they didn’t. I made the world’s fastest Lancair 360, and they didn’t. I have trophies, and they don’t. It’s ok. I’d rather try and fail than never try at all. It’s been a deeply satisfying journey, and I’ve learned a lot about myself.
Best vintage plan you ever flew?
I’m no expert by any means, and I have the tiniest bit of experience, but I did get to fly the P-51. How can I explain it? It was two different worlds colliding for me. Before you do it, you ask yourself if you can do it. Then you’re doing it, and you say, “Yeah, this is great.” It’s an honest airplane, and it’s extremely manageable. In no way did it impress me as something I could not handle with proper training.
Then comes the nostalgia. I’m sure real Mustang pilots get over the nostalgia rather quick, but there was that factor of it for me. I thought about the kids taking that airplane into combat. I thought about what it takes to restore one. I thought about what it takes to race one at 120 inches of manifold pressure and 3,400 rpm at 500 mph. It all mixed together for me, and I want more. I was lucky and thankful for that opportunity. But still… I want to know if I’m the guy that can race a top Mustang racer and win. I think I am.
Who’s the best pilot you ever saw?
To me, there can never be one. I have three people I cite when this comes up.
One was Bob Martin, a friend of mine with a T-6 in Prescott. He passed away some years ago, but that man had some serious talent. We’re talking formation flights with three feet of separation, feather soft wheel landing in the T-6 in a crosswind, and the ability to flow with the airplane. Not just fly it, but flow with it as one. Amazing.
Steve Hinton is another one of those guys. But his strong point is being able to assimilate all the aircraft he’s flown into a mindset that allows him to evaluate the aircraft he’s flying at the moment, and fly it with precision. He mixes being a warbird, race, airshow, and movie pilot into once package. Plus, he’s a really generous and nice person.
No list would be complete without mentioning Bob Hoover. Yeah, everybody says he’s “The Pilot’s Pilot,” and they’re right. I don’t have to explain Bob Hoover. People should know.
Wes side note: I was lucky enough to see Bob Hoover do his aerobatic routine at Oshkosh Air Show. Including flying his twin-engine airplane and touching a single tire on the main runway – after having switched off both engines. Truly amazing.
If you could fly any vintage plane, which plane and why?
I can’t. I can’t say one. But let’s do this:
Mastering the Corsair would just be a kick in the ass for me.
This would be a tricky one because of the landing gear and ground handling. I want to find out if I’ve got what it takes.
Classic jet. How can you not want to fly this? No imaginary MiG would ever be safe.
Fokker Dr. I.:
Another tricky fighter to fly… WW I fighters mostly had a setup where the engine was at full power, or cut-off with a “blip switch.” Seems like it would be a handful, but I want insight as to what WW I fighter pilots had to deal with.
There are so many others… That’s what I love about flying: there are always new experiences to gather. They’re all time machines that give you insight to other eras.
The difference between a good pilot and a great pilot is…
I would not presume to say… It can be so many different things, in different facets of flying. I feel if I said I knew what made a great pilot, I would be a great pilot. I strive to be a great one, but I believe it’s a journey never completed… You’re always working at it. You’re always trying to be better, and make better decisions. I feel like you have to balance common sense, procedures, and safety to complete whatever it is you’re doing. It’s the skill of actually handling the airplane, too. Depending on the environment – airline flying, air racing, aerobatics… Those all take something very different. Then you mix in knowledge of systems, airspace, the weather, the science behind flight, education, and knowing intuitively what’s going to happen next.
I guess in the end, a great pilot is one that appears to be at ease no matter what happens, is easy to work with, and the end result is never in question.
In 2004, the FAA created the Light Sport Aircraft for consumer recreation flying. In your opinion are we getting closer to more accessibility and affordability for the masses? And is this necessarily a good thing?
I believe, on the surface, that anything that gets more people involved in aviation is a good thing. Where are the airport kids these days? They’re locked out of the airports behind the fence. How will people enter the aviation community and progress? The economy is also difficult for most people, so learning how to fly is relatively more expensive than it was say, ten years ago. So it’s hard to be able to afford learning to fly. LSA provides that avenue.
Favorite aviation movie of all time?
Gotta go with Twelve O’Clock High with Gregory Peck, and Catch–22 with Alan Arkin. The old school stuff is way better than the more modern productions. I thought The Right Stuff captured a lot of the humor and attitude that pilots have. That was a great movie.
What next for you?
That’s a good question, and one I need help with. On the aviation career front, my airline is five-plus years into an acquisition/merger that still isn’t complete. That has negatively effected me, my progression, and my pay. No bucks, no Buck Rogers for going air racing. It kills me. I hate it.
I have a few ideas on approaching my alma matter to see if they’re interested in an air racing and aviation technology program we can put together. We could combine air racing, university promotion, and have a real-world aerial test vehicle that the school’s students could use to test their concepts. I would think that would be a real boon to the school, but we’ll see.
There are also business owners that are very aviation-minded. These people want to be involved, but maybe they don’t necessarily have the background that would allow them to enter a demanding arena such as air racing. Finding such an individual and managing their program would be a real blast for me. Of course, I’d want a racer able to compete and win whatever class we enter, so a competitive spirit is important. I’m about to begin exploring some of those avenues, so we’ll see if anything develops.
Even though there are some setbacks for me in terms of my career, that’s just part of the deal. You keep going, you never give up. And I won’t.
I’ve also explored other parts of life that I put on the back burner as I tried to build my career and my photography business. I’ve found the shooting sports to be highly addictive and challenging. Much like flying, shooting is a perishable skill, so there are some parallels there. My friends and I really enjoy going shooting and competing sometimes. I also love spending time with my girlfriend, and she shares many of my passions in life. She’s extremely supportive of everything I do, which is key.
Overall, I’m enjoying rounding out my life with different experiences that are outside of aviation. But I hear the call. I hear the siren out there, and it’s getting to me. I have to get back to racing at Reno…
And, of course, there is always the unexpected. I guess I’ll have to see what that might be!
All images in this post are copyright 2003–2012 by Scott Germain. No use without express written permission from Mr. Germain.