When you look at the photo above, you see only a stunning image of three stealth fighters soaring in close formation.
What you are actually looking at, however, is the result of a “billion-dollar dance” directed by a talented US Navy camerawoman, who managed to pull off a perfect shot while puking her insides out.
The awesome power of the US military is on display daily in thousands of photos taken by expert photographers like US Navy Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon Renfroe, who recently produced a collection of stunning photos of three F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters soaring over the Gulf of Mexico and Eglin Air Force Base.
It was a particularly memorable flight because it was the last time the three squadrons represented in the photographs would be together.
Renfroe talked to Business Insider about her photo shoots and the challenges of getting that perfect picture.
To get the photos of the F-35s, Renfroe strapped into a T-45 trainer jet, calling the shots while chasing the most expensive weapons in US military history.
Juggling an 8-pound Nikon D5 SLR camera with a 24-70 mm zoom lens, a touch of airsickness, and an inconvenient oxygen mask where the comms are located, she orchestrated the airshow, telling the T-45 pilot to relay key commands to the F-35 pilots.
“Can they get any closer?” Renfroe asked. “Can they each break left one at a time?”
Everyone involved had discussed the desired formations and maneuvers on the ground in a series of briefs, even going so far as to use toy models to play out the flight. “I wanted photos of them breaking away because I thought it would be kind of cool to have the three and have them one at a time breaking left so that I could get the undercarriage of the aircraft,” Renfroe told Business Insider.
But when you are soaring through the air and the intense gravitational forces are making you rethink breakfast, things are not always that simple.
“Chief, is this where you want them?” the T-45 pilot asked over the comms.
At that moment, her stomach was rolling as they tore through the air at speeds in excess of 300 mph. (Though it’s not something you notice, she said. Everything seems to slow down. Your body knows though.)
“Ummm, I’m still puking. One minute,” she replied, realising that there was no time for that. “Back to business … I have photos to take,” she thought to herself, a recent Facebook post on the experience indicated.
In November, Renfroe had climbed into an F/A-18 Super Hornet for a photo shoot. “When I was flying in the F-18, I asked the pilot if we could do some acrobatic moves. I wanted to see what that felt like,” she told Business Insider. “That was intense. Once in a lifetime. We did a break wing left, break wing right, like what I took a picture of” with the F-35s.
“It is one thing to see it and photograph it,” she said, but when you’re in it, “it’s this crazy, crippling, borderline painful experience.”
That flight gave Renfroe a lot more respect for the fighter pilots.
“I don’t know if it’s something where if you do it every day, your body gets accustomed to it, but, I think just looking through the viewfinder and trying to focus on the imagery, and not being cognisant of the movements and the way fluids are rotating in your head, you get dizzy.”
“You feel so much better after you get sick, though,” she said.
Before she took to the skies, Renfroe was practically sewn into a gravitational suit. The fitting takes a few hours because they have to find one that fits perfectly. She also needed the vest that connects to the seat and the survival vest, as well as the helmet and harness. The latter piece has to fit exactly right, otherwise it could tear off limbs should she have to eject.
Everything she wears is meant to keep her safe and secure for the flight so she can focus on the task at hand.
In the air, there’s no time for delay, Renfroe said, even if your body is trying to violently redirect your priorities and your attention to a zip-lock bag nearby.
“These moments are so quick. And there are always those moments where you put your camera down and then they do something really cool.”
She got what she came for, though.
Renfroe described the recent photoshoot as “surreal,” a mixture of shock and awe.
“One cool part is seeing the new technology and being so close to it,” she said. “People keep hearing about these F-35s, but to be able to have a seat right next to it and be watching it in the air … the whole experience is really neat.”
The pilots are also “executing these cool maneuvers for the photos,” she added, explaining that one of her fears was that something would go wrong since “they’re not flying like they normally would.” She said she crosses her fingers and says a little prayer each time.
She’s been shooting for many years, but her nerves sometimes still get the best of her, keeping her up the night before hoping that everything goes right, she acknowledged.
The speed also made for an unreal experience, as she has done only a few fighter flights. Most of her aerial work has been from helicopters.
“Photography was my calling. I found it my senior year of high school in a photography class,” Renfroe told Business Insider, explaining that she started with an old film camera her father gave her.
“I knew it was something I wanted to pursue, so I actually ran away to New York City and I thought it would be a possibility there,” she said. It wasn’t, but the Navy is where she turned her dreams into reality, discovering opportunities that most people simply will never have.
For example, she directed a photo shoot for the Rim of the Pacific exercises in 2014, guiding dozens of vessels, everything from carriers to destroyers, from multiple countries.
“They’re in the Pacific, and I’m in the helicopter, and I’m telling each ship, each country where they need to be. That to me was wild,” Renfroe said.
“Some people might think, ‘Oh, you’re just a photographer,’ but there’s a lot of weight in that,” she told Business Insider. “I feel very grateful and know that it is unusual in that it just doesn’t happen, you’re not usually controlling monstrous machinery or 42 ships. It’s a unique opportunity,” especially for a woman in a field that is “definitely male dominated.”
Renfroe joined the Navy almost 18 years ago, exploring photography in ways she hadn’t previously. Aerial photography, however, was a more recent development.
“It’s something I fell into in 2012 when I was with a combat camera unit in San Diego,” she said.
To be an aerial photographer, she went through the Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape program, as well as aircrew school, neither of which was easy. SERE is regarded as one of the US military’s toughest courses.
“It was super cool, pushing your body and mind to limits,” Renfroe told Business Insider. “I really wanted to do something challenging. I was 30 years old at the time. I just wanted to see if I could do it. I’m 36 now, and I’m still flying.”
“I’ve always kind of wanted that challenge. I got lucky.”
Check out some of Renfroe’s other work here.
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