XP-82 Night Run: How I Got the Shot

This isn’t a cool “I stumbled upon and caught this in the moment” story, it was a deliberately staged scene for the August 2018 edition of Sport Aviation.  

I knew going into the shoot that this would be a
fold-out cover. Shooting for a landscape-oriented cover would certainly be
easier, but the goal was to have it look intriguing as a single page normal
cover as well. That’s a bit trickier!

The visualization process was definitely the
most challenging part. Most people assume (myself included at one time) that
the P/F-82 Twin Mustang is more or less just two P-51 Mustangs joined together.
The reality is that it was a clean-sheet design and the airplane is much larger
than its predecessor. In fact the Twin Mustang shares only a handful of the
same parts as the P-51. Prior to this photoshoot I had been able to photograph
one of the surviving F-82s Betty Jo
in person multiple times. Knowing the actual, surprisingly large size of the
airplane helped tremendously in visualizing how I wanted the shot to turn out.

Photo by Connor Madison.

You might ask why a night run? Aside from it
being able to see the stars and having a different atmosphere than your
standard daytime photo, the biggest part is the exhaust. The XP-82 is powered
by a pair of Rolls-Royce Merlins that under the cover of darkness provide a
spectacular blue flame when run at high power.

On the day of the shoot, the airplane was
brought outside toward the end of the day for group photos of Tom Reilly and
his crew. After we finished with the group photos, Tom and crew towed the
airplane to a part of the ramp where the background was largely unobstructed.
Watching the sun set behind the airplane with the whole crew was a great experience.
The airplane had never been more complete and, after 10 years of exhausting
work, the crew seemed to be soaking in the beautiful sight of their airplane
basking in the warm sunset.

Photo by Connor Madison.

As the sun got lower and lower, the crew was
anxious to start the night run, but there was still a considerable amount of
orange light in the sky from the sunset, which I knew would result in too
bright of a photo. What a lot of people don’t realize is how extraordinarily
powerful modern digital cameras are. I wanted to wait until it was practically
dark — or even fully dark for that matter.

Finally, once I felt it was properly dark, Tom
fired up the right-hand engine and I immediately clicked off the first
exposure. I was happy with the settings on the camera so, after a few exposures,
the only other adjustment I made was to a lower angle on the airplane. At the
lower angle, my first photo had captured both engines with the blue exhaust
flame. Knowing that photo was probably the
I experimented with a couple different camera settings and then let the
crew know I was done.

What I like most about the photo is that it conveys what that experience was like in person — a two-headed, fire-breathing monster chained to the ground. The engines were so loud it seemed to be only white noise in my ears by the end. I could feel the sound in my chest — it was tremendous.

Photo by Connor Madison.

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