About That F-18 Photo

Nope, it’s not a fake.

June 2015 cover photo.jpg
An F/A-18E Super Hornet from the Tophatters of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 14 flies past aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis in April 2013.

When readers picked up the June-July issue of Air & Space, many wrote to compliment our choice of the stunning photo of an F/A-18E Hornet for the cover. Thank you.

Each letter went on to explain, however, that our editors had been duped. That photo couldn’t possibly be real.

We passed your compliments and challenges to the public affairs office for USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), the aircraft carrier where the photo was taken on April 24, 2013. “It’s not a composite made of different photos,” said MCC Jesse A. Sherwin III. “At the time this was taken, the flight deck was not launching or recovering any aircraft….Two aircraft were practicing in preparation for the air power demonstration to be held the following day. Since they were already up in the air, we took the time to try and get some really cool photos of aircraft and USS John C. Stennis. And we did,” declared Sherwin.

At the time, the Stennis was preparing to host civilian guests and family members of the crew, who boarded in Hawaii for the last five nights of an eight-month deployment at sea. The program for the guests included an airshow staged from the carrier’s deck.

We wanted to know more about how the photo was made, so we talked directly to the photographer, MC3 Ignacio Perez, who is deployed this month to an undisclosed location in the Pacific. At age 21, Perez already has three years’ experience as a Naval mass communications specialist.

It was the Stennis’s commanding officer who suggested taking the shot from a C-2A Greyhound, a twin-engine transport. Perez attached himself to a gunner’s five-point safety harness in the rear of the Greyhound, and slid the rear door open. He had wanted the C-2 to fly into the sun, ideally near dawn or dusk, so that both the Hornets and the aircraft carrier behind them would be well lit. But his flight was scheduled at noon, to match the time the F/A-18s were scheduled to fly the next day. Perez made the best of it. “I give my opinion, and they tell me if it can or can’t be done,” he says.

He used a Nikon D4 digital camera  with a variety of lenses, including a 24-70 mm zoom. At times the F/A-18s tailgated the C-2 so closely that he needed his widest lenses.

In the space of an hour the photographer squeezed off 300 frames as the C-2 and Hornets passed above Stennis three times before going into a holding pattern behind the clouds. The series earned Perez an honorable mention in the annual Navy Media Awards.

Typically, he works alongside two other photographers in 12-hour shifts. “There’s so much to do, from the casual grip-and-grins for award ceremonies to processing and post-processing and captioning the photos,” he says. “The airplanes flying around is great stuff, but not as rewarding to me. Definitely my favorite is going out taking pictures of the sailors, just candid photos below deck of them working hard, where no one knows I’m there. It’s much more rewarding. When you tell them, they get all excited you took their photos.”

Perez has photographed nearly every inch of a carrier, and only has one goal remaining: The top of the mast, 11 decks above the flight deck. He hopes to climb the mast before heading off this fall to attend the Advanced Military Visual Journalism Training Program at Syracuse University.

See more of his photos below.

Perez finds plenty of photo opportunities on the flight deck, but prefers to take candid portraits of his shipmates below. Here, Aviation Structural Mechanic 2nd Class David Cheney performs maintenance while the ship was in the Arabian Sea in February 2013.
With rotors folded and helicopters secured, sailors fold an American flag onboard Stennis.
Last February, Perez captured a rainbow over the bow of USS Stennis at some undisclosed location in the Pacific.
On May 1, 2015, as a pair of aircraft catapult from USS Stennis, an MH-60S Knight Hawk helicopter attached to the Chargers of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 14 performs plane guard operations.
Perez shot this pair of F/A-18E Super Hornets as they practiced for an air power demonstration during a cruise from Hawaii to San Diego in April of 2013. Just before the formation had to return for landing, the clouds broke and he snapped what he says is his favorite shot of that session. The aircraft are from the Tophatters of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 14 over the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74).

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