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Welcome to VCM-Photography, a website designed and written
by myself Vernon Metcalfe to showcase my photographic passion for
military aviation and wildlife.
My aviation photography is orientated towards the dynamic aspect of military low flying, where aircraft are captured flying landlocked against the countryside, rather than airshow photography, where aircraft are captured against the sky.
My parallel passion is wildlife photography, encompassing all species, but with a preference for the ‘Big Cats’, which has taken me to places such as India, looking for the elusive tiger, Africa for the lion, leopard and cheetah and to the Brazilian Pantanal for the iconic jaguar.
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On Saturday 9th September I boarded a British Airways Boeing 777 from London Heathrow to Los Angeles LAX for probably
my last military low flying trip of the year.
My intention was to explore areas of the Sidewinder military low flying route lying within Death Valley National Park and for that reason I hired a Jeep Wrangler, as access to the locations would be by graded roads and rough tracks, so a vehicle with a high ground clearance was required.
In August, Hurricane Hilary, a Category 4 Pacific hurricane hit southern California and Nevada bringing torrential rainfall and gusty winds, resulting in widespread flooding and numerous mudslides. Death Valley National Park received more rainfall on August 20th than it normally does in an entire year, with all roads in the park including the CA‑190 being damaged and closed until further notice. This put the kibosh on my plans of visiting the low flying locations in the north of the park, notably Marble Canyon and Eureka Dunes, so again (second time this year) I had to arrange an alternative itinerary.
I decided to keep the hire jeep, as it would give me the opportunity to familiarise myself with the vehicle for a future trip and I considered it more suitable than a normal hire car for access to some of the locations I planned on visiting this trip.
Sunday 10th - Today I was travelling 215 miles north of Los Angeles to Lone Pine, Inyo County, where I would be staying for one night at the Best Western Frontier Motel. After collecting my Jeep Wrangler, I made an early start to try and avoid the busy L.A. traffic. I headed north towards Mojave, making a quick detour at Rosamond to visit the Edwards Air Force Base West Gate Century Circle on Rosamond Blvd. Century Circle which is part of the Air Force Flight Test Museum, gets its name from the six displayed aircraft which make up the “Century Series” fighter aircraft of the 1950's and 1960's. The Air Force Flight Test Museum located on Edwards Air Force Base which required base access is no longer open as it will be moving outside the air base to the area at Century Circle where it will be accessible to the public. Construction of the new museum started in November 2021 but had been delayed due to the COVID pandemic and I was curious to see how it was progressing. Arriving at Century Circle I was greeted by the view of a new 60,000 sq. ft. steel framework structure constructed on the Rosamond dry lakebed adjacent to the existing aircraft exhibits. The hangar‑like structure will exhibit one of the most unique collection of research aircraft in the world. It will also protect and preserve these rare aircraft from the damaging outside elements. As the construction of the museum is not funded by the Department of Defence, but by fundraising from private sources, corporations and individuals, the completion date for the museum is still to be determined.
After visiting Century Circle, I had lunch in Mojave before commencing my journey north to Lone Pine. Lone Pine stretches along the Highway 395 in the Owens Valley, between the eastern peaks of the Sierra Nevada range to the west and the Inyo Mountains to the east. Mount Whitney can be seen from the town and the beautiful rock formations of the Alabama Hills which have served as a backdrop from many classic Cowboy Westerns are only a short drive away. Arriving in Lone Pine early afternoon I decided to drive into the Alabama Hills and visit the iconic Movie Flat Road and the numerous natural rock arches. The effects of the recent Hurricane Hilary were evident, as access to the hills from Lone Pine was via a detour as sections of the main Whitney Portal Road were closed due to storm damage. After an enjoyable sight‑seeing afternoon and evening meal I retired for the evening in preparation for the following day.
Monday 11th - Today for my low flying photography I was trying a location in the Owens Valley on the Sidewinder low flying route between Waypoints C and E. Through the day I had passes by four F/A‑18's but none were landlocked. Aircraft route north to south through the valley, and as my location was facing south it was not ideal for capturing approaching photos of the aircraft as for most of the day they were backlit by the sun. Only when the aircraft passed my location to my west or east side was the light suitable for capturing images. After leaving the hill I tavelled south to spend the remainder of the week in the Kern River Valley section of the Sidewinder low flying route.
In the Kern River Valley I visited some locations already tried and tested by myself but also some new locations on both sides of
the River Kern between Waypoints A and B.
Some of these locations involved quite a trek which was tiring due to the relatively high temperatures and rough terrain. Accessing
locations on the west side of the river proved to be even more challenging, due to the thick vegetation covering the hillsides and
having to cross a deep fast‑flowing tributary stream using a fallen tree trunk straddling the stream as a bridge.
Tuesday 12th - A good day with fourteen passes by a variety of Navy and Air Force jets. The highlight of my day was capturing the VX‑9 “Vampires” F/A‑18F Super Hornet, BuNo. 166791, finished in a retro gloss‑black paint scheme. The black paint and white markings pay tribute to a scheme known as “Vandy 1” which was originally carried by the commander's aircraft and flagship of VX‑4 “Evaluators”. Use of the name “Vandy” applied to all VX‑4 jets, and it originated as an abbreviation of the squadron's official “Vanderbilt” callsign used at the time. The “Vandy” tradition which has been absent for nineteen years probably returned due to the 30th anniversary of the amalgamation of VX‑4 and VX‑9 which was approved in 1993 and actioned the following year. I was also lucky to capture photos of VX‑9 “Vampires” F/A‑18F Super Hornet, BuNo. 166791 ‘XE‑260’ which had rero markings of VX‑5 “Vampires” before they merged with VX‑4 “Evaluators”.
Wednesday 13th - I tried a location on the west side of the River Kern. All the passes today were by F/A‑18E's of
VFA‑113 “Stingers” from N.A.S. Lemoore. The hill was not as high as I anticipated and most of the photos were
belly shots of the aircraft, but the mountainous backdrop made for some nice captures. Today was hotter than the previous days
and due to the amount of water I could carry and the distance back to my vehicle I made the wise decision at midday to leave early.
I have seen people suffering from heat exhaustion and realise how quickly it can happen, so I was erring on the side of caution.
Walking back to my vehicle a F/A‑18 Super Hornet, Fouga Magister and F‑35 Lightning passed overhead.
Thursday 14th - I had a long and arduous climb to my chosen vantage point, so I made an early start at 07:00 while the hill was still in the shade and the temperatures were cool. The first pass of the day at 09:42 was by a VFA‑122 “Flying Eagles” F/A‑18 Super Hornet, BuNo. 165794 ‘NJ‑104’ with F‑35 Lightning. I only captured keepable photos of the Super Hornet as the F‑35 was too close behind to have time to lock onto. The remainder of the morning saw passes by a variety of F/A‑18E's and F/A‑18F's. At 10:00 I captured my first low flying photos of a Beechcraft C‑12 Huron, BuNo. 76‑0161 from the USAF 418th Flight Test Squadron, Edwards A.F.B. I decided to leave the hill at 14:00, as it was a hot day and it was a long and difficult climb down.
Friday 15th - I decided not to climb any hills today. I didn't like the thought of coming off the hills feeling hot and sticky and then having a long drive back to Lake Elsinore, western Riverside County, where I was staying for the night. I decided to have a leisurely day, taking my time to drive back towards the L.A. area, on the way stopping off at the Air & Space Park in Mojave to view the aircraft exhibits, and Edwards Air Force Base North Gate to view the NB‑52B Stratofortress, “Balls 8’.
Photographs from the Sidewinder can be viewed at: 2023 ‑ Sidewinder.
Saturday 16th - Today I made an early start to avoid the busy L.A. traffic (but that never really works as it seems to be busy at any time) as I was visiting the Western Museum of Flight at Zamperini Field, Torrance, L.A. The museum had kindly arranged for Fred Peitzman (a museum docent) to give me a guided tour of the YF‑17 and YF‑23A which are parked in a secure compound away from the main museum. Fred gave a very informative talk on the leading‑edge extensions (LEX) of the YF‑17 and how they were developed, drawing on his own experience working for Northrop as a wind tunnel engineer. The LEX gave the YF‑17 (prototype aircraft from the Lightweight Fighter Evaluation programme which developed into the F/A‑18 Hornet) a high angle of attack which was advantageous for a fighter aircraft.
The museum regularly holds a Celebrity Lecture Series, and this weekend it was on the Lockheed Martin/NASA X‑59 Quesst Mission, presented by two NASA test pilots, David Nils Larson (NASA X‑59 Project Test Pilot) and James L. Less (NASA X‑59 Research Test Pilot). In the U.S. supersonic flight over land is banned due to the noise and tremors it can produce. The X‑59 programme is to demonstrate the ability to fly supersonic, or faster than Mach 1 over land, while reducing the loud sonic boom to a quiet sonic thump, a much quieter and softer sound that is barely noticeable on the ground. If successful, the programme could open the door to a new generation of supersonic‑capable commercial aircraft that are able to travel faster than the speed of sound overland reducing travel time significantly.
The X‑59 is currently being built at the Palmdale Lockheed Skunk Works and its first flight is planned for 2024.
After the presentation finished I had to leave (unfortunately missing the question‑and‑answer session) as it was time to return the hire car and make my way to LAX for my early evening flight back to the U.K.