Defend Dutch CAF // Alaska Stories
Planet Unicorn Stories
The Re-Launch of Planet Unicorn 2018
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DEFEND DUTCH // ALASKA STORIES
Historic flight in honor of the 75th-anniversary attack on Dutch Harbor.
Last year I decided to split my time between San Francisco and Alaska, driven mostly by my love affair with the Alaskan landscape. My decision to spend half the year there has already given me opportunities that would never have come up should I have spent all my time in the City by the Bay (not to say that I don’t love both areas equally).
One of those opportunities was the result of being in the right place at the right time, which I guess could really be the mantra of my life to this point!
Not long after I settled into my new house in Alaska, my friend Drew invited me to a BBQ put on by the CAF, the Commemorative Air Force. The CAF is the nation’s leading organization devoted to preserving American military aviation history through education, flying and exhibition. Drew told me that Spencer, who runs the Alaska Wing of the CAF, wanted to meet me and discuss a project I might be interested in.
At the BBQ, Spencer explained that the CAF was about to take part in the 75th anniversary of the attack on Dutch Harbor, a battle that took place between Alaskan military defense forces and the invading Japanese army during the second world war. The CAF would be flying two planes from the era down from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor and back as part of the commemoration of the event and they were looking to document that flight. The first plane is a Canadian Harvard Mk IV and the second plane is actually a privately owned JRF-5 Grumman Goose flown by John Pletcher. The Harvard owned by CAF Alaska Wing and John with his Goose flew out to Unalaska together but he owns the Goose personally and is not part of the CAF Alaska Wing. Spencer talked a bit. Spencer talked a bit about the landscape along the route, called the Aleutian Chain: huge cliffs, mountains and volcanoes. Both he and I agreed it would make a stunning backdrop for images of their aircraft.
Needless to say, I was in.
Looking back on this, it felt like no sooner had I said “yes” that we were already in the air, and that’s hardly an exaggeration. Less than a week transpired between the initial conversation with Spencer and when I was crammed into a small, six-seater Helio Courier float plane (with two seats removed for luggage space) and headed up into the skies above Anchorage. The Helio Courier was chosen as the best plane for this job due to its design: no struts and high wings. That is to say, there is nothing obscuring our view out of the aircraft, which would allow us to get clean shots.
The two warbirds that were making the flight on behalf of the CAF were much older and slower than the Helio Courier, being from the World War II era, so they had left a couple days ahead of us in order to get to Dutch Harbor on time for the event. We planned to meet them in there and photograph their return over the Aleutian Chain.
The flight from Anchorage to Dutch Harbor is not a quick one in a small, single propeller aircraft such as the Helio Courier. We would need to refuel a couple times on the way, so our first stop was three hours west, in King Salmon. After that first stop, we would continue west for another three and a half hours to Cold Bay where we would make our final refueling stop before the last couple hours to Dutch Harbor.
That was the plan, but Mother Nature had other ideas.
The first leg went exactly as outlined, and we were in and out of King Salmon without a hitch. I was in awe of the landscape and my head was running a million miles a second. Epic volcanoes, crazy hundreds-foot tall cliff lines, winding rivers… the diversity of the landscape was breathtaking. I kept thinking about how we could position the planes over what I was seeing. “Oh, this would be a great spot to place the planes!”I thought to myself, smiling ear to ear. I was incredibly excited for what we were going to produce.
But the second leg, with us crammed uncomfortably in that small aircraft, was where the weather started to worsen. We went from relatively clear skies to low clouds, fog and with nearly no visibility. We weren’t able to see much.
We safely landed in Cold Bay, to all of our relief, but it wasn’t good news. We had missed our weather window and due to the continued worsening of conditions, we weren’t able to leave.
It was somewhat disheartening to think that we were just a mere 150 miles from Dutch Harbor, where the CAF warbirds and the commemoration event awaited us, but were unable to take to the skies to join them. However, we kept in high spirits, hoping the weather would break and we would be able to continue onwards.
We ended up stranded in Cold Bay for three nights. Never once through those three nights did I lose passion for what I was doing, and kept my chin up hoping and believing we were going to get to do what we set out to. Gratefully, the wonderful owners of the lodge in Cold Bay took us in and we had beds, coffee and food while we waited out Mother Nature.
After the third straight day of an hourly, “let’s check again in an hour” ritual, we finally saw a window open up. Needless to say, our time in Cold Bay set us back from our original plan, and the CAF warbirds were already on their way back to Anchorage. Seeing as we were only planning to photography them in the air on the way back anyway, we really did not lose much in terms of opportunity to capture visuals of their flight.
The flight back left us a lot of leeway to make some truly incredible, high quality imagery. After joining them out of Cold Bay, where they had to stop and refuel, we met up with them over Mount Pavlof and Pavlof’s Sister, two massive volcanoes on the Aleutian Chain. Mount Pavlof is a massive, extremely active volcano, the most active in the United States since 1980 with its last eruption being as recent as March of 2016. It towers over the landscape at 8,251 feet tall. In the image below, you can actually see smoke billowing out of the mouth of the volcano in the background.
Also in that shot and in a few others (near the beginning of the story), you can see Pavlof’s Sister, a slightly shorter 7,027 feet tall, which is a dormant volcano that last erupted in 1986, but is no less beautiful than her brother.
Through this flight, we were in continual contact with the pilots of the CAF warbirds and were able to coordinate loops, angles and flight paths to create the most compelling images we could.
After stopping to refuel in Kings Salmon, we continued on to Augustine Island, also known as the Augustine Volcano. The Augustine Volcano is a smaller volcano than Mount Pavlof, at just 4,134 feet at its height but somewhat unique in that it is pretty much just an island all to itself. The volcanic island last erupted on March 27, 1986 and was violent enough that it deposited ash all over Anchorage, which is 174 miles away, and disrupted air traffic in the entire south-central region of Alaska.
We circled this area a few times, worked with the pilots to get specific angles, and then went our own separate ways. We continued on towards Anchorage in a more direct route, while the warbirds stayed low, went through the mountains and followed land towards Anchorage, which was a longer route but less risky for the older planes.
We may have had a pretty rainy couple days and had to miss the first half of the commemoration, but after that flight home and what I was able to experience and witness, the rainy days didn’t sour my mood one bit. This collection of work is beyond what I expected to get and were scenes I have been mentally envisioning and planning to do someday. It’s definitely nice when dreams become reality, and this was absolutely a case where that happened. This was definitely a trip to remember, and I’m so thankful I was able to shoot these two warships in front of those volcanoes, that far down the Aleutians. It was a rare and wonderful experience.
I would like to express huge thanks to Spencer with CAF, DS Hogan with Aegis Strategies Alaska & Lucida Group of Alaska, Jeff a CAF Pilot and Soren for flying and making this happen.
Video filmed handheld with the Canon 1DX MK II at 120fps 1080p and photos shot with the Canon 5DS R.
10% of the Defend Dutch print sales will be donated back to Commemorative Air Force’s Non-Profit.
The Commemorative Air Force honors the men and women who built, maintained, and flew in these vintage airplanes during World War II. The organization believes that is best accomplished by maintaining the airplanes in flying condition; taking the airplanes to the people allowing them to experience the sight and sound of the aircraft in flight.
Collecting, restoring and flying vintage historical aircraft for more than half a century, the Commemorative Air Force ranks as one of the largest private air forces in the world. The CAF is dedicated to Honoring American Military Aviation through flight, exhibition and remembrance. A 501 (c) 3 educational organization, the CAF has more than 11,000 members and a fleet of 166 airplanes distributed throughout the country to 76 CAF units for care and operation. For more information, visit www.commemorativeairforce.org.
BEHIND THE SCENES // VLOG
LIMITED EDITION FINE ART
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