Warbird Alley Special Feature
"Sabre Shoot"
A Photo Essay by Job Conger, Associate Editor

Associate Editor Job Conger describes the special day when he got a close-up look at a long-time dream airplane: a North American F-86 Sabre. In this article, he continues his comments on some of the numerous considerations an aerial photographer must make when capturing images of rare and beautiful airplanes in flight.

Mike Keenum's 1952 F-86 Sabre, NX188RL.

I've always had a place in my heart for North American's F-86 Sabre. One reason why is that we "took to the air" within a month of each other in 1947: Me to my first breath in September 5th, and it to its first flight on October 1st. As a six-year old enthralled by reports of combat with MiGs over Korea, I gained a reputation as the fastest F-86 "drawer" of any kid in my neighborhood. The local Illinois Air National Guard's 170th Tactical Fighter Squadron flew the type briefly before the unit became the first ANG unit to fly the similar-appearing Republic F-84F Thunderstreak. My fascination with the early Sabre versions has continued undimmed ever since.

In June 1995, Sabre owner Mike Keenum flew his pride and joy to an open house at the Springfield, Illinois-based Air Combat Museum. My joy at seeing this "old friend" -- which I had known only at a distance -- now suddenly up-close, was surpassed only when I found myself getting ready to fly in formation with it.

My photo mount for the day was a Soko Galeb, flown by Air Combat Museum President Mike George. Also in the formation was a Folland Gnat flown by Dean Cutshall. [See the "Red Jet Over Lincolnland" article.]  While the pilots briefed the photo sortie, I took some close-ups of the polished aluminum waiting outside. 

Mike's name is prominently displayed on the canopy rail. This photo also provides a bit of glimpse into the level of detail undertaken in the restoration of the airplane -- the modern instrument layout and white panel were not the original military standard, but these features greatly increase safety, now that the aircraft is operated in civilian hands. Original U.S. Air Force Sabres flew with all-black interiors. Other than the interior details, the following photos of Keenum's Sabre could easily have been taken in 1953.  

Mike's marvelous machine is restored in the colors and markings of "MiG Mad Marine/Lynn Annie Dave I," which was flown by then-USMC Major John Glenn, Jr., when he flew as an exchange pilot with the 51st Fighter Intercept Wing in Korea. Glenn scored three kills in the original airplane (not this restoration). Glenn's Sabre was also unusual because the nose art refers not only to himself, but also to his family, by the addition of the label, "Lyn Annie Dave I" forward of the primary nose art. Like many combat aircraft, Glenn's nose art appeared only on the left side. At a convention some years ago, an ace from another war was asked if his nose art was painted on both sides of the airplane. "How would I know?" he replied. "I only got in from the left!" Keenum's faithful reproduction of the original artwork extends to the name on the left canopy rail: "Maj. Glenn."


The "X" in the civil registration on Keenum's single-seater indicates it is registered in the Experimental category. The "X' is not required to be displayed; it is an option. The placement of the N-number on the flat surface just ahead of the elevator makes it easy to see without distracting from the authentic appeal of a meticulous restoration. A note for aircraft photographers: Including a close-up of the registration number of an airplane you're shooting is essential because if one forgets the owner's name, or the aircraft's serial number or model year, after taking pictures, one can always trace these facts by checking the FAA's online database.

Taken through the clean, closed canopy in the back seat of Mike George's Galeb at the runup area near Runway 22 at Springfield (KSPI), Mike Keenum approaches the hot zone. This area, variously called the "hammerhead," "EOR (End-of-Runway)," or "Last Chance" area, is where pilots perform their final systems checks, run-up their engines, and ready themselves for takeoff. It is also where military ground crews pull an aircraft's gun-arming pins, bomb-safing pins, and other "Remove Before Flight" flags. At Springfield, it is a common occurrence to see F-16 pilots performing this ritual before blasting off for their adventures in the sky. On this day, Keenum turned the clock back forty years, as his Sabre briefly performed the same drill as its modern relatives.

A hurried snapshot as Keenum approached from 7 o'clock close. All I was thinking was, "I have to get this before he goes by," and I was glad I did. It would be a few minutes before we were joined up, positioned for some "posing" for the back-seater with a camera. The relative softness of focus, partial blocking by the Galeb's canopy and scattered cumulous clouds below impart a candid, action feel to this view. Only one detail tips off the viewer that this picture was not taken "somewhere over Korea" in the 1950s. Can you spot it?

The not-so-obvious answer is that the blade antennas on the bottom of the fuselage indicate that the aircraft carries some relatively modern radio gear.

All my air-to-air photography is done with a 28mm to 70mm manual-focus zoom lens. Risking a telephoto lens of longer focal length is not for me for several reasons. First, longer lenses require slower shutter speeds, which can result in blurred shots. Second, their physical length may result in the photographer accidentally contacting, and possibly scratching, the canopy -- a bad way to get future invitations to fly with the owner. Third, if the formation is being flown so wide that you require a longer lens to get a good shot of the other aircraft, you may want to re-consider the pilot's qualifications. Finally, auto-focus lenses tend to focus on the canopy, which can result in out-of-focus shots of the other airplane(s).

The above picture was taken slightly below the -86, a position which has a positive and a negative result. On the positive side, you see more of the airplane, and possibly a more dramatic image, than you'd see in a simple side view. You also have a better chance at an uncluttered sky-scape in the background. On the negative side, part of the fuselage side is obscured by the wing. If the colors and markings matter when shooting a low-wing bird, you're better off level or slightly above it. Unless you're sitting in a Stearman or PT-19, don't assume you'll be able to open the canopy when the shooting starts. (When I photographed Mike George's Galeb from the back of a T-34, we were limited to the Beech's 152-MPH canopy-open speed, and Mike had to put the flaps down to hold position with the Mentor.)

This is the same picture as the one above, but slightly modified with a computer. Here, the image was slightly rotated and re-cropped so that it maintains good horizontal framing. The difference in aesthetic appeal between "straight and level" and even a slight incline upwards can be significant. Note that there is nothing in the background to confuse the eyes; this would not be true if there a visible horizon which also "rotated" when the airplane was re-framed. The cirrus clouds in the background are as believable in this picture as in the one that preceded it.

Here, we're straight and level. Note that the Sabre did display a slight nose-up attitude to hold position with the somewhat slower Galeb. Also note that the glare from the only "hot-spot" on the airplane (at the back edge of the canopy base) is minimal. Where there's a major flare from that kind of reflection, a gentle turn in one direction or another will reposition it so it's not an intrusion into the picture. In situations like this, as we flew a gentle race course pattern to stay over the same area of turf to keep Air Traffic Control happy, it did not take long for glare problems to resolve themselves.

Back on the ground, and Mike Keenum taxies his jet back to the Air Combat Museum hangar. I don't really remember taking this photo, because I was busy trying to wipe the smile off my face. Note the still-open speed brakes and the open canopy. In summer months, pilots of most vintage jets open their canopies shortly after landing to cool off. The temperatures under a large Plexiglas dome can approach the seriously-uncomfortable level very quickly, even on a cloudy day.

A ground crewman directs Keenum into the parking spot. Note the narrow width of the F-86 landing gear, and the large dihedral, or upward sweep, of the horizontal stabilizers.

Mike Keenum, accomplished warbird owner and pilot, displays a smile of satisfaction after another successful sortie. My sincerest thanks to Mike Keenum, Mike George, and Dean Cutshall for permitting this photographer to be aboard for an unforgettable flight!

[Editor's Note: Mike Keenum's F-86 is now owned and flown by the Warbird Heritage Foundation in Waukegan, Illinois.]

--Job Conger, a freelance aviation photographer and writer, is the proprietor of AeroKnow.com, an aviation history database. His work has appeared in several aviation publications including Air Show Journal, In Flight USA, Aircraft Illustrated and The Flyer. For more F-86 photos from this shoot, please see his F-86 Photo Gallery at AeroKnow.com.




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