The Flying Circus

By Mark

Photographing airplanes from the ground is very hard.  Usually they are too small in the frame to get much detail and if they are against the sky, it is tough to have any sense of scale. 

Luckily, old style flying shows still exist and we are fortunate to have one nearby.  We went out an overcast but still very hot morning to see the show.

Camera EXIF data

Camera EXIF data

Because of the relatively slow speed of the aircraft, I knew I wanted to shoot in Shutter Priority mode and set my speed at 1/800th of a second.  Additionally, I changed my metering mode to spot as I really wanted the camera to focus on the airplane.   Even with that, the relative smallness of the plane versus the much brighter sky, meant that the images were going to be too dark.  I cranked in +1 EV of exposure compensation to start, but wound up having to take it to 1 2/3 EV more than the camera thought necessary.   I had my 70-200mm f2.8 on (my favorite lens), but knew that was not going to be enough.  As you look at the EXIF data, you will see that my focal length wound up being 340mm.  I used my 1.7 “doubler” which magnifies your image at the cost of 1 or 2 stops of light.   In post processing I really cropped the images significantly, removing more than 50 per cent of the image so that you could actually see what was going on.

 Created after World War 1, as the United States sold off many of the planes they had built, flying circuses and barnstormers crisscrossed the nation, giving most people their first sight of an airplane and for many, their first ride.  As the competition between shows grew more intense, the length they would go to for stunts also grew. Wing walking, if you haven’t seen it, requires a person to climb out of their cockpit and climb out onto the wing.  Since most of these aircraft were biplanes, they did have plenty of struts and wires to hang on to.

One of my wife’s fellow teacher’s boyfriend happens to be not only one of the pilots, but also is the wing walker. 

Bealeton Flying Circus Pt 2-201.jpg

Joe is a very brave young man. In real life he runs his own cattle ranch.    His first trick, once he is on the lower wing is go hang upside down, from the wing, only holding on with his feet.  

Next he climbs on top of the airplane’s top wing.  This whole process is done without any kind of parachute and often times without any tether.  At least there is a post and some foot straps because, the pilot then starts doing aerobatics.  Here is Joe going all the way around a loop.  At one point is twice as heavy as on the ground, and then he is weightless.

To cap off their show they unfurl a lovely American flag and buzz the crowd at pretty low levels.

A successful landing is one you can walk away from is an old pilot’s adage.  Here they come back to earth.   

.   If you live close to Northern VA, you should definitely make this a weekend destination.   Hours and schedule are posted on their website:    You can also buy flights in their open cockpit aircraft.  It is a lot of fun and the balloon festival is coming up soon.