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In my career as a wildlife photographer I have always preferred to photograph animals that I actually know. Notch the Lion, Olive the Leopard, Kwitonda the Gorilla, all of these wonderful animals have given me so much pleasure over the years and I really step up my photography when I'm working with them.
For me the world of aviation is no different. There are aircraft that I love to photograph and aircraft that I have little or no interest in. I love them all as aircraft and stare in wonder at them flying, but photographically some just do not float my boat. As a photographer it's important to be really inspired by your work and I think if you are really passionate about your subject the results show for themselves. So my aviation career to date, which is still only a couple of years old, has really concentrated on taking the aircraft that inspire me in conditions that inspire me (i.e. not blue skies as they can look like Airfix models!). I set myself goals and challenges too, and one of these has been to photograph the beautifully painted "Pinkie".....
"Pinkie" is the adopted name of a specially painted RAF Tornado GR4. To commemorate 25 years since the Royal Air Force helped liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s forces, an RAF Tornado GR4 was been painted in the iconic Gulf War ‘desert pink’ paint scheme to honour the aircraft type’s almost continuous operational service since then. The ‘desert pink’ Tornado, number ZG750, was first based at RAF Lossiemouth with XV(R) Squadron, which saw active service during Operation Granby, the UK’s codename for the Gulf War. The aircraft carries 11 ‘battle honours’ on its tail, recalling the Tornado’s almost continuous service on operations worldwide since 1991. To complete her service "Pinkie" was relocated to RAF Marham, where she completed her final flight to RAF Leeming on the 28th July 2017 where she would be "retired".
For me, as a photographer, "Pinkie" was something quite special and very different from greys and silvers that we usually see. To be honest I have been a dismal failure in photographing her. I'm not a fence sitter so the only chance I really had to get her was on her occasional low level sorties in Wales. These visits of course were never announced and not once on any of my visits did I see her, not once. A couple of times I heard she was coming, then she went tech. It was always the next day when she put on a spectacular show, or a day when I had just decided not to go. It became a standing joke with my aviation friends, who knew that if I wasn't standing on a hill there was a good chance she would come through. To be honest I'd all but given up and as her final flights approached I knew that perhaps my only chance of seeing her was on the ground at RIAT 2017. For me thought this is not the same, an aircraft has to fly to excite me, it has to be alive.
Then, my luck changed. I was fortunate to be on an air to air shoot before RIAT with many arriving aircraft, and there on the list I spied an entry for a lone RAF Tornado. On the way to RIAT. It had to be. And sure enough, at just after 4pm, "Pinkie" gave us two passes I will never forget.....
She was amazing, and I think that the head on just above here is my favourite as it shows her looking mean as she was intended to be. I wanted to shoot some 4K video as well but unfortunately the person in front of me didn't stick to their position, jumped everywhere and kept knocking me so any thoughts of movies were impossible. But that would have been the icing on the cake anyway, I was happy that I'd got such a nice head on and a different shot than most people had got of her. I chatted to the pilot at RIAT, a very nice chap, if you are reading this then please get in touch as that print still has your name on it! A big shout out to Eric and the Aviation PhotoCrew plus the great Rich Cooper for making this happen.
But that's not quite the end of the story. A very good friend of mine (name withheld but you know who you are) rang to tell me that her final flight was going to be on July 29th. There was a small chance she would pass one last time low level in Wales, so I dropped everything and at 7am the next morning I was alone on my favourite spot. The weather wasn't great but it as forecast to clear, so I had some hopes. Unfortunately, as seems usual, the weather forecast got it totally wrong and it got worse. I heard some Hawks overhead, if they didn't come through then nor would "Pinkie". Sure enough I saw her take off on the radar, with help from friends monitoring at home, and she headed north. After 20 minutes or so she descended and landed into RAF Leeming, the weather had won. I was soaked to the skin and cold, it had been worth the gamble even though I knew there was little chance. And that was that. It was the proverbial end of an era, another one of our Tornado fleet "retired" and now I believe only 16 or so left in total. They have served us so well and I do feel a little sad that I never saw "Pinkie" in her full glory low level but c'est la vie, you can't have everything. I will just remember those few amazing minutes with her air to air and will try to enjoy every single moment I get with a Tornado until they finally disappear off into the sunset. Here's a few images that I have taken of this amazing aircraft in the past year.....