The secrets behind an air-to-air photo shoot

Dancing with the Stars. Air 2 Air photo Seminar with Moose Peterso

KISSIMMEE, Fla. — For the photographer on an air-to-air photo mission, there is one simple goal: Getting a great shot. For the pilots involved in the formation shoot, the prime directive is safety. To accomplish both, planning is the key.

Moose Peterson’s Air2air Photo seminar at Stallion 51’s base of operation in Kissimmee Gateway Airport (ISM), brought together eight photographers from all over the world who had the chance to photograph Stallion 51’s entire fleet — which includes P-51 Mustangs, T-6 Texans, and the highly modified L-39 for unusual attitude training —  in formation.

DSCN4839The “Moose Shoot” was quite different than most of the hour photo sessions, Stallion 51 officials said. Instead of a couple different poses, owner Lee Lauderback choreographed 15 different formation combinations.

The photographers not only learned how to shoot great photos, but by sitting in on the thorough pre-flight and post flight briefings they learned how to plan a successful and safe photo shoot.

Lauderback was in charge of the pilots and Peterson was in charge of the shooters, who shot from the back of a ““juiced up” Short Sky Van.

“While a very dramatic view, it does limit formations, but that didn’t stop Lee from creating a very dynamic shooting opportunity,” Peterson said. “As the photographer, my job for the most part was the easiest, just point and shoot at all the cool subjects literally feet behind us. It was Lee and his team that were working hard.”

DSCN4819Lauderback and his pilots thoroughly briefed not only the visual aspects of the formation but the safe execution of the flight. Lauderback has 25 years experience not only flying Mustangs but flying in formation with the USAF Heritage flight program, which includes very dissimilar  aircraft such as F-16, F-22, F-15 and A-10.

The go between and a key element that makes the communication between the shooters and the pilots work is the air boss. Scottie Foster was the stage director of the ballet, constantly on the com talking with the flight, calling out which set was next, making sure everyone was on the same page. He also communicated with the flight to make minor adjustments in the formation. The air boss has to have the eye of the photographer and the mind of a pilot, officials note.

“With Lee and his flight doing a great job and with Scottie moving them around, the last great challenge, the challenge that goes with every photograph is the light,” Peterson said. “With each set lasting really only minutes, there were times when I’d have a great formation in not so great light. And with any air-to -air shoot, you might have great light on a great formation with a not so great background. Lee made a marvelous suggestion from the get go on where to fly our orbits, maximizing background opportunities.”

The L-39, Mustangs and T-6 have vastly different performance requirements, adding to the challenge of finding the right light, right background and right set-up. It was made easier by the expertise of the Stallion 51 pilots who were experienced in each of the aircraft.

“We have all flown together a lot over the years,” Lauderback said. “Even though each formation flight is different and briefed thoroughly, we have a respect and confidence in each others abilities that makes flying in close formation an enjoyable challenge.”

“As I watched the sets come and go, the Mustangs, T-6 and L-39, doing their ballet in the sky while trailing us I looked at the clock,” Peterson said. “In amazing military precision, we were getting the photo mission accomplished. Shooting with two rigs, the Nikon D3s and 70-200VR2 and D3x with 24-70AFS, at the end of the hour shoot, we had run through all but one set and I had over 1,800 captures.”

After landing, the photographers gathered their gear while sneaking a peak at the raw images. The Stallion 51 pilots met to debrief.

DPA2AS51S1351“It was an exhilarating flight and we were pleased with the outcome,” Lauderback said. “However, there is joy in learning something new from each formation flight. It keeps the flying fresh and fun.”

“After the traditional congratulatory celebration over beers and dinner, I looked at my images late that night and all I could do was smile,” Peterson said. “The heart of every photo mission is to come back down on the ground safe and when everything works right, have photographs to share from the mission. We did that and a lot more on this photo mission!”

Stallion 51 Corporation offers a range of services in historic aircraft, including orientation flights in the legendary dual cockpit, dual control P-51 Mustang, historic T-6 Texan and L-39 turbojet. Offering check-out, transition and re-currency training, FAA medical certification, aircraft sales and management. For more information:


  1. Chad Bessenger says

    I think that this is very cool and would love to do this some day. I think the pictures that come from aerial photography is something that everyone likes to see.

    • says

      Interesting how my name and involvement as a partner and one of two instructors, which happened to include Moose, has been excised. Moose is no longer involved with

      If you are interested in pursuing an air-to-air workshop, check out the website and contact me to share my 25 years of air-to-air experience. I am continuing to offer a limited number of workshops as time allows, and as can make arrangements with venues providing exciting subjects.

      Richard VanderMeulen

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