The Current Issue
Nikon Owner Issue 13
GHOSTS OF THE SKIES – The Philip Makanna Interview
The world-famous aviation photographer Philip Makanna talks to Simon Stafford about his extraordinary career.
I have many fond memories of being taken to air shows, as a young boy, by my father during the late sixties to watch Spitfires, Hurricanes, and a host of other vintage aircraft from the World War Two era roll and loop through the skies above the airfield at Biggin Hill, the famous RAF fighter station, in Kent, England. It was around the same time that Phil Makanna embarked on a career that has led to him being regarded as one of the foremost aviation photographers working today. Based in San Francisco he travels the world photographing rare, flying examples of vintage military aircraft for his company, GHOSTS. Recently I had the pleasure of chatting to the unassuming and modest American about his aerial exploits, which combine two of his great passions, aircraft and photography.
SIMON STAFFORD It is abundantly clear from your photographs that you are passionate about aircraft and photography; which subject caught your imagination first?
PHIL MAKANNA I have been fascinated by aircraft and flying since I was a boy. The photography came later but only by default. I trained as a painter originally, and gained a Masters degree in Fine Art from the University of California, Berkeley. For a while I worked as a painter but developed an interest in sculpture before turning the tables to become a teacher in both disciplines. About this time, during the late nineteen-sixties, an amount of video equipment was delivered to my college under an education initiative sponsored by the U.S. Government. However, no one knew how to work it let alone what to do with it! After a while, along with a couple of students, I started to play with the gear and around 1968/69 we produced our first fine arts video.
By 1974 I had left painting behind to concentrate on further film projects but as the complexity of the productions increased so did the budgets. Eventually it just became too difficult to find funding for the avant-garde film work I wanted to do, so I turned my attention to stills photography, and began shooting with a Nikkormat camera. Not long after that I began to get commissions from a sports magazine to work on a freelance basis.
SIMON STAFFORD Do you have any formal training as a photographer?
PHIL MAKANNA None whatsoever! I am completely self-taught – everything I know about photography I have learned from Nikon’s instruction manuals, which I generally end up reading during commercial flights to and from shoots.
SIMON STAFFORD How did you come to mix photography with aircraft?
PHIL MAKANNA The sports magazine I was working for sent me to cover the air races at Reno, and during the event there were some flying displays by vintage aircraft from World War II. That was thirty years ago. A while later some of the pictures I took during that meet caught the attention of a publisher and formed the basis of my first book – GHOSTS, A Time Remembered. The calendars followed later; my wife and I did the first one in 1980 and managed to sell enough to cover our costs and earn enough money to publish one the following year. The business has continued to grow.
SIMON STAFFORD Have you ever trained to be a pilot?
PHIL MAKANNA Never. I have always believed that you need to focus entirely on whatever you do. To be a good pilot I would have had to devote my life to flying – I have simply not had the time to do that.
SIMON STAFFORD Your reputation is built on pictures of vintage warplanes. What draws you to these particular aircraft?
PHIL MAKANNA Like so many young boys, planes and the ability of man to fly has fascinated me and stayed with me over the years. Aviation photography unites two of my great passions in life and inspires me to keep working. The particular interest in vintage warplanes comes from the history associated with these aircraft. Not just the history of the momentous world events in which they were involved but the very personal history of the men who flew them. I guess it’s a mixture of respect and admiration. I have the same feelings toward all the people involved in restoring and flying these wonderful machines – the owners, the engineers, the mechanics, and the pilots. It takes a huge amount of money, time and effort to get them back in the air, and there are tremendous risks involved in flying them.
SIMON STAFFORD How and when did the opportunity to photograph air-to-air first occur?
PHIL MAKANNA It was a couple of years after my visit to the air show in Reno. I was working on my first book project, and had collected a few pictures but they were all ground-to-air shots. I knew I had to get airborne to shoot air-to-air pictures to add dimension to my work. In 1976 I went to south Texas to investigate the Confederate Air Force and came upon Colonel Lloyd P. Nolen, the leader. Colonel Nolen was not too sure about me, but he sure liked my dog … at one point he said, “Anybody with a dog like that couldn’t be all bad.” He invited me to take a ride in one of the CAF planes and the rest is history. The CAF is the oldest and largest collection of World War Two airplanes in the world. It was started in 1957 by a few Texas crop dusters and has grown to be an international organization. It is based at their headquarters in Midland, Texas, from which they maintain around 150 historic WWII combat aircraft, where the pilots and aircrew have flown all over the United States.
SIMON STAFFORD Your latest calendar, GHOSTS-2005, is a special 25th anniversary edition. How long did it take you to produce the images contained in it?
PHIL MAKANNA Each of the calendars I have produced represents my work from the previous twelve months. Nowadays, I plan about ten sessions a year, and on average fly four or five times per session. So I make about forty to fifty flights a year, and from these I produce a final set of twelve to fourteen images.
SIMON STAFFORD How do you go about finding new aircraft to photograph?
PHIL MAKANNA Generally, these days, they find me. Vintage aircraft restoration is a small world, and over the years I have built up many good contacts within the circles of professionals and dedicated enthusiasts involved in this work. The restoration of an aircraft can take ten to twelve years to complete, so I get plenty of time to hear about a project. A good example is the Seafire featured on the cover of the current issue of Aeroplane Monthly (August 2004). It took over ten years to make that plane airworthy but as soon as it was ready I received a call from the owner inviting me to take some photographs. I would estimate that there are between 400 and 500 airworthy World War II aircraft flying around the world at present, far more than when I started out, so there is plenty of material up in the skies!
SIMON STAFFORD The pictures you take are clearly the product of close teamwork. How do you go about preparing for a shoot?
PHIL MAKANNA Most of my time is spent waiting and preparing for an opportunity to shoot. I try to pre-plan, but most of what happens comes down to the situation on the day of the shoot. Obviously the weather and the wind are important factors. Before each flight there is a face-to-face briefing on the ground between the two pilots, the owner of the aircraft being photographed, and me. It’s at this point that we decide on a flight plan, generally a simple orbit, taking into consideration the quality of the light and nature of suitable backgrounds. If the subject plane flies an orbit outside the camera plane the backdrop will be sky. I prefer to work with the subject flying inside the camera aircraft, so the backdrop will be the ground. Until we get up in the air we can never really know how things will turn out. I spend very little time in the air and when the planes come together the actual photography is fast and furious and finished in a very short time. Typically we’ll do four or five orbits to photograph one airplane, which takes no more than about eight to ten minutes. I just shoot as fast as I can!
SIMON STAFFORD What sort of aircraft do you use as a camera platform?
PHIL MAKANNA My favourite, and the plane I work from most often, is a training aircraft, the North American AT-6 “Harvard”. It has a top speed of about 170mph, which is slow compared with many of the subject aircraft I photograph, but generally a good pilot can slow down to the speed of the AT-6. I do about 95% of my shooting from AT-6’s. They are relatively common and they are not too expensive to rent. Occasionally I’ll shoot from the tail of a B-25. Sometimes its possible to take the tail-gunner’s bubble-turret off, and in these situations I strap myself in with belts and ropes, and stick my feet out of the back of the airplane. That’s a great ride – going two hundred miles an hour, with the ground five thousand feet below you and my feet dangling in mid air! The subject airplane can fly right up to my feet. A P-38 “Lightning” seen from the tail of a B-25 can be pretty wild. Because its engines and props are outboard of the centreline, the pilot can come in very close. I have almost touched the nose of a flying P-38 with my toe.
SIMON STAFFORD What are the practical considerations when working from an open aircraft cockpit?
PHIL MAKANNA Vibration is, without a doubt, the biggest problem because these planes shake like old coffee grinders. The rear cockpit of the AT-6 is small, cramped, and has sharp metal edges everywhere; outside, in the slipstream, the wind is going past at anything between 150 to 200mph … it’s a very nasty, noisy place to work. When I shoot I have to hide down inside the cockpit canopy otherwise the slipstream would rip the camera from my hand in an instant. Apart from trying to keep the camera steady, the big problem is reloading film. I usually carry three loaded cameras but if I need to change films I huddle down in a “sort-of-quiet” corner and try to do my best … sometimes there’s just too much turbulence and it’s impossible. It’s a very unfriendly environment for photography.
SIMON STAFFORD Do you ever get air sick whilst working?
PHIL MAKANNA I have suffered from motion sickness all of my life. You have to remember that when I am working I face backwards; therefore I cannot see where I am going, and often cannot hold a reference point such as the horizon. As I look through the viewfinder, while being hammered around, sometimes quite violently, my disorientation increases even more. Over the years I have tried every type of medication but nothing works. These days my standard pre-flight motion sickness cocktail consists of five tablets of organic ginger chased by two indigestion tablets. Not too tasty but not much fun either!
SIMON STAFFORD What are the vital skills for photographing aircraft in flight?
PHIL MAKANNA Finding a good plane to work from and a great pilot to do the driving! Beyond that it comes down to understanding what makes a good picture – an appreciation of art I suppose – because, when it comes to the technical side of the picture, my Nikons are so much smarter than I will ever be, so I leave them to do all the work. You have to remember that I have virtually no control over the shooting situation and things can happen very quickly. As we fly in a circle, the direction of the light, the cloud cover and backdrop are all changing, constantly. So I must be prepared for that perfect moment when all the various factors come together and every element is in the right place. There is no way I can make adjustments to focusing and metering in time – my job is simply to compose the picture so that it has artistic value.
SIMON STAFFORD The skill of the pilots working with you is obviously a key element to the success of each picture. Who flies these aircraft for you?
PHIL MAKANNA There is a small circle of pilots around the world that I know well and I always try to work with one of them wherever possible. For example, when I go down to Texas I fly with Charles Hutchins – a legendary pilot. When I go to Duxford in England I fly with Clive Denny, another great flier, but sometimes I go to shoots and do not know the aircraft or the pilot, so I just have to swallow hard and make the most of the situation.