NATO Tiger Meet 2012 Spotter`s Day by Mark Munzel
"It’s the first of June, and it’s snowing!"
Looking out the window as my flight approached Trondheim airport, I’d been struck by how green Norway appeared. The grass-covered hillsides spot-lit by evening sunlight fit my mental image of Ireland, only with fjords. It promised to be a great setting for aviation photography, different from the brown Nevada desert, the muggy East Coast, or even many of the locations in mainland Europe where NATO Tiger Meets have been held in recent years.
My destination was Ørland Main Air Station, site of the 2012 Tiger Meet – an annual gathering of flying units from North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries with the common bond of a Tiger or other large cat in their unit markings. While these meets are famous for their Tiger-painted aircraft and other displays of spirit, they have a serious purpose. Because the NATO Tiger Association’s member squadrons fly such a variety of aircraft with a range of roles, Tiger Meets provide realistic training in Combined Air Operations and let aircrews share tactics and knowledge.
Tiger Meets are also noteworthy for accommodating photographers and other aviation enthusiasts. Every recent meet has held "spotters days," including the previous event at Ørland, in 2007. These aren’t exclusive like media days or photo pits in North America; instead, anyone who pays the token admission fee may attend. But Fence Check’s previous reporting on NTM Spottersdays hasn’t led to a stampede of American enthusiasts across the Atlantic, which is a shame. Although Europe is a long way to travel (and it’s not a cheap trip) the photographic access to aircraft, both familiar and exotic, that awaits is tough to match.
Drawn by the spectacular photos that emerged from the previous "Arctic Tiger" meet in Ørland, hundreds of aviation photographers from Europe and Asia – and one from Canada – congregated this year with hopes of similar results. The morning’s weather made me doubt we’d get them. It was grey and wet when I rose at oh-light-thirty (Trondheim being just below the Arctic Circle, sunrise was before 4 AM) to catch a ferry across the Trondheimsfjord to the base. Driving through the coastal mountains on the other side, I concluded that frequent, heavy watering was what made the hills so green. Then the precipitation turned white and began sticking to the ground. Could the conditions get any worse?
But the snow stopped when I reached the air station’s main gate, and blue holes even appeared in the clouds overhead. Over the rest of the day, conditions changed frequently -- being a weather forecaster must be the toughest job in Norway – but there was always light when it was needed.
Once Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) personnel had processed all their visitors, and we’d all waited out a cloudburst, buses took the 400+ spotters to the edge of the ramp. Although Luftwaffe crew chiefs were bringing a dozen Tornados to life in front of us for the morning mission, nothing moved on the airfield except a tractor mowing the infield grass. When it finished, we tramped out en masse to learn the "ground rules," literally, for the morning’s launch: We could go anywhere within the 2000-foot long swath that had just been cut parallel to the main runway.
The number of participating nations was down at this year’s Tiger Meet, and the range of aircraft with it. The meet itself was originally to have been held in Portugal, but that country’s economic problems ruled otherwise. Many of the European nations making headlines for similar reasons, like Italy, Greece, and Spain, couldn’t afford to send aircraft this year, nor could some eastern European NATO partners. Who did show up? The German Tornados, a handful each of French air force Rafales, Swiss F/A-18C Hornets, and Czech JAS-39 Gripens, and F-16s from Belgium, the Netherlands, Turkey, and the host nation. The fast jets were supported by two NATO E-3A AWACS, two Ohio Air National Guard KC-135s, two Royal Air Force Puma helicopters, and a civilian Learjet electronic-warfare (EW) aircraft.
The heavies led the morning’s large-force launch. Then the fighters came out to the runway in sections, flights, and gaggles. It was a test of patience to see them waiting for clearance on the runway, pointed almost directly at me. Photographers to either side nervously checked their camera settings or looked up to confirm that the sun was still out. Then came the distant roar of a full-throttle engine and the first faint twitch of motion. Trailing a rooster-tail of hot exhaust, the lead jet got bigger and closer. Just as it reached us, it pivoted and left the ground, moving so fast that the background in the viewfinder was a blur of green, yellow (dandelions), grey (mountains and clouds), and sometimes blue (sky). Then the aircraft became a circle of orange flame – or two circles if a Rafale or Tornado – with control surfaces sticking out, shrinking quickly as it thundered upward. But I couldn’t watch for long: the lead jet’s wingman was already nearing rotation speed on my left, the element lead was on the roll, and the fourth jet was releasing its brakes.
Most chances in North America to get so close to a runway full of fast jets occur in the desert, not a vivid setting like this. And Ørland’s best-looking jets were as colourful as the backgrounds. Many were painted all over with Tiger stripes while others had tails in a riot of colour, like the two Turkish F-16s with cartoon Tigers on their fins or the Dutch Viper with a Netherlands flag.
Once the rumble of the last departures had faded, the spotters returned to the buses and moved to the taxi-track on the north side of the airfield. (The weather continued to cooperate: there was a quick downpour en route, but the sun reappeared as we disembarked.) Here we would shoot recovering aircraft on the taxiway – literally! With RNoAF handlers watching carefully, photographers went right up to the yellow line at the border of the taxiway, snapping photos as the wings of their subjects passed overhead. But the taxiway was long enough that everyone could spread out and get shots from as close or as far away as they wanted.
In the afternoon, the sun moved around to render these spots backlit, so after profusely thanking anyone nearby in an RNoAF uniform, I and many photographers headed outside the base to find other viewpoints. Dozens of us shot the afternoon launch, which was a formation of Tiger-schemed jets rather than a full mission, from the small civil terminal on the West side of the field. For the landings, a tall mound of dirt against a barn gave an overview of the approach. The shadows of small clouds raced across the green fields, always managing to be out of the way when an aircraft appeared. Each colourful aircraft passed in sunlight, making it pop out from the curtain of wet, black clouds behind. All too soon, the last jet was down and it was time to catch a return ferry.
How could this combination of action, setting, weather, and access be topped? With an airshow! And Ørland held one the next day, to celebrate both the Tiger Meet and the 100th anniversary of military aviation in Norway. Friday’s spotters were joined by 25,000 locals who gawked at the Tiger jets on static, checked out hangar exhibits (especially during the morning’s rain showers), and of course, enjoyed an afternoon flying display. Once again I headed outside the base to watch. The civil terminal was under the display line, so packs of photographers scrambled around the surrounding farm roads, trying to predict the best vantage points for pitch-ups and high-speed passes. The base fence was the only limitation on movements, with the typical Norwegian mindset of "look out for yourself" replacing the traffic cops and road closures found outside airshows at home.
The flying display itself, while less than three hours long, had no civilian participants other than warbirds. There was an excellent Swiss Hornet demo, a canard flypast by the Gripen and Rafale, a four-ship Belgian F-16 display – picture the Thunderbirds diamond mock-bombing the crowd instead of doing aerobatics – an RNoAF set piece with F-16s, a Falcon 20 EW aircraft and a P-3 Orion, and historic flights combining modern Norwegian aircraft with a DeHavilland Vampire and a PBY Catalina.
The closing act was an RNoAF F-16 demo, featuring an aircraft painted for the centennial to resemble the air force’s roundel. It did a remarkable job of keeping its display in front of the crowd, and photographers who’d stayed at the civil terminal got some spectacular images from the center of its 360° turn. Those of us near the threshold had to settle for landing shots. But this was my biggest disappointment in two days of Tiger-filled flying, which says a lot about the rest of the experience.
With economic troubles continuing in Europe, Norway will again host the Tiger Meet in Ørland next June. Hopefully more Fence Checkers will be there!