From puppy poses to high speed aircraft – an Air Force photographer’s journey

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Cameron Schultz
  • 71st Flying Training Wing Public Affairs

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- As a kid, I would run barefoot around the house with my digital camera shooting photos of my three dogs -- the best models in the family.

While holding the shutter, I’d wait for the dogs to look at the camera and jam my memory card full of their happy faces. I would spend hours with my eyes glued to the screen on the back of the camera scrolling through the art I had created.

Years later, when I walked into the Air Force recruiting office in Gilbert, Arizona, I never imagined that my childhood fascination with photography was something I could do for my country.

Three years later, I’m a photojournalist flying high in the Oklahoma skies, and telling the story of Air Force pilots in training.

In October 2018, I arrived for technical school at Fort George G. Meade, Maryland. For the first time, I wrapped my hands around a professional camera. It was a Nikon with interchangeable lenses. It felt durable, intricate and expensive.

I went through five months of schooling surrounded by future Department of Defense storytellers. We learned how to write, take pictures, produce digital graphics and communicate with strategic intent using social media and websites.

About halfway through training, I received orders to the 71st Flying Training Wing, Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma. My new supervisor told me that I would be taking photos and videos from the back seat of aircraft used to train the world’s best pilots.

The first time I crawled into the backseat of a T-6A Texan II; it hit me -- I was going to fly. I began to shake as the adrenaline kicked in and the tires left the ground. 

We were airborne. Looking to the left, I watched Vance AFB fade into the distance, until I could no longer make out the control tower.

My gaze inevitably wandered to the ground where I scanned the farm fields of the Oklahoma panhandle. The scene reminded me of a video game where the pixels haven’t fully rendered. They were just squares in different shades of green.

Known as the daredevil of the family, I naïvely thought that I could handle the twist, turns, loops and rolls of a T-6A training sortie. I was wrong.

I began photographing the other aircraft we were trailing. Already disorientated from the aerobatics in the small aircraft, looking through the viewfinder made me even more nauseous.

We pulled tight turns where the centrifugal force felt like two or three times the pull of gravity on my body. Sometimes it felt like five times. I eventually lost my lunch into an airsickness bag.

Although I didn’t get many photos, I realized at that moment what I needed to prepare for. Being a flying photographer means eating healthy foods, working out consistently, and routinely going on flights to stay acclimated to the rigors of the cockpit.

I have now flown in all three aircraft used at Vance AFB. The T-6A Texan II, which is the first aircraft every Vance student pilot flies. The T-38C Talon, which prepares pilots to fly fighter or bomber aircraft, and the T-1A Jayhawk, used by students preparing for airlift or tanker aircraft.

I never imagined that my childhood hobby of trying to capture the personalities of my puppies would lead me to the back seat of an aircraft telling the Air Force story. And the chapter of that story I’m telling right now is how Team Vance delivers the world’s greatest aviators – more than 35,000 since 1941.