As was the warning that crackled over the military scanner for one of the most exhilarating moments of the trip, this story is a short one.
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As you may recall, we'd camped as close as we could to a random point in the middle of nowhere Nevada that an internet stranger had shared with me as one that had nearly uncountable - there were so many - low level military flyovers.
And again, as you may recall, we were only "as close as we could be" due to the fact that we'd run into the boundary of Area 51, our progress to the actual waypoint, halted by signs threatening death. Or worse.
Hoping for the best - but knowing from experience that the first flights don't start until 8:00am - I was up before sunrise in hopes of catching the first plane just off the desert floor.
Thirty minutes before sunrise, a few clouds caught the long rays of the sun.
Fifteen minutes before sunrise, the bright green spikes of the Joshua Trees contrasted splendidly with the changing sky.
Two minutes before sunrise, I was back at the Tacoma - with it's dusty desert shoes - contemplating a return to the warm comforters from which I'd ventured.
It was more than an hour later - perhaps even two - when we climbed out of the tent to greet the day. Naturally, we'd expected to have the tent ripped away by a low-flying bomber, but that pilot must have been out sick for the day. Instead, we heard jets high above - way above commercial traffic - their afterburners kicking in as they played in the sky.
"What should we do?" asked @mrs.turbodb.
The obvious answer was obvious. We'd gotten bum info and it was time to cut our losses. But as with most humans, the sunk cost fallacy runs strong through my veins, and I suggested that we hang out in camp until 11:00am, at which point - if we hadn't found the need for earplugs - we should just continue on our way towards Las Vegas.
It was 8:52am when I said that, and by 9:01am we were headed out - but not towards Vegas.
Listening to a few more jets, the roar seemed to be emanating from the adjacent valley, so after a bit of hemming and hawing, we decided to go park ourselves on the pass - the idea being that we'd double our chances of seeing something, and hopefully drop into the appropriate valley for even more excitement.
Sitting on the pass, we did - technically - see more, but only just barely.
And - though it may seem that the day was turning into a bust - this is where things got interesting. As we'd driven to the pass, we'd spotted three vehicles parked just off the road.
"I wonder if those guys are looking for planes too?" said the lady in the passenger seat.
"Nah, they're probably just out for a hike," I replied.
"On a Wednesday, in the middle of nowhere?" she asked.
It was a question that hung in the air, unanswered. Unanswered until I happened to glance up a nearby rise and - for the second time this trip - said "Give me the binoculars, I think there are people up there with cameras."
In fact, there were people up there with cameras, and the cameras had long lenses.
Holy smokes, they *weren't* out for a hike!
After a bit more back-and-forth, @mrs.turbodb convinced me - despite my embarrassment at the length of my longest lens - that we should at least head up to the top to introduce ourselves and see what was going on. So that's what we did.
Where you guys going?
Apparently, the wrong question to ask a bunch of guys when you find them in their secret photo spot is, "You guys do this often?" so naturally, that was the first thing out of my mouth. I followed that quickly with the only more inappropriate question in my arsenal, "Where else do you guys go?"
Awkward silence and non-subtle attempts to brush off the suggestion that they ever went plane spotting with their 600mm, $10,000 lenses were the only response, so @mrs.turbodb tried a different tact, asking more normal questions, like, "Where you guys from?"
Turns out we'd caught up with Jamie (and another British photographer), Chris (who owned a Tacoma), Derek (a Canadian nurse), and the reasonably local leader (from Vancouver, BC, Canada) of the group whose name we never caught. All of them - to a tee - quite welcoming once it was clear that we weren't there to out their special spot.
Just before 11:00am when we reached the summit, these "guys in the know" confirmed for us that there'd been no low-level activity so far, and that the morning wave of planes were largely on their way back to base. Bummer.
As they did, their scanners would pick up radio traffic - completely gibberish to us but meaningful to them - and from time to time they'd get excited to hear that a certain plane or another were flying in the sky above.
And then, Jamie got a text. Apparently - as is probably common in circles such as these - the guys were friends with some of the pilots, and had alerted them to the exact location they'd be sitting - for three days - hoping to snap some photos. Not only that, but - apparently - when the pilots know the photographers location, they often go out of their way to oblige the long lenses!
In that moment I learned two very important lessons: One, I've been doing it wrong in Death Valley all these years and (B), I need to make some new friends. But for now, that was neither here nor there.
And so, the wait began. There were nine planes that knew our location - two F-15Es and an F-15EX, and six F-35s, four of them Australian. With just under two hours on the practice range, there were two windows when they might drop in on us: either within the next hour as they arrived at the range, or in a little under three hours when they were on their way back to base.
Or maybe, not at all.
An hour passed, then two. We monitored the "squad" (sorry, I have no idea what to call this conglomeration of America's greatest) on the scanner. They were still in the air. The guys ate lunch. We stood there like the noobs we were.
And then, "SIXTY SECONDS OUT FROM THE PHOTO POINT," the scanner squawked.
All hell broke loose. Men turned into boys. Cameras - that cost more than many small cars - were pointed to the horizon.
"THIRTY SECONDS OUT"
"There it is, over the dry lakebed," yelled Chris, as shutters began to click, and everything became a blur.
Buzzed by an F-15EX (with OT tail). So badass.
Adrenaline was high for many minutes after that first plane went by. Apparently, there are only two F-15EXs in existence, so capturing one out here in the middle of nowhere was quite the win.
But soon we started asking, would there be more? We still had an hour until fuel reserves would be running low, but a quick glance between me and the huge grin on @mrs.turbodb's face all the confirmation I needed to know that we should hang out a little longer.
And the next two passes went similarly to the first. A call over the scanner with less than a minute to prepare; semi-organized chaos as shutters chattered away like machine guns; and then furious flipping through camera rolls, hoping that the perfect shot had been captured in the process.
Except for @mrs.turbodb - she was having a great time taking pictures of the picture takers.
Boys and their toys.
The second plane to come through was an F-15E with and ET tail and not-totally-gray paint scheme.
And the third flew below our position - less than 400 feet up - twice, one of the times no more than 200 feet off ground. Damn, that was rad.
I'd snapped more than a hundred photos in just seconds. The guys who knew what they were doing had an order of magnitude more. Plus, theirs were all in focus. But the winner in all of this craziness - at least as far as I was concerned - was @mrs.turbodb, who happened to catch one of the passes on video, the roar of the engines and snapping of shutters enough to take us back to those moments every time we watch.
The highlight reel.
So yeah, that was about the most awesome way to end a trip ever.