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From Jet to Jet: Being the Photographer for the United Air Force Thunderbirds

It's over 100 degrees fahrenheit in the shade on a blistering spring day in Phoenix, Arizona. At Luke Air Force base, you would be wise to find cover under an awning or the rare palm tree as the sun baked the flat landscape. Strangely I'm not as affected by the heat today as I am on other days. There is simply too much on my mind. I've been spending the past two days reassuring one of my best friends that he's going to do great, that he will indeed withstand 9 G's and maintain consciousness. 

His name is Blair Bunting, and his video you've probably already seen.

But this story isn't about Blair, the heat or even me. This story is about the man I met on the tarmac of Luke Air Force Base by chance as he held a Nikon D610 to his eye, stopping history one frame at a time in photojournalistic fashion. 

This is the story of Sergeant Larry Reid Jr., United States Air Force Photojournalist, and how his job is one of the most incredible stories I have ever had the pleasure of telling. 

Sergeant Reid is one of a very small group of people who not only gets to call himself a Thunderbird, but also whose job it is to go up in that F16 fighter jet and is tasked with capturing images of the planes in flight, whether he be in formation or in chase (behind the formation). 

"My favorite part about my job is capturing moments. Capturing moments that not a lot of people get to see," he told me. Reid is an Air Force pilot through and through, but he is also a photojournalist. He is a creative, and is given creative freedom to produce the greatest images possible. 

"I believe that in order to be good, and to better yourself and push yourself, you have to have that creative control. On this team, I have that." Reid's top cover, his leadership, trusts him to make the right calls when it comes to producing images, and Reid takes that responsibility incredibly seriously. 

In order to produce amazing images in a tiny bubble flying at an excess of 500 miles per hour, Reid has some very specific methods that he has developed. For one, he wears black flight gloves and a grey helmet, breaking in tradition with the rest of the Thunderbirds who wear the American red, white and blue whenever possible. "The red white and blue helmet will reflect in that canopy," he told me. "So I opt to wear a grey one." The grey helmet also carries a matte finish, significantly reducing the amount of reflection and glare it would knock into the canopy. He also has two specially designed black cloths that he drapes over the control panel and his personal buckles over his chest to further block reflections. 

Sergeant Reid has the art of taking photos from an F16 down to a beautiful science, and it shows in his absolutely incredible images.  

Reid isn't just the Air Force's air-to-air photographer, he is also tasked with documenting every important situation where he is present. He has to be ready at the drop of a hat to get those images. In order to shoot this feature, we needed to steal Sergeant Reid for a short time (30-45 minutes), but even in that small window things can come up. During our first attempt at the interview, Reid was suddenly called away to photograph the Undersecretary of the Air Force and he could not say no.

Despite the hustle it takes to do his job well, I don't think Sergeant Reid would want to be doing anything else. He truly loves his job and it shows on his face and in his imagery. 

I would like to thank Sergeant Larry Reid Jr. for his time, the United States Air Force and the USAF Thunderbirds for allowing me to make this video and for letting me use one of their hangers, and to Blair Bunting for introducing me to all these great people. 

For more, head over to Fstoppers, SLR Lounge and Photofocus. Different parts of the story are relayed in each place, so they are all worth checking out.