A Love Affair with Aviation
on the 500C
Unable to become a pilot due to his eyesight, the young Swiss photographer and later professor of technical thermodynamics Walter Janach channeled his passion for aviation into capturing these majestic flying machines on his 500C. First inspired by images from airshows, Walter began working with airplane photography in 1956, spanning over a decade. This love affair and strong technical interest took him to multiple airshows around Europe, documenting the most historical and exciting transition in aviation – the shift from propeller to jet engines.
Because my eyes did not allow me to become a pilot, my keen interest for aviation was diverted to shooting photos of airplanes, ideally in action. I had just learned to develop black and white film rolls and enlarge the negatives from a friend in the cellar photo shop of the boarding school I attended. Taking photos of the school’s theater group with my father’s middle format Zeiss Ikonta, I earned the money to buy the new 500C in 1959, at the age of 19.
A few months later, the British Comet – the first jet airliner – landed in Zürich. It was nighttime and it had rained. I was ready on the public platform of the airport building with my 500C. While the plane was slowly advancing to its parking position, I displaced the tripod so that the plane appeared exactly from the front. When it stopped, I pressed the cable release for about 20 seconds. The man waving with his arms to order the pilots to stop continued for a few seconds. This added a unique surprise to a planned photo.
20-year-old student and freelancer on first assignment
One year later, Swissair had just introduced its first two jet planes. So I contacted the Swiss magazine Aviatik which provided me with a recommendation letter for Zürich airport, asking for assistance to shoot airplanes in action. I was told to report to the airport police, which turned out to be in a small room with two officers. After reading my letter, one of them asked me where I planned to take photos and then took me out to a yellow Volkswagen “Beetle”. We drove to different positions along the runways where the planes were expected to lift off the ground. The officer asked for clearance every time we needed to cross a runway. We repeated this excursion several times during the day. In between I was allowed to stay unaccompanied in front of the airport building around the parked planes. When I walked towards the stairs of a plane and asked for permission to go on board, I was welcomed to do so, mostly alone. Most professional photographers had a Leica, so the people I encountered were impressed by my Hasselblad. This enhanced my self confidence and helped to open doors. For the short flight home to Basel in the evening, I was surprised that my flight had been merged with the jet flight to London, which made an intermediate stop. This was the final event of the most interesting day in my youth.
The yellow “Beetle”, marked with “FOLLOW ME”, had to guide this Ilyushin 18 arriving from Czechoslovakia to the parking position because the pilots were not fluent in English.
A few minutes earlier I had tried to capture the Douglas DC-8 jet taking off, but its high speed caused motion blur. We stayed there for the following propeller planes and I was rewarded with this beautiful photo of a DC-6 captured in a perfect scenery. The 80mm Planar lens, combined with the square format, created an impressive perspective.
This was the last version of the legendary Lockheed Constellation rolling to take off. The two men had just removed the wheel chocks needed during run-up of the engines.
Meeting a giant
On a Sunday at the Paris airshow in 1961, the public surrounded a Tupolev 114, the largest passenger plane at that time, which the Soviet Union tried to export. Zooming in on the different groups of people in the image is an excursion to the France of 60 years ago.
The TU-114 is the civil version of a strategic bomber, with 4-bladed counter-rotating propellers. Each pair of propellers is driven by two gas turbines. The wings are swept back for high speed, as on jet planes. This however made the tips of the propeller blades attain supersonic velocity, causing strong noise. The concept was not adopted in the west.
Military maneuver, Farnborough airshow 1964
There was a surprise landing of 6 Argosy transport planes in close formation to unload military vehicles directly on the runway without stopping their engines, with infantry deployed between the planes and the spectators. This photo was captured from the press photographer tower with the 250mm Sonnar lens.
Avoiding motion blur when shooting airplanes in flight
How did I avoid motion blur when shooting airplanes in flight, from the ground? The between-the-lens shutter of the 500C with a minimum aperture time of 1/500 second caused motion blur when holding the camera by hand, requiring a stable tripod. For shooting airplanes in the air, I pivoted two of the three legs outwards so that I could hold them in my hands, with the third leg on the ground. My right hand also held a long cable release. The inertia of the two legs plus my arms dampened the fast vibrations and eliminated motion blur in most cases. After some practicing, this also worked when following high-flying planes with the third leg off the ground. The three-point stability was now obtained by pushing the 500C firmly against my head.
This image features the spectacular curve by a Vickers prototype at the 1963 Paris airshow: three slightly extended braking flaps are visible on the right wing and some compression wrinkles on the skin of the outer left wing.
History captured with the 500C
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