Tailspin Tommy

Short version

I’ve combined 60 years of award-winning photography, 50 years of flying, and 40 years of technical experience with computers and flight simulators to create digital images that, I hope, evoke the beauty and excitement of flight. As a visual artist, working with fully licensed digital terrain, light, weather, and aircraft produced by other artists, I hope my passion for flying shows through and helps celebrate the science, engineering, business, knowledge, skill, and legacy of aviation.

Far-more-than-you-want-to-know version

I started taking pictures before I was 10 years old, learned to fly while in college, and bought one of the first commercially available personal computers mainly because it offered a crude flight simulator. In fact, photography, flying, and personal computer flight simulators are threads that are woven deep into the fabric of my life.

Photography

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In the early ’50s, when I was about eight, I started lugging around an F Deckel München leaf-shutter viewfinder camera that had been my grandfather’s. Then, on the ultimate road trip, driving in 1956 from Harrisburg PA to Guatemala City in a 1953 Ford, I started shooting with my Dad’s fancy twin-lens Rolleiflex with a flip-up viewfinder enlarger that I loved (microscopes and telescopes still intrigue me). Surprisingly, film developing was easy to find and cheap in Mexico and Guatemala, and I still have boxes of prints made from the 2 ¼ by 2 ¼ film I used in CIA-era Latin America.

My interest in photography took a leap forward when I joined the Navy 12 years later. Assigned to a staff job in the Philippines, I was able to buy a leading-edge single-lens reflex (SLR) Asahi Pentax Spotmatic II and a bag full of lenses and accessories through the Navy Exchange. Then, after going to Navy flight school in Pensacola, I deployed to Vietnam with VAQ-134 where a large number of my aircraft photos ended up in the aircraft-carrier USS Constellation’s cruise book (similar to a school year book). I even had some fun with the Spooks in the ship’s Intelligence Center developing and printing aerial shots of a Russian spy ship that I took.

CatShotA few years later, on assignment in Washington DC, I began developing and printing film in a bathroom at home. Using the toilet seat cover as an enlarger stand, I super-enlarge some covert pictures a friend had taken during a trip to Russia. Using blow-ups of an off-limits wall map, he discovered and located an unknown Russian space launch facility. About the same time, I became interested in astrophotography, and managed to collect a few photons using a homemade 10″ telescope with a prime-focus adapter for my Pentax. But film was a pain…and then digital photography finally reached the consumer market.

My first digital camera was the innovative Nikon 990, a two-piece camera with a twist LCD viewfinder, a feature I’ve missed in every camera since. Today I shoot with a Fujifilm X100T (my favorite camera ever), a Nikon D50 with a 10.5 mm fisheye, a D90 with an 18-200 zoom, and an iPhone, believe it or not. I used Aperture for image management (over 96,000 originals), but just recently moved to Lightroom for post-processing with the help of Nik/Google plugins. With those tools, I’ve created images that have been used by Web sites, newspapers, and magazines including several cover shots. An image of my North American SNJ-4 won Grand Prize in the San Diego Air & Space Museum annual photography contest.

Flying

DadBorn to a WW2 pilot who flew A-20s, B-25s, and A-26s I grew up listening to tales of glory (and shenanigans) in the skies of the Pacific. Like a duckling, I imprinted on airplanes, and they became perhaps the strongest theme in my life. It didn’t hurt that my Dad continued to fly, so as a kid my earliest recollection is sitting on my very pregnant Mom’s lap in the back of a Piper PA-14 Family Cruiser. My brother, who is two years younger than I am, almost arrived much sooner when, invited to fly, I grabbed the stick and yanked.

Later, I remember my nervous grandmother carefully reading an upside-down Readers Digest in a Cessna Bobcat, aka AT-17 Bamboo Bomber, enroute to Teterboro. And I remember radio personality Aurthur Godfrey waving from the pilot’s window of a DC-3, which I always associate with his funny song, ‘Teterboro Tower’. I think my Dad and I both thought of him as a hero because at one time during the 1950s, he’d flown every aircraft in the military inventory, despite a crippling car accident while he was learning to fly.

Over the years Dad showed me how to land a nose-wheel Cessna 172 shorter than a Cessna 170 taildragger (touchdown with the brakes locked). He flew us from Mexico City to Harrisburg PA with only one stop, in Miami, in a 1952 C-model Bonanza with ‘Dolly Parton’ tip tanks (before we owned it, it had been the first single engine aircraft to fly across the Amazon jungle). I learned how to do a timed low-level ‘tactical approach’ with him, from break to touchdown in less than a minute, flying a Cessna 337 (the first multi-engine aircraft I ever soled, without benefit of a multi-engine rating I will now admit). Together, Dad and I owned a wonderfully fast S-model Bonanza, too. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

I learned to fly while I was in college—a diversion I sought because I was frustrated with near flunking grades despite long hours studying. It worked. My grades and attitude improved even though I was going to school and holding down three jobs to pay for it all. Eventually I made the Dean’s List, if only for one semester in my Junior-year—overall my GPA sucked. But the die was cast, and flying became the main theme in my life.J143x227-647

North American RA-5C VigilanteWith almost 500 hours in my logbook I showed up at Pensacola after a short tour of duty in the Philippines. With eyes that didn’t meet military pilot training standards, I went to VT-10, Naval Flight Officer (NFO) school instead of pilot training, although I was already a licensed pilot. Tantalized by the stiletto-sexy RA-5C and encouraged by my first supersonic flight in the back of that bird, I nevertheless asked for and got Bombardier/Navigator training so I could ride shotgun in the low-level attack Grumman A-6 Intruder. But fate and Navy detailers intervened, and I ended up among the first to train and fly in the Grumman EA-6B Prowler radar jammer.

While flying for the Navy, I learned that there are three ways to fly: “your way, the FAA’s way, and the Navy way.” And the Navy way was by far the best. My Dad started me off with the admonition to “always give yourself an out.” The Navy add emphasis on procedures, and I learned a lot during 1123 hours in jets and 112 carrier landings.

After I left the Navy,  my Dad and I found a Tri-Pacer, recently restored by a local trade school, for $8000. No radios, so we added a used NAVCOM and transponder and flew the wings off the thing. I have a clear memory looking straight down on the spire of the Empire State Building inbound to Flushing Airport next to busy La Guardia. And I remember when ice broke off the aircraft’s radio antenna on the way home at night, and the no radio landing at Pittsburgh International Airport. I slept on the couch at the FBO before sneaking out the next morning, still without a radio, before the tower opened.

Then came a sweet little Mooney M20C, and the relatively brawny S-35 Bonanza, followed by a cream-puff little sweetheart, a G-35 Bonanza that carried me from coast-to-coast several times and help me establish a world speed record in FAI class C.1.c. between Dayton OH and Kitty Hawk NC. But a biplane and real flying, flying like it used to be, entranced me, and I eventually found NC365M, a 1929 Travel Air 4000.

SunsetHiResTravel Air Manufacturing Company quite literally changed my life. I went from business suit to flight suit, and with that airplane, found the love of my life. She set out to learn to fly after her first flight with me, and eventually we traveled across the country in my Bonanza where she found NC674H, a Travel Air of her own. Together we flew that aircraft, without benefit of radios or navigating equipment, from Sonoma to Philadelphia, following roads, railroads, power lines and rivers. Thus began our 16-year career as barnstormers. But after fighting thunderstorms and snowstorms for two years back East a change of venue was required. Again we flew the biplane across the country—this time, with a COM radio and LORAN. Finding our way was easier, but the flight was far from easy. Sub-freezing temperatures didn’t go up until we reached Texas five day later. If adventure is adversity by choice, as some say, that trip was the adventure of a lifetime–at least in retrospect.

In any event, life had lots more adventures in store for us, and we added a 1927 Travel Air to the hangar, and three little Varga VG-21 ‘Kachina’ for mock air combat. Eventually, a North American SNJ-4,  a Beechcraft C-45H, and a red 1937 hot rod (our only car for six years) became part of the business. We even established a closed course speed record in the C-45 flying from San Diego to Phoenix and back.

We sold the business we’d built into the largest and oldest vintage flying company in the US just before the recession (pure luck, not good planning) to pursue growing interest and moderate success in writing. To keep groceries on the table when we first started barnstorming, we’d written two business books that were published by John Wiley & Sons. I wrote a number of articles that were published by AOPA and EAA, started writing business articles for American Express, and built several Web sites of my own with a focus on science and aviation. We wrote a third book for Wiley, Undress For Success: The Naked Truth About Working At Home, my wife became an internationally recognized expert on mobile work and workplace strategies, and we continue to research and write about news ways of working. And computers made it all happen.

Computers

My fascination with computers goes back to the mid-’60s when, as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico, I learned how to use a 12-bit PDP-8 to do autocorrelation and power spectrum analyses of EEG data. But my real awakening occurred when I went to work for a company that was writing programmed-texts for IBM. Editing a pre-release copy of Intoduction to Computing, and Introduction to FORTRAN I had what amounted to a religious experience. Before long I was spreading the digital gospel teaching at a local business school. There, I parlayed time on an IBM mainframe, unused at night, into the city’s first commercial computer service bureau.

But, not willing to take my chances with my low number in the draft lottery, I joined the Navy hoping to go directly to flight school by virtue of the fact that I was already a licensed pilot. Selected to be a “ninty-day wonder,” I went to Navy OCS in Newport RI with the promise of orders to flight school. On Fourth of July leave, I spent time at the company I started–no doubt to my wife’s chagrin–creating a righting-monements program that could quickly determine how stable a ship’s hull design would be. The salty Navy Chief I gave it too thought it was a miracle.

After flight school in Pensacola I went to NAS Whidbey Island, near Seattle, where I became a denizen of the computer center. In my spare time, I started work on an electronic warfare mission planning program, which became the Navy’s first. Aboard the USS Constellation, as part of the air group, I still managed to keep a finger in the computer world through the Integrated Onboard Intelligence Center (IOIC), thanks to my entrée with Russian spy ship photos taken from the EA-6B.

Back, after a long nine-month deployment, I was counseled by my boss to see if I could get orders to the Department of Defense Computer Institute (DODCI) in the Washington Navy yard. So, after delivering an aircraft to Norfolk, I drove to Washington, told the Commanding Officer about my background, and asked what I had to do to go to work for him. He did some magic, and before long I was teaching admirals, generals, and members of Congress about computers and information systems. At American University, I took graduate courses in the technology of management, and endured a course in database systems that I had created, taught by an Army officer that worked for me.

Following the Washington tour of duty, by far my best, I had to decide if I was going to make the Navy a career or look for a job in “the real world.” I ended up working as a Consulting Scientist for Booz Allen & Hamilton in Bethesda MD, easily the best company I ever worked for. But the siren call of leading-edge technology, and the opportunity to do research, led me to the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) in Columbus OH. There, I eventually became Senior Scientist, and led the trial of the first computer and telephone-based home information system in the U. S., long before the Internet. With news, an electronic encyclopedia, access to the local library’s electronic card catalog, and even home banking with help from BankOne, it was the best job I ever had, thanks entirely to my boss who was the best I ever had, and thanks to a great team of developers.

My computer career then led me to Dayton OH and a company that developed computer programs for automobile manufacturers and dealers. There, I was privileged to lead a team of brilliant developers who created the world’s first illustrated computer parts catalog (on CD-ROM, for Honda), and the first “build a car” video showroom display (for Chrysler).

Full of enthusiasm for emerging CD-ROM and video technology,  I took a job as COO of a start-up medical imaging company, which became the worst job I ever had thanks to corporate politics. But it stimulated me to start my own company, and Flightline Electronic Publishing (later Avantext) emerged offering a compendium of products on CD-ROM including aircraft registration, pilot and mechanic license information, and accident/incident data to customer ranging from small shops looking for mailing lists, to the Smithsonian looking for rare birds, to the largest airliner leasing company in the world keeping track of the competition.

But, while I was able to afford a lovely old Bonanza and a 1929 Travel Air biplane, I learned, as most entrepreneurs do, that running a business and starting a business are two different things. And aviation just wasn’t playing a big enough part in my life. With the help of a brilliant and beautiful consultant, I started our flightseeing business.

Flight Simulation

Psion_Flight_Simulation_on_ZX81_-_Flight_Simulation__Psion_software__-_Wikipedia__the_free_encyclopediaHistory_of_Microsoft_Flight_Simulator_-_Wikipedia__the_free_encyclopediaIn the mid-80s, I bought my first computer, a tiny Sinclair ZX81, about the size of a paperback, that (unreliably) used audio tape for mass storage and a TV set as a display. I got it simply because it had a crude fight simulator. That led me to an Apple ]

[+, and Bruce Artwick’s Flight Simulator which eventually became Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X. Along the way I met X-Plane‘s author Austin Meyer and took him flying in our SNJ, spent hours and hours flying the Russian flight sim IL-2, and enjoyed Rise of Flight, an amazing WWI simulator.

Sim2Web domeDuring the time we ran the barnstorming business, we bought a six-foot dome, introduced our hangar-party customers to flight simulation with that unique dome display, and eventually donated it to the San Diego Air & Space Museum where it is in use today.

After more than 50 years of flying and over 10,000 hours at the controls, all of my aviating is now done with flight simulators. Digital Combat Simulation’s A-10C, P-51D, and F-86F occasionally distract me, but Microsoft’s Flight Simulator X (FSX) has emerged as the program I use the most. Enhanced with ORBX/FTX terrain (FTX), Real Environment Xtreme (REX) cloud textures, and Active Sky Next (ASN) weather, I often find myself simply sightseeing, despite endless hours doing just that in real life. Still, the opportunity to pick any location, time, weather, and aircraft has provided hours and hours of entertainment. It’s not particularly easy to get a ride in an XB-70 in real life, but I’ve flown it by the book, low and slow and hight and fast in FSX. Amazingly, power settings and performance in the sim match the Flight Manual pretty closely in all flight regimes. I even can fly formation with myself.

North American XB-70

North American XB-70


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Indeed, FSX attracted my photographers eye and I began planning flights simply as a way to capture images, and the screengrabs on this site are the results. Naturally, as an artist and entrepreneur, intellectual property issues and license agreements were foremost in my mind. Many, many people have spent hours and hours to create the technologies and techniques that I enjoy and benefit from. As Sir Isaac Newton, one of my heroes for many reasons, said it best when writing to Robert Hooke in February of 1676, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” There is no better characterization of what I do here.

Is It Art?

Photography was invented by Daguerre in 1839, but at an early meeting of the Photographic Society of London one of the members complained that the new technique was “too literal to compete with works of art.” Characterized as an artless process that relied on mechanical devices, photography was considered nothing more than, “a picture painted by the sun without instruction in art,” as Ambrose Bierce put it.

Still, there were those who disagreed. Elizabeth Barrett Browning loved “the very shadow of the person lying there fixed forever,” asserting she “would rather have such a memorial of one I dearly loved, than the noblest Artist’s work ever produced” not “in respect (or disrespect) of Art, but for Love’s sake.”

But the view of photography as a mechanical recording medium persisted into the 1960s and even the ’70s, when art photography was still only found in niche galleries, enjoyed by a few aficionados, and reproduced in minor publications. In fact, analog photography and printing took over 150 years to gain acceptance as a collectable form of art and digital prints started to appear in a few museums and galleries.

Photography__is_it_art____Art_and_design___The_GuardianToday, digital prints are found in the collections of most major museums and exhibited in hundreds of galleries worldwide.  In 2004, the Getty Museum made their first major digital print acquisition with the purchase of thirteen prints produced on an ink-jet printer signaling that those prints were true photographic art. Indeed, when such prints are sold they are not sold merely as digital prints or inkjet prints, but properly as fine art prints.

On November 8, 2011 a photograph by Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II was sold for $4,338,500 at Christie’s in New York, a record for any photograph sold at auction. Extraneous details such as people walking their dogs, bicyclists, and a factory were removed using digital editing. Florence Waters, in the London Telegraph, wrote, “…the National Gallery announced their first ever major blockbuster exhibition of photography next year, cementing the art form as a medium of major historic and cultural significance that now even the naysayers can’t deny.” She went on to say, “…this image shows a great deal of confidence in its effectiveness and potential for creating atmospheric, hyper-real scenarios that in turn teach us to see … the world around us anew. The scale, attention to colour and form…can be read as a deliberate challenge to painting’s status as a higher art form.

Musicians use synthesizers, movie and TV directors use CGI. Just as rock and chisel, canvas and pigment, clay and oven are artists tools, analog cameras, film, and chemicals and now digital cameras, computers, and software are tools that allow human creative skill and imagination to produce works that can be appreciated for their beauty and emotional power.  The same is true of flight simulators and add-on terrain, weather, and aircraft.

In 2004 I proposed a screenshot art contest to the San Diego Aerospace Museum (now the San Diego Air & Space Museum). Just before Christmas, judges from the museum and the San Diego Museum of Photography picked the winners out of the 2101 images received from 27 countries. In 2006 the International Screenshot Art Contest was held by the Royal Air Force Museum, London and the San Diego Aerospace Museum with judging by renown aviation artists Michael Turner, Charles Thompson, Ronald Wong, Edmund Miller, Martin Bleasby, and Paul Couper. I continue to entreat the editors of Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine to add a screenshot category to their annual photography contest–in 2014 they added a ‘Selfie’ category, so there may be hope.

Like a photograph, screenshots are about the light, about composition. Simply hitting the Prt Scr button on a keyboard doesn’t produce art any more than hitting the shutter release on a camera or adding daubs of paint to a canvas. Picking a location and time of day, finding just the right weather conditions, selecting a subject and angle all are part of the process of creating a pleasing painting, photograph, or any other visual art.

I hope you enjoy the choices I’ve made.