Stunning Photo Of Jet
Breaking Sound Barrier
Awesome - Wanna see a sonic boom?
Through the viewfinder of his camera, Ensign John
Gay could see the fighter plane drop from the sky heading toward the
port side of the aircraft carrier Constellation. At 1,000 feet, the
pilot drops the F/A-18C Hornet to increase his speed to 750 mph,
vapor flickering off the curved surfaces of the plane. In the
precise moment a cloud in the shape of a farm-fresh egg forms around
the Hornet 200 yards from the carrier, its engines rippling the
Pacific Ocean just 75 feet below, Gay hears an explosion and snaps
his camera shutter once.
"I clicked the same time I heard the boom,
and I knew I had it", Gay said. What he had was a technically
meticulous depiction of the sound barrier being broken July 7, 1999,
somewhere on the Pacific between Hawaii and Japan. Sports
Illustrated, Brills Content, and Life ran the photo.
The photo recently took first prize in the science
and technology division in the World Press Photo 2000 contest, which
drew more than 42,000 entries worldwide.
"All of a sudden, in the last few days, I've
been getting calls from everywhere about it again. It's kind of
neat," he said, in a telephone interview from his station in
Virginia Beach, VA.
A naval veteran of 12 years, Gay, 38, manages a
crew of eight assigned to take intelligence photographs from the
high-tech belly of an F-14 Tomcat, the fastest fighter in the U.S.
Navy. In July, Gay had been part of a Joint Task Force Exercise as
the Constellation made its way to Japan.
Gay selected his Nikon 90 S, one of the five 35 mm
cameras he owns. He set his 80-300 mm zoom lens on 300 mm, set his
shutter speed at 1/1000 of a second with an aperture setting of
F5.6. "I put it on full manual, focus and exposure," Gay
said. "I tell young photographers who are into automatic
everything, you aren't going to get that shot on auto.
The plane is too fast. The camera can't keep
At sea level a plane must exceed 741 mph to break
the sound barrier, or the speed at which sound travels. The change
in pressure as the plane outruns all of the pressure and sound waves
in front of it is heard on the ground as an explosion or sonic boom.
The pressure change condenses the water in the air as the jet passes
these waves. Altitude, wind speed, humidity, the shape and
trajectory of the plane - all of these affect the breaking of this
barrier. The slightest drag or atmospheric pull on the plane
shatters the vapor oval like fireworks as the plane passes through,
he said everything on July 7 was perfect. "You see this vapor
flicker around the plane that gets bigger and bigger. You get this
loud boom, and it's instantaneous. The vapor cloud is there, and
then it's not there. It's the coolest thing you have ever
Now take a look...
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