- A picture
of 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.
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
- "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 up."
- 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 seen."