Last Updated: 09/25/2013*
Scorpions and snakes, blazing sun and freezing desert nights. Photographer Dan Plumpton braves them all for the ultimate adrenaline rush: the split second of fire, smoke and thunder that accompanies a Patriot missile launch.
Plumpton is one of an elite team of Raytheon photographers who venture onto desert firing ranges to capture the Patriot and other weapons systems in action. It’s high-stakes work and takes weeks of preparation, from securing clearances to researching the hibernation pattern of snakes. But the up-close view of a Patriot launch makes it all worthwhile.
“I’m honored to be able to do stuff like this,” Plumpton said. “It is an opportunity that a lot of photographers just don’t get.”
A launch of the Patriot air and missile defense system captured by Raytheon photographer Dan Plumpton.
The combat-proven Patriot is the world’s most advanced air and missile defense system and is fielded by 12 nations around the world. That means Patriots are frequent visitors to U.S. missile ranges, where American and allied forces practice firing them and test their readiness for combat.
Missiles move fast, so photographing one in action takes lots of high-powered, high-speed equipment. Plumpton usually takes four cameras, up to six lenses and plenty of tripods, hard drives – and cleaning equipment.
“The dust and the dirt – you’re constantly trying to clean up your equipment,” he said. The grit has destroyed more than one camera, he said.
Plumpton typically travels with a Raytheon team that also captures high-speed video.
Dan Plumpton, the photographer who always gets the Patriot missile's good side.
Covering a launch begins with a long trip down a dirt road to the range.
The rugged terrain is full of wildlife, including thousands of hares. Plumpton once even spotted an African Oryx, brought over to the United States as part of a breeding program.
In addition to covering the actual launch, Plumpton specializes in shooting dramatic time-lapse montages. That requires him to spend the night in the desert. A fence separates him from coyotes and deer that roam the wilderness.
On launch day, Plumpton hauls the heavy equipment to his assigned position, sometimes as close as 300 feet to the launcher.
Sometimes the wait before a launch can stretch for many hours as soldiers fine-tune the equipment. Once the countdown begins, tension is high.
“I have just one shot at getting this photo,” Plumpton said.
Catching the exact moment of launch is an art. Hit the shutter too soon and you’ll use up the camera’s data cards within seconds. Too late and you’ll miss the shot.
Plumpton typically opens the shutter and starts shooting 11 frames per second just as the roar and rumble begins.
Rays of light break through a cloud of dust whipped up by a moving Patriot system. Dust is a constant danger to the cameras that Plumpton uses on site.
“It’s LOUD – you can feel the rumble in your chest,” he said.
The missile streaks into the sky, leaving a white smoke trail. But even then, Plumpton said, he’s still nervous about whether he captured the shot.
“There’s that tense time period between once the shoot’s over to when I can get to my computer and download it and see what I’ve got,” he said.
When he gets that perfect photo, Plumpton said, “I feel like a kid at Christmas.”
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