Its been approaching four years since I got out of the Navy with an honorable discharge after almost five years of service but it honestly seems like yesterday that I made my living as a military photographer on the flight deck of the nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis. While I am sooooooo much happier with my life as a civilian I still would kill to go back out on a carrier to do some more flight deck photography! Continue on to see one of my favorite shoots from the Navy.

One of my favorite experiences during my time in the Navy was the day I got to fly in a military helicopter to shoot aerial photos of the ship near the Alaskan coastline.

It was about 10pm when I went on the flight deck to shoot some scenic photos of the Alaskan coastline. There were giant snow capped mountains on the horizon that looked amazing.


Nikon D2h, 80-200mm, 400iso, f6.3, 1/800th, Manual

Even though it was late at night the sun was out but due to being so far north the sun doesn’t set till near midnight.

At the back of the ship I shot the silhouettes of two sailors standing watch. Basically it is their job to around the alarm if they see someone in the water.


Nikon D2h, 300mm, 400iso, f6.3, 1/800th, Manual

Up on the flight deck the low light was awesome for photos. Below an SH-60 Seahawk helicopter takes off from the flight deck….


Nikon D2h, 80-200mm, 800iso, f7.1, 1/500th, Manual

….and flies away.


Nikon D2h, 80-200mm, 800iso, f7.1, 1/500th, Manual


Nikon D2h, 80-200mm, 800iso, f7.1, 1/500th, Manual

With all the aircraft and the tower (island) on the deck it cast some large shadows across the flight deck which made for some cool light pockets as a sailor (below) walked across the deck with an S-3B Viking taxiing in the background.


Nikon D2h, 80-200mm, 800iso, f5.3, 1/320th, Manual

I positioned myself towards the front (bow) of the carrier to get the snow capped mountains in the background as the Viking was catapulted from the ship into the air.


Nikon D2h, 80-200mm, 800iso, f5.6, 1/200th, Manual

On the other side of the ship a group of squadron plane captains performed a plane wash on an E-2C Hawkeye. Washing an airplane SUCKS, the only thing that could make it worse was washign that large airplane in temperatures in the 40s.


Nikon D2h, 80-200mm, 800iso, f2.8, 1/320th, Manual

A few minutes after the above photo I was walking across the flight deck when one of the officers came to me and told me I was wanted in the tower. I had been called to the tower a few times in the past and it was always cause I screwed something up. Great, this was gonna be fun!

Once in the tower I was told the Captain of the ship wanted a photographer in the air ASAP to shoot some aerial photos of the ship as it cruised near the snowcapped Alaskan coast line.

Even though I wasn’t qualified to fly I gladly accepted the gig and within minutes I was given a dry suit to wear (in the cold waters it was mandatory for anyone flying in the helicopter.)

After taking off I shot a photo showing the suns position near the horizon.


Nikon D2h, 17-35mm, 200iso, f14, 1/250th, Manual

With how low the sun was at the horizon it lit everything with a warm reddish glow. You can see what I mean in the below photo of one of the aircrew members onboard.


Nikon D2h, 17-35mm, 640iso, f2.8, 1/500th, Manual

Whenever flight operations are being conducted a helicopter is always in the air for safety reasons. So on top of flying around for me to shoot photos we were also serving as the “plane guard.”

Below an S-3B Viking flies over the carrier after his landing attempt was waved off.


Nikon D2h, 80-200mm, 800iso, f2.8, 1/640th, Manual

After the plane landed we got to work circling the ship for me to get the angles I wanted.


Nikon D2h, 80-200mm, 800iso, f2.8, 1/640th, Manual

I had radio communications with the pilot so I could tell him to go higher in the air and what directions to go so I could take advantage of the gorgeous scene beneath me.


Nikon D2h, 17-35mm, 800iso, f2.8, 1/500th, Manual

Going behind the ship I was able to get a nice silhouette as the ship steamed towards the sunset.


Nikon D2h, 17-35mm, 800iso, f2.8, 1/250th, Manual

Next up we went real high above the ship and I shot down on the carrier (below). Check out the orange glow of the light bouncing off the front of the ship.


Nikon D2h, 17-35mm, 800iso, f2.8, 1/60th, Manual

Then I had the pilot take us lower and I set up with the mountains in the background for what would end up being my most popular photo shot during my enlistment.

The sky, mountains and light on the ship made for what has got to be one of the most scenic carrier photos ever. I feel very lucky to have been in the right place at the right time to get to shoot it.


Nikon D2h, 17-35mm, 800iso, f2.8, 1/125th, Manual

We circled the ship one more time for me to fire off a couple more shots.


Nikon D2h, 17-35mm, 800iso, f2.8, 1/125th, Manual


Nikon D2h, 17-35mm, 800iso, f2.8, 1/320th, Manual

The below photo was shot as we touched back down on the flight deck.


Nikon D2h, 17-35mm, 800iso, f2.8, 1/250th, Manual

As I climbed from the copter I stopped and shot as a plane captain signals the pilot through his shutdown procedures with the glorious sky in the background.


Nikon D2h, 17-35mm, 800iso, f2.8, 1/250th, Manual

My last photo of the evening was a tight shot of the Alaskan coast with a great sky above.


Nikon D2h, 17-35mm, 800iso, f2.8, 1/250th, Manual

That ended my awesome day.

4 months later we were still deployed and I once again got to go up for some aerial photos. This time my mission was to get some photos as the air wing prepared for an air show for family members who would be onboard the ship for a Tiger Cruise.

From my spot in the back of the cabin I used a 300mm and shot a close up as some nice light lit up one of the control panels in the cockpit (below).


Nikon D2h, 300mm, 200iso, f4, 1/1000th, Manual

Below, the pilot and navigator chat as we fly over the open ocean.


Nikon D2h, 12-24mm, 200iso, f8, 1/250th, Manual

Along with the photo exercise we would also be doing the Plane Guard operations as planes took off and landed on the multi billion dollar warship.

Below an F-14 Tomcat sits on a catapult prior to launching from the flight deck.


Nikon D2h, 300mm, 200iso, f5.6, 1/1000th, Manual

Heat waves spew from the back of an EA-6B Prowler, below, as it powers into the sky.


Nikon D2h, 300mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1000th, Manual

I was able to get a great view from behind the carrier as an F/A-18 Super Hornet lifted off into the sky (below).


Nikon D2h, 300mm, 200iso, f10, 1/1000th, Manual

The aircrew man sitting next to me had a nice reflection of the cloudy sky in the visor of his face shield so I exposed for the sky in the reflection and shot the below photo.


Nikon D2h, 17-55mm, 200iso, f5.6, 1/400th, Manual

With my 300mm I was able to shoot a unique angle as an F/A-18 Hornet touched down on the flight deck.


Nikon D2h, 300mm, 200iso, f7.1, 1/1000th, Manual

With a wide angle lens from the same position as the above photo I was able to get the entire carrier in the shot (below).


Nikon D2h, 12-24mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1000th, Manual

Through my headphones I was notified that an F-14 Tomcat was gonna perform a sound barrier breaking pass over the ship. I had always wanted to get one of the sound barrier photos with the condensation cone around the aircraft but the lack of humidity prevented the cloud from occurring.


Nikon D2h, 300mm, 200iso, f7.1, 1/1600th, Manual

The pilot then positioned us in a different location in front of the ship to get a wide shot of several aircraft flying over.

Below is a tight shot of the ship against a nice aqua colored ocean.


Nikon D2h, 300mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1600th, Manual

The wide shot as the formation flew overhead was a massive fail due to the planes flying far too high above the ship. Oh well its only tax payers money!


Nikon D2h, 17-55mm, 200iso, f7.1, 1/1000th, Manual

Below, an F/A-18 Hornet touches down on the flight deck.


Nikon D2h, 300mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1000th, Manual

Below, a Tomcat comes in for landing.


Nikon D2h, 300mm, 200iso, f9, 1/500th, Manual

A little while later I shot wide to include a rainstorm that was off in the distance from the ship (below).


Nikon D2h, 17-55mm, 200iso, f8, 1/1000th, Manual

Using the 300mm I shot as two Tomcats (below) performed a low pass of the ship.


Nikon D2h, 300mm, 200iso, f13, 1/1000th, Manual

Below you can see a clean shaven version of me as we fly around.


Photo by Aircrew Guy

The pilot I was flying with was a really cool guy who went everywhere I asked him to go for me to get my shots.

Below we hovered low in front of the carrier. Keep in mind the ship is cruising around at around 20 mph so we had to keep moving to keep up with the ship.


Nikon D2h, 17-55mm, 200iso, f6.3, 1/1000th, Manual

In the below photo I am pretty sure the pilot broke a flight rule as he took the helicopter below the flight deck level in front of the ship.


Nikon D2h, 17-55mm, 200iso, f7.1, 1/1000th, Manual

Then we turned off the bow of the ship for a nice front 3/4 angle of the ship. (Note the people on the front of the ship to see how huuuuuggge the carrier is.)


Nikon D2h, 17-55mm, 200iso, f7.1, 1/1000th, Manual

There was another helicopter doing plane guard with us so we had the other chopper (below) go low and kick up a cloud of water as the carrier steamed along in the background.


Nikon D2h, 17-55mm, 200iso, f8, 1/1000th, Manual

As the sun dipped lower my time in the air was almost done so I had just enough time for a few more photos.

I did my best to make them count.

First up was an underexposed shot that made the ship a silhouette as a Hornet prepared to land (below).


Nikon D2h, 300mm, 200iso, f9, 1/1000th, Manual

Below is the same type shot but from the back of the ship where the sun made a nice golden ocean.


Nikon D2h, 300mm, 200iso, f10, 1/1000th, Manual

As we made our approach back to the ship to land I was lucky enough to get the below photo as we followed the other helicopter in. The below photo is totally uncropped, I totally got lucky to get the entire carrier in the frame as we banked through the air.


Nikon D2h, 300mm, 200iso, f10, 1/1000th, Manual

That wraps up the first of what I intend to make many more archive blogs from my time in the Navy.

To purchase prints of any of the photos in this blog shoot me an email at rebilasphoto@gmail.com

Posted in Me, Military, Navy, Scenic, Travel   | 14 Comments

14 responses to “From the Archive: My first aerial shoot, Aircraft Carrier off the Alaskan coastline!”

  1. Ariel says:

    Whoa, such cool shots Mark!

  2. Travis says:

    Great images Mark! Thanks for sharing!

  3. April Woodard says:

    Beautiful! Were you born with a camera in your hand?

  4. Ricky says:

    wow, those were amazing!!

  5. Thanks so much for serving on on of the grandest ships on the seas. And thank you for posting these wonderful pictures, I have forgotten that they were taken & really love seeing them again! I was on this years Tiger Cruise with my son, visiting our sailor, she is a CTR. Your photos have brought back so many wonderful memories of all the men & women who serve on the grand John C. Stennis, CVN74. Hooorah!!!

  6. Erica says:


    F14s, Carriers, Racing, etc. you are truly the luckiest guy on the planet to live the life you do.


  7. Tammy says:

    WOW, these are some of the coolest shots I’ve ever seen! My cousin is stationed in Iraq and these kinds of photos always makes me think of him.

    You’re probably the best photographer I’ve ever had the pleasure of viewing their work. And I’ve worked in and around NASCAR for nearly 14 yrs and have seen alot of photographer’s work.

    Thanks for sharing. Take care and God bless!

  8. Jeff says:

    Thank you for your service. The eye that you have is truly a gift. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Ted says:


    Great photos, you captured the planes, carrier and choppers very well. If the Captain was not happy with your work then nothing would make him happy.

  10. ROB says:

    Seriously awsome series from a place most of us will never know. One that puzzles me in the second last, it looks like heat blurr around the ship, or that from the second chopper?

  11. Rob,
    Thats the exhaust from the other chopper.


  12. Tom says:

    It gives me a ‘Top Gun’ feeling! Great shots!

  13. Ken says:

    I was on the Tiger cruise in 2004 with my oldest son on the way back from HA to SAN. We were there to see and watch my youngest son who was a S3 pilot in VS-35. It looks like some of the pictures were from th airshow conducted for the families of the sailors and Marines. I rember that day well. Thanks for the pictures. They are spectacular.

  14. Doug says:

    Mark truly a great job I remember the fun times we had on the Nimitz bro miss you an wonderful job.

    Ps I seen u trying to get a shot at the bsc auburn game on espn so I’m trying to find you lol

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