Prize Winning Photo: A Navy F/A-18C Hornet breaks the Sound Barrier
Explanation: (From an anonymous e-mail):
Sound barrier broken!! Captured on film!!!
This is pretty cool! You can't really appreciate the picture without knowing what it is exactly.
This isn't a joke, so don't expect a punch line or strange/funny picture.
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", John 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 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, John, 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, John had been part of a Joint Task Force Exercise as the Constellation made its way to Japan.
John 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," John 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
"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."
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