It’s been some time since I last photographed the pupils of Exeter School so when I received notification of Friday’s photography brief it was a pleasant surprise. Given that the week had started with a bike shoot next to a Sea Harrier and that Thursday offered a chance to photograph two bikes at Exeter Airport this seemed to end the seven days off nicely.

Two military helicopters are coming from Commando Helicopter Force in RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset. It is a unique opportunity for 80 cadets to experience a 20-minute flight in a naval helicopter. The Combined Cadet Force (CCF) is made up of 240 pupils so one third will be flying. There are 700 pupils in the senior school so over 1/10th will be flying.

Lucky pupils I thought.

The helicopters were the venerable Sea Kings, a true icon and they didn’t disappoint. As they appeared over the horizon a loud cheer from the gathered pupils welcomed the machines to the grounds of Exeter School.

Suggestion had been made that I might get a chance to go up in one and quite frankly I had been overly excited by this possibility. I was prepared for it not to happen, I guess one might call it managing my own expectations.

There’s a lot to photograph in an event such as this. BBC Spotlight had sent a cameraman reporter (with many flying hours) and there was a military photographer who tumbled out with a well used Nikon D3; yes, I did feel like the new boy. I think everyone agreed that the weather had been a worry and even over a couple of hours the conditions and light changed markedly. As was noted by the military photographer, that lovely blinding sun didn’t make the job easy.

Early on in the visit my name, details and those of my next of kin had been recorded. We had been briefed, so things were looking good for a trip. Inwardly I was still managing my expectations though.

To start with pupils from lower school were able to board the aircraft. Lesson number one, the roof is military green so don’t look to bounce your flash from it! Top tip (Miss), the thing that looks like half a cocktail shaker attached to a tube? It’s not an old fashioned intercom, oh no it’s not.

Subsequently the older pupils who were to fly began to gather and boarding commenced.

There is something about flight that excites me, I am always the one grinning and exclaiming things like “we’re off, we’re off!” as the EasyJet hoons down the runway. The helicopter’s downdraft was intense and something to be aware of, it certainly doesn’t make easy the task of holding a long lens steady. The flights were about twenty minutes which allowed time to check exposures whilst awaiting the return. Egress and ingress were repeated until eventually it was our turn. Could I get the lap belt done up? Oh no! All those childhood insecurities of the whole class watching were once again realised.

Lesson number two, photographing forward of the open door is relatively doable, there’s not too much draft. It was then my turn to put the harness on so that I could sit to the rear of the door, and could I get the harness on? To say sitting to the rear was a blast was an understatement, and, when as we returned the school was pointed out to me, I had almost forgotten that I was to attempt to photograph it. To be honest I might as well have been looking at Taunton at this point.

The trip resulted in over a hundred images for the school, shots of engaged, excited young people.

Yes it really was a total blast.

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