OFF DUTY : With Bradley Wentzel
Each Summer, the Cockpit USA creative team takes a trip to the American Airpower Museum for a great weekend of historic warbirds, airshow flying, and of course our classic aviator jackets. Proudly sponsored by Cockpit USA, the AAM aviation museum is located in Farmingdale, New York and is dedicated to “keep history flying”!
This year we directed our creative lens to the skies of New York for an unforgettable “air-to-air” photoshoot around the Manhattan skyline. Join us in an epic Off Duty Story: The Air to Air Edition; Part I, as our Brand Ambassador and Aerial Photographer, Bradley Wentzel, delves into the details and dangers of capturing a former USAF Thunderbird #2 pilot and a USAF Weapons School (Top Gun) graduate and instructor, John “Slick” Baum, in his restored Stearman biplane below.
Cockpit USA: What 3 words come to mind when you think of your job?
Bradley Wentzel: Adventurous, creative, daring
Cockpit USA: How and when did you get into aerial photography?
Bradley Wentzel: In 2016, I had the opportunity to photograph an off-road truck racing team from their chase helicopter, an R44, during a few of their races in Baja, Mexico. That was my first experience photographing from an aircraft, which helped me get started in aerial photography.
Cockpit USA: What inspires you to photograph aviation?
Bradley Wentzel: I love the history of aviation, the aviators, the engineering, and how it has shaped our world. It’s exhilarating to be around and an honor to have the opportunity to document it from a creative position.
Cockpit USA: How is aviation photography different from fashion and lifestyle for you?
Bradley Wentzel: There’s vastly more danger and risk involved to pull off a shot, which is preceded by a lot of logistics and planning from myself and the pilots. While in the air, I have to relay what I need to the pilot in the aircraft I’m in, who will then relay it to the pilot of the aircraft I’m photographing. Once close enough, I will use hand signals to guide the other aircraft where I need them.
Cockpit USA: Tell us about the dangers of aerial photography?
Bradley Wentzel: These aerial photoshoots usually involve the doors of the aircraft I’m in to be removed and requires me to wear a harness, so the danger of falling out is pretty high - I like to be tethered by two things if possible. Photographing out of the tail of a B-25 is pretty wild. In the Lewis Air Legends B-25, we modified the tail by removing the glass and guns, and built a platform on the floor so I could lie in a prone position that allowed me to look straight back with an unobstructed view of an aircraft.
One of my most memorable and heart-pumping moments was trying to coordinate a shot of a Spitfire flying just a few feet off a runway while I was leaning over the edge of the B-25 tail, just a few feet above the Spitfire. Doing all of this while flying ~150mph was an unforgettable experience.
Cockpit USA: Known for your incredible air-to-air photography, how did this opportunity come about?
Bradley Wentzel: After photographing from the Spitfire Racing helicopter several times, the owner of the team offered me a job as an in-house director and photographer which also included photographing aviation with Lewis Air Legends. Photographing their world-class aircraft helped me build my aviation portfolio, which accelerated opportunities to photograph more aviation.
Cockpit USA: What is the most challenging aspect for you shooting air to air? What is the most rewarding?
Bradley Wentzel: The biggest challenge while shooting air-to-air is getting the aircraft in the exact position you want while trying to time it with the background you want. When photographing most things on the ground, you can simply move or have your subject move. When you’re in the air, it’s a bigger challenge to relay where you need the aircraft, all while the pilots are merely feet away from one another.
Cockpit USA: Recently you posted, “this photoshoot for Cockpit USA will go down as my most memorable shoot.” How has this shoot been particularly special for you?
Bradley Wentzel: There are so many beautiful black and white photos I love of aircraft flying over the equally iconic New York City - that airspace is truly rarified air. To then have the opportunity to photograph John “Slick” Baum, a former USAF Thunderbird #2 pilot, and a USAF Weapons School (Top Gun) graduate and instructor, in his restored Stearman biplane was a perfect combination to recreate some images from a classic era.
Cockpit USA: Is there a photograph that you have taken, that you are the most proud of?
Bradley Wentzel: There’s one image that comes to mind, which is a T-6 coming straight at the camera while being backlit by a setting sun over shadowed rolling hills. I just love the composition, lighting, and emotion of it. And from a personal experience, it was just a beautiful moment and time of day while shooting from the tail of a B-25. Click here to see it!
Cockpit USA: Do you like having your photo taken?
Bradley Wentzel: I’m a storyteller, so I enjoy being able to tell a story regardless of what side of the camera I’m on, whether it’s acting, teaching, or modeling.
Cockpit USA: Are there any aviation photographers that you highly recommend or that influence your work?
Bradley Wentzel: Paul Bowen without a doubt. He’s been shooting aviation since 1972 and has some of the most iconic aviation work I’ve seen.
Cockpit USA: What is your go-to camera? And what did you use for the Cockpit USA photoshoot?
Bradley Wentzel: My go-to camera has always been Canon bodies, which I’ve been shooting with since 1999. My current go-to camera is Canon’s new R5 C, which is what I used on this photoshoot. This camera allowed me to get both still and motion images from one camera.
Cockpit USA: How did you connect with Cockpit USA?
Bradley Wentzel: Annie Vogel from Skies Magazine had published a photographer spotlight on me from their Chasing the Shot series, which was seen by Rudy Gonzales at Cockpit USA. Rudy was interested in my work and reached out!
Cockpit USA: What are your favorite Cockpit USA items and why?
Bradley Wentzel: Tough choice, but the N1 Bedford Cord jacket keeps me really warm in colder climates and is a classic. I also have and wore the US Fighter Weapons Jacket during our air-to-air photoshoot in NYC - it’s versatile, functional, and looks great. I have my eyes on the Admiral USN Peacoat, M51 DMZ Fishtail Shell, and the Suede Trucker Jacket. There are more to be honest, but I’ll stop there.
Cockpit USA: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
Bradley Wentzel: Hopefully something spectacular! But two of my next goals are to photograph a commercial airliner, and an F-18 Super Hornet.
Cockpit USA: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in pursuing a career in aviation photography?
Bradley Wentzel: Hone your craft of photography. Be prepared. Have patience. And network, network, network!
Cockpit USA: What is something that many people don’t already know about you?
Bradley Wentzel: I really enjoy acting and wish I could do more of it! I was terrified of heights and roller coasters growing up, but now I love roller coasters and hang out of aircraft from thousands of feet up.
Cockpit USA: Lastly, it is almost Father’s Day… Happy early Father’s Day! Is there anything that you would like to share with your family here?
Bradley Wentzel: First of all, thank you! I’m married to my beautiful wife, Kristen - we'll be celebrating our tenth anniversary this year. We have two daughters ages five and four who I love playing and laughing with, and I hope they think I’m cool when they grow up, we’ll see.