Breaking The Sound Barrier

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Through the viewfinder of his camera, Ensign John Gay could see the A/F18 drop from the sky as it headed toward the port side of the Aircraft Carrier Constellation at 1,000 feet. The pilot increases his speed to 750 mph, vapor flickering off the curved surfaces of the plane. At the precise moment of breaking the sound barrier, 200 yards form the carrier, a circular cloud formed around the Hornet. With the Pacific Ocean just 75 feet below the aircraft being rippled by the aircraft’s pass, Gay hears the explosion of the sonic boom and snapped his camera shutter once.

“I clicked the same time I heard the boom and I knew I had it.” What he had was a technically meticulous depiction of the sound barrier being broken on July 7, 1999, somewhere on the Pacific between Hawaii and Japan. Sports Illustrated, Brills Content, and Life ran the photo 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. Because Ensign Gay is a member of the military he was ineligible for the cash prize. “In the last few days, I’ve been getting calls from everywhere about it again. It’s very humbling.” Gay, 38, manages a crew of eight assigned to take intelligence photographs from the high-tech belly (TARPS POD) of an F-14 Tomcat. In July, Gay had been part of a Joint Task Force Exercise as the Constellation made its way to Japan.

Gay used his personal Nikon 90 S, set his 80-300 mm zoom lens on 300 mm, his shutter speed at 1/1000 of a second and the aperture at F5.6. “I put it on full manual,” Gay 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 had to exceed 741 mph to break the sound barrier.

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 – the 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 affect the breaking of the barrier. On July 7 everything was perfect. “You see vapor flicker around the plane. It gets bigger and bigger, then BOOM – it’s instantaneous. One second the vapor cloud is there, the next it’s gone.”