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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
from 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
"'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
"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.'
"Now, go ahead, [look at this] picture."
(14Dec2001 rev - Add top of page