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Making art in the sky – Meeting Katsuhiko Tokunaga, the renowned aviation air-to-air photographer

BY SANTIAGO RIVAS

Issue 1 – February 2018

 

Katsuhiko Tokunaga became a dear friend many years ago as he traveled South America to make air-to-air photographs. It’s challenging to put into words who this extraordinary man is because he is cordial, charming, passionate and “one of a kind”. “Katsu”, as we all know him, is often considered to be the best air-to-air aviation photographer in the world. Despite his stellar reputation he remains curious, courteous, respectful and unpretentious. He is thoughtful and always seems to have the right words to say. No matter how challenging the framework of a project can be, Katsu remains professional, calm and focused – making him a favorite among pilots and companies he works with.

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Katsu in the PC-7 cockpit with the Dutch Coastguard at Schiphol Amsterdam Airport during the making of RUAG’s Dutch Coastguard movie (www.dornier228.ruag.com).

Katsu was born in Japan on the 13th of January in 1957. He started his career in air-to-air photography when he was just 21. Since then, he has logged nearly 2,000 flying hours in different types of fast jets and over 15,000 hours in all kinds of different aircraft. He converted each of those flights into a piece of photographic art. Most of Katsu’s time is dedicated to his passion spending more than 300 days a year traveling the world.

The quality of his photography helped him gain his reputation. Giants in the aviation industry continue to seek him out for their projects to this day. Many of these big names are popular aerobatic teams and different international air forces. Katsu also does photography for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) like RUAG, Dassault, Pilatus and more. His photographs have also been published in many international magazines and he has released several books. One of his recent books is called Super Blue 3. Super Blue 3 is the most recent release of his masterpiece series, which began in 1988 with the first Super Blue. Each book contains all of his “best shots”. He also released many other books, like Top Teams, Silver Wings, Hawk Five Team, Rhapsody in Blue, Patrouilles du Monde and Smoke Trails, among others.

As with many artists, Kastu always has in his mind the pictures he wants to create. He meticulously plans how he and the pilots will create a perfect composition while in flight formation. He takes into consideration 360 degrees of perpetual perspective in motion. He knows every movement the aircraft will make and the impact that will have on his composition, including the background behind the aircraft he is photographing. One thing that makes the difference in Katsu’s work is that no matter what kind of aerobatics the plane he is in is performing, he composes the image exactly how he wants it and the result is always beautiful. Pilots are amazed at how he can visually prepare for what he will shoot. The Patrouille de France even calls him “One Shot” because they never have to redo a flight sequence as “Katsu One Shot” never misses.

To prepare for the air-to-air photoshoot, he always participates in the pre-flight briefing and puts together the flying formation in detail as part of the team. He also works with the pilots on how to handle emergency situations.

“To be successful in this business, you need the right team,” says Robert. “Qualifications can always be acquired – it’s the team that makes the difference. Because the greatest competence in the world is of little use if the employee is not a team player. Qualifications and team spirit must go together. And one is just as important as the other.” The highly successful American industrialist and renowned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie once said: “Teamwork is the ability to work together toward a common vision. The ability to direct individual accomplishments toward organizational objectives. It is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results.”

Air-to-air photographers know how difficult it is to work with heavy cameras and lenses on a plane that’s moving fast and experiencing G-forces in tight turns or during aerobatics. Working with a big and heavy camera inside a tight cockpit is challenging to say the least. Imagine experiencing G-forces, which proportionally changes not just your body weight but also the weight of your equipment with almost every turn. Now imagine maintaining constant control. Depending on the aircraft, you might be strapped into an ejection seat with the canopy very close to your head, restricting your movements or you might be strapped to the floor of a Dornier 228 with the cargo door wide open, inhaling a lot of fresh air. Just aiming and focusing your lens takes a great amount of effort. Creating success in this kind of atmosphere also demands that a photographer has a lot of experience and knows what to expect on each flight. This is also important for safety. A piece of photographic equipment coming loose in the cockpit is a scenario best avoided.

Katsu knows that a successful aviation photoshoot requires teamwork. One can learn a lot about teamwork and collaboration by watching Katsu at work. In air-toair photography, success depends on how all participants play their role, from good planning on the ground to staying “on plan” once in the air. At work, Katsu’s attitude creates enthusiasm and confidence among the others that the job will be executed beautifully and safely. Katsu’s vast and extensive experience is invaluable for flight crews who know he would never put them at risk. For Katsu, “Safety comes first.”

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Katsu participating in a Dutch Coastguard’s preflight briefing at Schiphol Amsterdam Airport, rehearsing every movement of the flight plan with the pilots.

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Katsu preparing with a flight crew at Schiphol. Creating a successful air-to-air photoshoot requires teamwork, partnership, collaboration and trust and this is why people choose to work with “One Shot” Katsu.

For a regular air-to-air photoshoot, there is much preparation needed. Once a storyboard for the film or photoshoot is agreed upon, the organization process can be immense. People often have to be flown in from all over, boats, planes and cars have to be organized and all the timing has to be set up to work and correspond exactly to plan. Katsu also needs that various permissions for flight formations are obtained in advance and sometimes those can be tricky to get. All in all, it takes a lot of resources to create a successful air-to-air photoshoot and a good manager who can be flexible, calm, collected and focused when the unexpected happens. And normally, something unexpected always happens and last minute adjustments have to be made.

An air-to-air photoshoot can also entail much more complex and challenging situations because there are so many variables. And these variables can change at any given time. Some of them are for example the availability of aircraft and the weather. Planes and jets can have their landing delayed, get grounded, pilots can get sick and the weather in some countries can be more challenging than in others not to mention political changes and time zone misunderstandings. Sometimes the weather changes before you even leave the preflight briefing, causing everything to be delayed again. Or, sometimes once everyone is ready to go, suddenly an alarm goes off and the pilots need to go on a real mission, once again delaying the photoshoot. When there are changing emergencies, Katsu finds solutions that work for everybody, no matter what the situation is. He has also learned that different cultures working together can be fun but also challenging as not everything means the same in every language. Google translate does not always create understanding and Katsu has so much experience traveling and living in different countries with different cultures that he could teach google a thing or two.


I have learned a lot working with Katsu, about being organized, collaborating and the importance of sticking to a plan. When Katsu goes to work, he focuses on making photographs with the best quality. He wants to give the client more than what they expect and loves going the extra mile. Part of Katsu’s success is that he is extremely open to everybody and always curious to know what people think, not just about aviation but also about other things in life. When Katsu travels, he enjoys learning about local cultures and people. Making art in the sky begins with his thoughts and feelings, which he then translates into planning and perfect execution; a trait that has made him famous for creating beautiful art in the sky. Katsu is an artist who loves his work because for him it isn’t a job but a passion he lives and breathes.

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Aurigny Air Services Dornier 228 pilots taking off in the Channel Islands at Guernsey Airport. Can you guess where Katsu is?

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