U-2 Spy Plane Pilot Captures Stunning Up-Close Photos of Northern Lights

Northern Lights from U2 Airplane

Many photographers are enchanted by the colorful glow of the Northern Lights, but no one has ever photographed them quite like Ross Franquemont. Based out of the Beale Air Force Base in California, Franquemont is a U-2 pilot and instructor with a passion for photography. On a recent overseas mission from the UK, a run through the Northern Lights at 70,000 feet provided him with an incredible setting for some one-of-a-kind photographs.

Also known as the “Dragon Lady,” the U-2 is a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft that was introduced in the 1950s. Now operated by the Air Force, it was previously used by the CIA to gather intelligence during the Cold War. Though Franquemont admits that almost any type of camera will result in a good photo due to the unique perspective of the U-2, he's become increasingly interested in the artistry and technique of his photos.

This recent run was a first for Franquemont. “I honestly wasn't prepared for how amazing it was to fly through the northern lights and feel like you could practically touch it. I had never seen the Aurora in person and I think I thought it would be more of a green haze or blob,” Franquemont tells My Modern Met. “And that's how it was when I first spotted it. It was just a kind of greyish haze over the horizon. The pictures showed that it was, indeed, green and I knew I had some Northern Lights. As I moved into the line, the intensity blossomed. There were crisp spires of light easily seen with the naked eye that faded from green to red as they rose in the atmosphere. It moved and changed shape at an incredible pace. I remember thinking, ‘I have to capture this somehow.'”

Northern Lights from Airplane

The photos most certainly show the greens and purples of the Aurora Borealis as they dance across the sky. They demonstrate just how vibrant the colors are, regardless of the altitude. And, of course, what better selfie moment is there than in a spy plane with the Northern Lights behind you? But Franquemont's photo wizardry isn't owed solely to the location. There's a fair amount of skill involved in taking photographs in a vibrating plane traveling at 500 mph while wearing a space suit that restricts motion and visibility.

“To get somewhat crisp shots, I had to use a pretty fast shutter speed, no faster than about a second. My wide angle lens could open to f2.8 and to get anything usable, I had to bump the ISO up to about 8000. I knew that movement would be an issue but I wasn't sure until I was shooting it what settings I would use. I found that to get even crisper shots, I had to speed up the shutter even more because of how fast the aurora itself was changing. This meant an even higher ISO. Most of the shots have a noticeable grain from the high ISO. Shooting the selfies was also a challenge. I actually took those on a whim and hadn't planned on it.”

So what are Franquemont's plans the next time he happens to race through the Northern Lights at high-altitude? “I'd like another swing through the Northern Lights but to make a full time-lapse of the encounter with a mounted camera.” Be on the lookout for that. In the meantime, as he keeps photographing while flying, he'll be sure to be on high alert for a moment he missed the first time around—low-level thunderstorms that lit up the world below him like a disco ball.

U-2 pilot Ross Franquemont is also a talented photographer who captured the Northern Lights while flying the high-altitude airplane.

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Ross Franquemont: Facebook

My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Ross Franquemont.

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Jessica Stewart

Jessica Stewart is a Contributing Writer and Digital Media Specialist for My Modern Met, as well as a curator and art historian. Since 2020, she is also one of the co-hosts of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. She earned her MA in Renaissance Studies from University College London and now lives in Rome, Italy. She cultivated expertise in street art which led to the purchase of her photographic archive by the Treccani Italian Encyclopedia in 2014. When she’s not spending time with her three dogs, she also manages the studio of a successful street artist. In 2013, she authored the book 'Street Art Stories Roma' and most recently contributed to 'Crossroads: A Glimpse Into the Life of Alice Pasquini'. You can follow her adventures online at @romephotoblog.
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