“I Love Them All:” Pilot and Photographer Adam Senatori Talks About Shooting the World’s Biggest Airshows

By Tomas Kellner

In 2012, Chicago-based pilot and photographer Adam Senatori won an Instagram photo contest sponsored by GE. The award was a first class trip to GE Aviation’s factory in Wales.

While he was there, Senatori shot photos for GE’s Instagram account and made animated GIFs of the plant’s assembly line. The work caught the eye of Katrina Craigwell, GE’s director of global content and programming, who started dispatching Senatori to document big airshows around the world.

Senatori, who just returned home from the 2015 Paris Air Show, gave GE Reports a guided tour of this exclusive world.

Top image: Senatori says the light was perfect at last year’s Farnborough Air Show. Here the U.S. Navy’s submarine-hunting Boeing P-8 Poseidon plane, which is powered by a pair of CFM56 engines, climbs through the clouds. Above: This Airbus A380 has four engines from Engine Alliance. GE is a partner in both CFM and EA. Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports

Tomas Kellner: What do you look for when you start shooting an airshow?

Adam Senatori: Efficiency is key. Global airshows are enormous, often covering acres of tarmac. Simply walking around all day with gear that can easily weigh 50 pounds is exhausting. It’s been incredibly beneficial to use years of airshow experience to my advantage and predict what will happen and when, and position myself for the best shot.

I start planning weeks before the show opens. I’ll begin researching which aircraft are scheduled to attend and will build my shot list from that. Airshows are dynamic, vast events that are subject to random weather, changing schedules and of course the economy.

When I arrive at the show, the very first thing I do is simply walk the grounds and assess the light and available angles I’ll have to work with for the week.

TK: Is there something specific you are looking for?

AS: I always make a point to get images of rare aircraft that may be on static display or part of the flying display. Airshows usually involve military aircraft that simply are not publicly visible. A great example of this was the Sukhoi SU-35 (above) at the 2013 Paris Airshow.

Also, I focus on the leading technology that’s on display, like the GEnx jet engine. Airshows are often the only time to create images of brand new engines on factory-fresh aircraft. Everything is clean and pristine!

Top: Senatori captured the now-famous Vietnam Airlines Dreamliner in Paris during its iconic near-vertical takeoff. Above: Although the Dreamliner flew there from West Coast of the U.S., its GEnx engines were spotless. Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports

TK: What about the people who visit airshows? What is the crowd like? Do you try to capture them in your pictures?

AS: Yes, I try to capture the crowd, or at least the human element. A good example of this is the image I made at the Dubai Airshow in 2013 of a trade visitor standing behind a GEnx engine. People help me show the enormity of the technology (see above).

I prefer to shoot images of visitors interacting with the show, whether they are watching the flying display or checking out the aircraft on the ground.

Visitors at the Paris Air Show are sitting on a yellow runway sign and waiting for afternoon flyovers to begin. Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports

The big airshows are also big business. GE and its partners won $19 billion in new engine orders and commitments in Paris this month. Boeing and Airbus pulled in a combined $107 billion. Above: Visitors posing in front of the world’s largest jet engine, the GE90, powering a China Airlines Boeing 777. Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports

TK: Of all the airshows you visited, do you have a favorite one?

AS: I love them all. Each event is a unique character.

From a shooting perspective though, Farnborough gets the edge for getting solid shots of aircraft flying because the clouds are always full of contrast. This provides a nice dramatic backdrop for the aircraft and I can get fairly close to the runway.

Dubai gets the award for making shots of aircraft on the tarmac, because the background is stark and clean.

Paris… well it’s a beautiful event, well run and, let’s be honest, it’s the best city to visit!

Another day begins at the Paris Air Show. Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports

A biplane flyover in Paris. Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports

A Rafale fighter jet flyover in Paris. Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports

An Airbus A350 at the Paris Air Show. Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports

From this perspective, it is hard to believe that as many as 280 passengers fit inside the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports

The Vietnam Airlines Dreamliner is approaching the Paris Air Show held at the Le Bourget airport, while a Turkish Airlines jet in the background is taking off from the nearby Charles De Gaulle Airport, Paris’ main airline gateway. Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports

Airshow visitors in Dubai. Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports

Senatori in the cockpit of a brand new Qatar Airways Airbus A380 at the Paris Air Show. Image credit: Adam Senatori for GE Reports