BTS: Obama, Cameron Visit Dayton

Saturday, March 24, 2012
(NOTE: it's taken me a while to get this item ready to go online so it lacks the relevancy I originally wanted it to have.  Problems securing an interviewee for a school assignment and other lingering issues prevented me from posting this until today.  I hope it was worth the wait!) 

Air Force One sits on the apron at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio on March 13th.

This is the second time that I've written a 'behind-the-scenes' feature and you might be wondering to yourself--where is the ORIGINAL post?  For the Santorum and Romney events earlier this month, I posted the stories first before I wrote up a summary of my personal experiences about the coverage.  I was hoping to do the same thing this time around but, if I can borrow a phrase from Broadway, "a funny thing happened on the way to the tarmac" and the 'BTS' postlude, in this instance, became the story.

Let's start at the beginning.  Local media outlets began to buzz when the White House announced that President Obama and British prime minister David Cameron would be paying a visit to the Dayton area to take in one of the 'First Four' NCAA basketball tournament games on March 13th.  My initial thought was "where are they going to fly into?"  Due to security concerns and assuming that they would want to limit inconveniences to the local population associated with a presidential visit, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base would be the natural choice over the city's James M. Cox International Airport but that wasn't initially known.  Although details about the trip remained close-hold right up to their arrival, it was determined late Friday that Air Force One would fly to the military installation sometime on Tuesday afternoon.

Air Force One on the ground shortly after landing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio on March 13th.

This visit would be the first to this area by a sitting president since George W. Bush came the base's National Museum of the United States Air Force to give an address on the then-current situation in Iraq and other military related issues.  I'm somewhat embarrassed to say this but I have never seen Air Force One on the ground before (I did see it flying away from the base after an earlier Bush visit in September 2004) and I was not going to let this opportunity pass me by.  Without a published itinerary, I wasn't sure if there would be a public ceremony after their arrival and before they headed to the sporting venue so, as a journalist-in-training, I decided to try and see if I could gain access through the base's Public Affairs office and that is where my odyssey would start.

I called them early on Monday morning to inquire about permission to cover the landing in the guise as a reporter/journalist.  The woman I spoke to was very understanding but, unfortunately, she informed me that only credentialed media would be allowed for a short greeting event with base officials and a small handpicked group of military members at the Base Operations hangar.  Depression started to settle in when I put the phone back in its cradle but I was not going to let that initial rejection stand in my way.  I immediately drafted an email where I rehashed what I disclosed over the telephone as well as some personal information about me and my studies.  I even floated the idea of being named an 'adjunct journalist' for their office which could possibly sway a hesitant press office to allowing me to attend.  I hit the 'send' button on mail program and waited for a response.

Front page of the Dayton Daily News on March 14th.

In an additional measure to show just how enthused I was to be there,  I made a trip over to (what I thought was) the PA office but it turned out to be the office of the base's newspaper, the Skywriter, and they were not in a position to help me.  I went to work and waited for any contact (email, phone call) on my follow-up but heard nothing back.  After work, I went out to my car and frantically checked my cellphone for a possible reply via my personal email or voice mail accounts but there wasn't anything to see.  I drove home somewhat despondent and started drawing out my alternate plans for coverage.

I woke up the next morning at my usual time and while in the early preparation stage for my trip to the base (gathered equipment, made sure camera/DVR batteries were fully charged) my phone rang.  I checked the caller ID and it displayed a base prefix so I quickly answered.  Incredibly, it was the PA office calling me to follow up on the email plea that I thought had fallen on deaf ears (and eyes).  The gentleman who called me (I will leave his name out of this posting but I have tucked it away for safekeeping for reasons that you will see later) was touched by my persistence as well as by my desire to cover this historic event.  While he did tell me that chances were slim that I would get to go in close, he did offer me the opportunity to be at the designated media gathering spot to await the White House's decision.  Needless to say, I was in a small state of shock when I confirmed his  information and hung up the phone.

A stairway is in place for President Obama and British prime minister Cameron to disembark from Air Force One to a waiting motorcade at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio on March 13th.

I started to think that today might be the day that I will be in very close proximity to the 'leader of the free world' which would be a major highlight in both my personal and journalistic lives.  For the next hour or so, I floated in a 'fog' of how I envisioned such an encounter might happen but reality eventually resurfaced and I had to start to get ready.  In my surprised state, I forgot to ask what the dress code was for attending media so I opted to play it safe and pulled out my 'power' suit out of my closet.  In my studies, I've been advised to mirror the dress of the person I am covering and I do know that President Obama (like his predecessors) has a closet full of suits that he wears while conducting official business.  A white shirt and a blue-striped tie rounded out my wardrobe selections (when I posted a photo of my clothing choices on my personal Facebook page, one friend thought I might be auditioning for the Secret Service) and as the time grew closer, I headed out, equipment in hand, for the media gathering location.

Front pages of the Columbus Dispatch and Cincinnati Enquirer on March 14th.

When I pulled into the parking lot, I knew that something big was happening.  Half a dozen Ohio State Patrol cars were line up with their occupants milling about prior to receiving their pre-arrival instructions.  On the other side of the lot sat a similar number of press-branded vehicles from the Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati media markets (and probably a few personal vehicles for some of those out-of-town attendees) that would be providing both live and tape-delayed coverage of the president's activities at the base and at the basketball game.  I got out of my car, put on my jacket, gathered my gear, and strode with as much confidence as I could muster to the main door of the facility to meet my PA 'advocate'.  We introduced ourselves and he directed me to head inside to put my name on a 'waiting list' and to keep my fingers crossed.  While I awaited the decision, I had the chance to mingle with several other PA office members as well as a still photographer who turned out to be someone I've known for several years through an online discussion group but had never met in person.  After a 15- to 20-minute period, I got the news that I was secretly dreading--credentialed media only!  With just a short sigh, I collected myself, thanked my sponsor for his help, and headed home to initiate my 'Plan B'.

The base newspaper's coverage of the presidential (and prime ministerial) visit, dated March 16th.

As a military retiree, I am granted access to all US military installations in the United States and a great many in overseas locations (unsure about current war zones).  Upon arriving back home, I hung up the suit and put on a military tee shirt and denim shorts for my return trip to the base.  I chose these clothes because it was an abnormally warm mid-March day and I knew that I would be positioning myself in an open and exposed area for the landing and greeting.  Once I arrived on the installation, I immediately drove to the anticipated location for the formal arrival and my suspicions were confirmed when I saw those previously described law enforcement vehicles making their way to that same area.  I parked in an adjacent lot and began to scout out nearby locations for photos.  The area just outside of the Base Operations hangar seemed to be cordoned off (with security sweeps in progress as I walked past) so I ventured over near some facilities that were in the vicinity of the runway.  As if strictly obeying Murphy's Law, I was unable to get a decent line-of-sight due to obstructing structures or parked aircraft (the planes carrying the presidential motorcade vehicles had arrived earlier in the day).

 My location in relation to the activities on the other side of the flightline.

With time growing short, I decided to sacrifice distance for clarity.  From various bike rides around the base's flightline, I knew there were a few spots on the opposite side where I could avoid those other obstacles and would also be able to look directly at the plane.  Unfortunately, they are a good distance away and would pose problems concerning the limitations of my camera's zoom lens.  My original spot was one that I had used in the past to take photos of other visiting aircraft and I was already aware of the limitations and obstacles (chain link fencing encircles the entire flightline) that I would encounter.  There was also a line of trees to my right that would obstruct the view of Air Force One after it touched down on the runway and for its short taxiing over to its final destination.  In a move that proved to be fortuitous, I packed up my things and sought out another location further down the fence line.  I found one that eliminated the tree problem and (as I would soon find out) mitigated the other issue of the fencing material.  I set up my things around 5PM and began my wait.

Raw footage of Air Force One landing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio on March 13th.

After a couple of false alarms, Air Force One suddenly appeared from the north and touched down at 5:42PM (a bit earlier than the 5:55PM estimate).  It was a graceful landing and the pilot began the deceleration process about halfway down the base's 12,000 foot main runway.  As it made its way past, you can hear the roar of the engines braking the plane's forward progress and slowing it to a manageable speed for controlled ground movement.  Two unmarked vehicles followed the 747 in quick pursuit to meet up at the end of the runway and escort it to the deplaning area.  Being late afternoon, light from the slowly setting sun reflected off of the plane's unique paint scheme and made it seem even more majestic than how it is depicted on television and through other media coverage.

One of the more patriotic photos taken of Air Force One during an undated flyover of Mount Rushmore.  Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force.

Back to the I alluded to above, I was able to find a 'solution' for my fencing problem.  The area I picked for viewing the landing was adjacent to an auxiliary road that is sometimes used to move items to and from the flightline area.  A vehicle can move quickly to an awaiting aircraft by driving through a gated entrance and this portal gave me a novel (and I hope not illegal) way of avoid having parts of rusting metal in my camera's field-of-view.  This entrance consists of two swinging portions that are normally secured together with a chain that has a slight bit of slack.  This extra length allowed me to move one of the gates just far enough away from its companion on the other side to slip my arm between them--an arm holding a digital camera--to bypass that physical and optical barrier.  With my telescoping lens, I was able to get some nice photos of the plane taxiing over to its temporary parking spot but even an extreme zoom feature could not give me the clarity I would need to make out specific individuals (Obama, Cameron) over one mile away.

Unidentified officials await President Obama and British prime minister Cameron stepping off of Air Force One at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio on March 13th.

As initially feared, the plane reversed its orientation and turned to the south on the apron to allow for the awaiting stairs to be pushed up and the occupants to descend in front of the awaiting media personnel.  What I was seeing from my vantage point was from the reverse angle of the many published photos that documented his arrival.  Try as I may, I was not able to get a decent shot of those activities and I attribute this to topography (there was a small berm between the runway and the motorcade that obscured a portion of the scene), the positioning of the awaiting limousines, and my inability to keep my camera stable for a long period of time (I just bought a monopod to help alleviate any future 'shakiness' issues when a tripod would not be feasible--or possible).

Media and military members await the arrival of President Obama and British prime minister Cameron at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio on March 13th.

My physical and mental frustrations started to get the better of me and it was then that I decided to call an end to my attempts.  I packed up my gear and made the trek back over to the other side of the base, stopping along the way to get additional photos of the plane from several other angles.  This drive also served as a 'scouting' trip for any future VIP visits to determine where the best spots would be for a similar event.  I did find one near the flightline that gave me a near head-on view of the plane (not a perfect one, due to a storage container being in the shot) and would've been an excellent place to see the president and prime minister descend the stairway.  Since I needed to go to work, I made the slow trip off base (a lot of people were trying to leave at the same time that I was) and made it home to change and head out yet again.  Before going in to work, I did review my stills and video footage and was pleasantly surprised by how they turned out but secretly disappointed that they couldn't have been from a much closer distance.

The place I was hoping to be taking pictures from--the media riser directly in front of Air Force One.

The main lesson I learned from this day was that I will probably never get to cover a presidential-level event if I lack media credentials.  This is a problem that many bloggers and other non-professional journalists currently face and will only get bigger with the increase of these smaller outlets desiring access to such occasions.  This was the first time that I was denied access to an event that I wanted to cover (I did get lucky for the Romney town hall meeting) and I can bet that it will happen again unless I can devise a way to become credentialed as a student or as an 'adjunct reporter' for a more established media outlet.  I already have a full-time job but I do have some free time where I could submit work for a local newspaper or other organization.  I recently submitted my application to join the Society of Professional Journalists (at the student level) and will hopefully be able to use networking opportunities to seek out a potential 'credentialer'.  I could also ask my school if they might be able to sponsor me for the duration of my studies (what such an agreement with a distance-learning student would entail I am not entirely sure).  A key component of a journalist's persona is persistence and I really want to put this nagging issue behind me.

Air Force One sitting on the flightline at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on March 13th.

The other important thing that came out of this experience was the understanding that this posting (and my earlier military-related reporting) might be in violation of rules governing media activities on Air Force installations.  As I stated earlier, my retiree status gives me nearly unconditional access to locations that others in the media must ask permission to cover.  Since I want to foster a good relationship with the PA folks (and to adhere to the rules that governed--and still do govern--my life today), I made the decision not to 'brand' this item with my 'A/V' or 'BREAKING NEWS!!!' tags.  To further my good intentions, I will coordinate with the base on any future events that I may choose to cover (one that I'm interested in was just announced in this past Thursday's paper).

 This would have been the ideal position!  Too bad I found it after the landing.

In closing, although things didn't go as I had hoped, it was still a remarkable day when you get to see Air Force One landing pretty much right in your own backyard.  I try to follow the president's activities closely and, for at least for a few hours, Dayton was a center of attention for both politics and sports.  I am posting some of the photographs from this event that have already been published and posted in local, national, and international media sources and on the web.  I'm not doing this because I'm bitter for not being included; on the contrary, these photojournalists have 'paid their dues' and are now reaping the rewards for their amassed experience and career accomplishments.  It's simply a motivational homage to that one day (hopefully not in the distant future) when I can stand among them.

  (Ty Greenlees / Dayton Daily News)

(Carolyn Kaster / AP)

( Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images  )

 (Ty Greenlees / Dayton Daily News)

 (Greg Lynch / Dayton Daily News)

(Carolyn Kaster / AP) 

1 comment:

Silvia John said...

There are only two military bases in the whole state of Ohio. The Air Force and Coast Guard both have one, no: Army, Navy, or Marines Corps. Wright-Patterson AFB is the 5th largest employer in Ohio. To know more please visit this military bases in Ohio by state website.

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