For the last two years Rich Cooper and Steve Comber have been hard at work putting together some amazing aviation photography opportunities. From exclusive access to military operations and air to air missions, to professional workshops and trips around the world, they've done it all. And already the itinerary for the coming year is posted on the Centre of Aviation Photography website. In this article we'll try to find out what makes them tick, what it takes to run an organisation like COAP and where they'll go from here.

Words & Photography: Richard Cooper

Rich, could you tell us a bit about the Centre of Aviation Photography and its goals.

COAP is a professional organisation that is run by two of the world’s leading aviation photographers to work a close-quarters with militaries and aviation organisations all over the world to deliver first-class results. We have decades of pro experience in journalism and photography and undertake Assignments with small groups of dedicated photographers of all experience levels, and these include military units and commercial operators, experiencing the action of men, women and machines on the frontline.

It is not just about getting access all areas (though that is a big part), but also about the learning of different levels of photography and post-processing, the development of your hobby into tangible end products, sharing experience, working alongside pros all over the world, meeting and discussing relevant topics with the people that are best in the business, the social side and the belonging to something that is year-round. It is also a not-for-profit set-up, which enables UK charitable donations.

There is nothing better than creating incredible opportunities for photographers, and then to coach them through the delivery of the results and to have the host unit – from the top down – blown away by what they receive at the end of it all. Nothing like it.

So, how did COAP start and who are the people behind COAP?

I worked as editor of Combat Aircraft and Deputy Editor of Aircraft Illustrated for a decade and, at the time (1998-2008) there were a lot (and I mean a lot) of great types being withdrawn from service. I was able to get awesome opportunities and, as I built close relationships out of those, I was able to ask if, when I return, whether I could bring some of my readers with me. The first catalyst for that was the Italian AF F-104 Starfighters at Grazzanise. I had visited about four times and loved it and knew the people and the base inside out… I asked the Base Commander if I could bring some readers of Aircraft Illustrated with me the next time I visited (this was now in their last few months of operation). He said “Sure, why not?” and asked how many. He misheard my reply of “40 people, a coach load?”… He thought I said “14 people”… When I corrected him, I thought that might put a spanner in the works. Instead he just thought for a moment longer and said “Sure…. We’ll just order more pizza!”

And that was that, the “AI Readers Tours” was born and I actually ended up taking two coach loads of 40 people to Grazzanise in the space of a month or so. It was going crazy and the phones were in melt down every time we announced a Tour. As it was proving to be a very interesting concept, we firmed up the orgsanisation a little and made it into the structure of what was called “The Aviation Photo Club”. The APC went on to undertake 20 Photo Tours to 11 countries in four years to much acclaim.

I then left the publishing business and worked in the charity sector for around four years, before going freelance in the aviation world again. Around that time (c2013-2014) I could see a real need to harness the wave of digital photography and was being asked a lot to re-establish “The APC”. It was also interesting that there was no social media back in the APC days, so it was all very different at the time of considering whether to go for it again or now.

Opportunities are getting harder for a million reasons, yet the number of photographers is increasing all the time so I felt that, with over 20 years of professional journalism and photographic experience behind me, I could bring something to that table. You need to look hard to see those opportunities for operational military access, but they are still there if you work hard enough and that is what I do…. I set up a programme that I personally want to undertake/report on, and take small groups along to achieve specific results. Sometimes that is purely updating image libraries for PR purposes, often it involves media and printed publication and our specialty of tailored eBooks to showcase the units and organisations.

In the period that I was purely freelance, I worked very closely with Steve Comber, surely one of the world’s most travelled and experienced aviation photographers. He can certainly tell a good story or three about it all! He’s also a great friend. We set about creating COAP and it was established in early 2015 and our first event was in April of that year.

We’ve delivered 23x Assignments, 3x Exotic Wings, 4x Photo Shoots, 4x stand-alone Workshops and 12x air-to-air missions since April 2015.

Needless to say, it’s been quite a ride.

In just under two years we have become a reputation as “the most respected organisation of aviation photographers in the world” (not our words!). We have had marketing directors of defence contractors say that they “just love the results that COAP achieves”; US Air Force PA units state they are “constantly amazed by how we portray life on squadrons”; airshow organisers say “all I can say is thank you – the COAP team delivered brilliant results”; Air Force HQs offer such things as “it is an honour to work with such professionals”… and that’s not to even touch on the feedback we’ve received from those that are part of those teams joining an Assignment or attending a Workshop, with things like “total game changer”; “the best experience of my life so far”; and “extraordinary – more intense than the most beautiful of my dreams...”

Needless to say, it’s been quite a ride.

What kind of events do Steve and you organise?

Assignments are for photographers of any level of experience and are dedicated to spending quality time in the best vantage points, to get under the skin of a unit or organisation, all executed with full security and safety procedures in place. Such visits have delivered world-class end results for the hosts, as well media and print publication where appropriate, and our speciality is the eBooks which work as a fantastic tool for PR purposes as well as showing life on an operational unit (the men, women and machines).

These are usually written by the hosts themselves as well, so it showcases what they want and how they want it – saturated by the group’s awesome imagery and designed and edited by us. Furthermore, there will often be a Workshop built into an Assignment, whereby aircrew or specialist aviation photographers present to the group in a relaxed, interactive format… but (fantastically), a lot of the guys have found that just coming away for a week with us, and being totally immersed in aviation photography and all the guts, glory, blood, sweat and tears that goes with it, acts as a week-long Workshop in itself!

What kind of work goes into organising an event?

Now there’s a question! For me, it is all about relationship. I need to build a lot of trust with a military unit to host a group of 10 or so photographers from all over the world. That’s a lot of trust there. However, in terms of a footprint, it’s quite minimal as we work operationally – we shadow what is going on, so once the concept is grasped, the real work starts our end.

One of our strengths is also one of our biggest challenges. We predominantly work with operational military squadrons – not airshows or set events. So, we are very much at the mercy of a million factors of weather, serviceability, security, operational sensitivity, manpower, deployments… the list goes on. We also only work with small groups, so there’s no “bulk” involved. I think the most we have travelled with is 15, very deliberately because of the access we aim for and how we travel (again relationships being key).

Also, as a result of the operational nature of our ops, we can rarely predict the dates. They will always, always change. That means it is then harder to cost events as they are often last minute and therefore airfare and hotels are at a premium. It’s a constant battle getting people enough notice to travel.

We are fortunate to have Ian Allan Travel as our logistics provider. Absolutely sound, full backed up, by the books, legitimate pro travel agents that have been in business for over 60 years. Real peace of mind! They look after all the logistics and we implement it, whilst we look after all the operational access and project delivery. I’ve worked with the guys there for about 15 years now.

What were the highlights up till now?

There’s been many different types of highlights. Obviously there’s been a ton of moments involving aircraft and aviation but it has also been seeing the actual, tangible impact this has had on individual photographers – it’s quite incredible – whether that’s a dramatic improvement in their final results or a reinvigoration of their pursuit, right up to getting guys to become published authors for the first time. How cool is that?!

I’ve also had the privilege of lots of ‘firsts’ for people – whether that’s the first time they’ve shot aircraft, first operational visit or first air-to-air… and I can tell you, the beaming smiles after those things is a highlight to behold.

Being asked by units and air arms to undertake an Assignment with them is the ultimate and that’s happening for real. Producing first-class end results and seeing the units’ message and mission ‘get out there’ is just awesome and their feedback is just mind-blowing sometimes.

Overall, bottom line, it’s the people you meet and the relationships you build.

But, I suppose if you were to pin me down to aviation highlights, it’d be things like the Bulgarian visit to shoot MiG-21s, MiG-29s and Su-25s at the same base (and going air-to-air and all the teamwork that went into that coming off). Obviously all of the aerial work is special – and mention has to go to the epic success of the F-16 and F-35 shoot over Arizona (so, so many last minute hurdles), working hard in the air in Finland and of course the famous day in Rainbow Canyon with over 80 passes of low-level jets (and always working with the best people in the world to make these happen). Ground-wise, I’ve loved some of the stuff we’ve done in the UK with the RAF, really loved it (with some decent charity stuff to boot) and Switzerland is always fantastic. Ukraine was an incredible experience - so much cool and rare action – and I still can’t really get my head around the fact that North Korea actually happened. Seriously... like, what?!

Overall, bottom line, it’s the people you meet and the relationships you build. They’re just lumps of metal without that (though admittedly, pretty darn cool lumps of metal haha).

What can people expect when attending an event?

A full-on immersion in aviation photography. Whether you are a seasoned pro or new shooter, we are pretty confident in saying you won’t have experienced much like it before.

The social side is a massively important factor and the fact that Steve and I have worked so closely for so many years (and are good friends) means for a great foundation and working environment.

You can put as little or as much effort in after the event as you want – if you want me to mentor you through the whole process from start to finish, with shooting, interviewing, post-processing and writing all the way, then let’s do it!

Each trip is 110% photography. Rarely do we go on an Assignment for just one day at one place, with two or even three days spent on location… and sometimes that will mean shooting just a handful of jets for 2-3 days solid. And I mean solid. All weathers, all lighting conditions, all vantage points, day and night. You will come away with results that have the potential to blow you away.

Of course, there are a MILLION things that can go wrong in the world of frontline military operations. I mentioned earlier the weather, ops, security, technical… everything, so everyone that signs up for an Assignment must be aware of that. Last minute clearances, higher prices as a result of airline/hotel costs. They are all limiting factors but just anyone that’s experienced it how much of an aviation photography injection they receive!

What has been cool is that we’ve now run events that are completely free, events that are purely for charitable purposes, events from £60 and events up to £3,000. We really encourage people to sign up for as much as they think they might be interested in – it costs nothing to sign up and you then register (for free) for each event and you wait for the news, updates and instructions. That way, the ones registered get the chance to book first, so you’re in a smaller pool of people specific to an event, rather than an entire database.

Is COAP open to everybody or do you require a certain experience level?

Everyone, anybody, all of the time. However, and this is important – often we are outside for 12-14hrs a day either in boiling hot or freezing cold conditions on physically-demanding airfields with next to no ‘creature comforts’. It can be really, really hard work. Long drives too. Being physically fit is important and sometimes, disabled access is just not possible. However, we clearly state which of the Assignments are more suitable than others.

There is also occasions when the Assignments are absolutely geared to producing media and articles and, sometimes, that will mean a magazine accreditation is required. Again, this is always completely transparent and, if you’ve never gone there before and want to, then that’s what we do! At the same time, there is never any pressure for all of the group to submit images. It is entirely elective.

Which events do you have lined up for this year?
Well our 2017 kicked off with two Assignments to Sion, Switzerland, with four days at the WEF protection missions and then a further two days on base (super rare) once the live-weapons had been put away!

Already the dates for the next ops are changing. This really is a tricky part. We completely understand that everyone needs to know dates as far in advance as possible so we put out a calendar of our intended operations, showing whom we are engaged with, and continually shape it as the months roll on.

Right now (as these words are types) we are working hard on the Hungarian AF, Royal Netherlands AF, RAF Lakenheath, RAF Odiham, Bulgarian AF, Japan, the USAF, USMC, USN and ANG in CONUS as well as of course the events that are set on the calendar such as a return to North Korea, the RIAT set up with the Aviation PhotoCrew and other similar projects. No word of a lie there’s just too many to list, so I constantly encourage people to make sure they are signed up to the website.

As an insiders’ note… May I encourage you to look between the lines. I am a professional aviation photographer that has been in the business over 25 years. If you see an Assignment to a particular base that might, for example, have a tanker unit stationed… then of course I am going to be pushing for that. I can’t, however, shout about it all over the website – indeed, I won’t. But I will always, always answer any e-mails and direct questions about the specifics of an Assignment.

It’s such a fluid thing that putting such a thing out there, months in advance, would just be unwise, presumptuous and unprofessional.

What’s the future of COAP - any new developments?

So many ideas! I love building a community of photographers and having them really feel like they belong to something, making sure they get a very personal service and, actually, become good friends. I hope I am achieving that.

In the near term, I want to see more of our famous eBooks out there, as well as delivering more workshops and more gatherings (so not just the expansion of the Assignments). Our website is going to have a Mid-Life Update (ha!) and I can see more people joining the team in various capacities and our social media presence continuing to get stronger and stronger in all areas. I am blessed to be able to have so many great relationships with the best photographers all over the world and am very thankful for that – I’ve enjoyed harnessing the industry to a small degree and look forward to more.

COAP still has massive potential. It’s still less than two years old! I can see it expanding into other countries, into other genres, and indeed other products – all intrinsically related to the brilliant world of photography.