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‘Star Wars Canyon’: How I got the story

How reporter Ruben Vives got the story about an overlook in Death Valley that is a mecca for the fighter-jet-obsessed

Some stories land on your lap the way a paper plane makes a graceful landing on the ground. That was the case with “Star Wars Canyon.” My colleague Irfan Khan, a photojournalist at The Times, pitched the story — about a place in Death Valley National Park where the fighter-jet-obsessed gather in anticipation of brief, thrilling flyovers — one Saturday afternoon in February. After listening to him and watching video clips, I was beyond curious.

We headed out to the canyon — and Father Crowley Overlook, the best place to watch fighter jets in action — in March. It was nearly 9 a.m. when we parked and began talking to photographers sitting at the rim of the canyon. Around 11 a.m. the first fighter jet made a pass. Some of the photographers dashed to the edge; others jumped up from their chairs and readied cameras mounted on tripods. The excitement and anxiety were palpable. For all anyone knew, this was the only jet they might see during long hours of waiting.

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I was hoping to record a video, but it was all over in a flash. I just couldn’t react quickly enough.

During my time at the overlook, it became clear to me this wasn’t just a story about photography and aviation. It was a narrative about the synchronization of these worlds: the shutter speed of a camera capturing a fighter jet traveling at speeds of up to 500 mph, the skills of a pilot and the skills of a photographer.

This became even clearer when my Times colleague struggled for two days trying to capture a very difficult shot: a fighter jet flying over a crowd of photographers. By Day Two, it was clear that he felt a little discouraged. The aircraft were too high. The aircraft were too low. Khan tried standing in different locations. He prayed. I pleaded with the universe to help him.

Two hours before we left, he got the image he was hoping for. At the rim of the canyon, everyone congratulated him.

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