Once a month, the photographers come out to stalk the moon. It started with Raul Roa.
Roa, a 49-year-old photojournalist, is standing in a Denny's parking lot in Whittier one hazy summer evening, staring at the eastern horizon in anticipation of moonrise, exactly 54 minutes from now. This Denny's, as it happens, is within clear line of sight of the Los Angeles International Airport flight path. If he times it just right, Roa will capture that elusive and peculiar thing he has been chasing for nearly a year now: a photograph of a plane silhouetted against the moon.
His first moon photo was a fluke. He was driving up to Montebello on the 60 freeway one night and there it was, huge as a wheel of cheese in his front window. “I pulled over on the side to the Montebello mall parking lot, near the Macy's,” he recalls. “After that, I tried on purpose to get it.”He started timing the moon. He tracked it in his backyard in Whittier. Soon he was consulting maps, scouting the best locations to see the moon and downloading moon-trajectory cellphone apps. At some point, he figured out that sometimes planes would slip across the face of the full moon. That made for cool photos. He started trying to catch planes in front of the moon by driving along the two flight paths into LAX, which are about four miles apart.
The closer to the airport, he found, the less opportunity to catch a plane in front of the moon. The moon rises fast. And the planes are really low. “You only have a 15-minute window of time,” Roa says.
But there are sweet spots – a park, that Denny's – with a clear view of planes descending from about 25 miles out. There, all he had to do was sit and wait.
Roa, who is a community news staff photographer at the Los Angeles Times, showed his photographer friends his photos. And then they started trying to catch planes in front of the moon. They came up with a clever name for themselves: the Lunartics. As of last July, they've been going out in earnest every 28 days, when the moon waxes into fullness.
“It's pretty fun,” Roa says. “You never know what you're gonna get.” The planes don't all come in at the same level – some descend a little lower, some a little higher. “When you see the plane go by? That's the rush. That's the excitement of it. You scream. And if we miss it, 'Awww,' we feel bad, right? Once we get one, or two, or three shots, it's worth it, the time spent.”
Depending on the date and the weather and the dreariness of the traffic, the Lunartics can number as few as two or as many as 10. Tonight, including Roa, there are five, including portrait and nature photographer Jamie Howren, accompanied by her daughter; photojournalist (and frequent L.A. Weekly contributor) Ted Soqui; and Pulitzer Prize – winning Vietnam-era combat photographer Nick Ut.
“Nicky!” Roa yells, as Ut's car pulls into the lot. Ut, a regular, comes almost every month. “Although it's kind of tense, it's relaxing,” Roa continues. “Two hours will go by quick.” Sometimes they bring Thermoses of coffee and snacks. Every so often, Ut brings Vietnamese moon cakes.
In Roa's eyes, a moon with an airplane in front of it is far from boring. Asked how many photos he's made of that one subject, he scratches his head. “Oh, man. Over a hundred?”
He's shot big planes and little planes. He's shot run-of-the-mill American Airlines 747s and heavy FedEx cargo planes. He's shot planes on the side of the moon, and planes dead smack in the middle. He's shot them in daytime and he's shot them in nighttime.
With different kinds of planes and different kinds of moons, the combinations are infinite. In a year of shooting, he has become a lunar connoisseur. The Lunartics have shot planes going through a blue moon, a red moon, a honey moon, a wolf moon, a harvest moon and a super moon, where the moon is closest to Earth and looks one-third bigger. Roa has shot planes alongside an oblong-shaped gibbous moon, and piercing a wispy fingernail sliver of white crescent moon.
He feels he has barely scratched the surface. For instance, “Out of all the planes I've shot, I've only gotten one plane with the landing gear down,” he says. “You can shoot the moon every single day of the month and it will look different.”
He scrolls now through the Lunartics Facebook page on his smartphone. Sometimes, instead of planes, they'll get other stuff crossing the moon – a crow, a hawk, a helicopter.
“One time we saw something strange, like Star Wars,” offers Ut. “We said, 'What's that?'?”
“Right! We saw something floating,” Roa recalls.
“No, it looked like wires hanging from a square box.”
“I was thinking about that one for a couple months,” Ut says.
As the moon moves, so do the Lunartics. “We chase,” Roa explains. Sometimes it's enough to decamp to the CVS across the plaza. Other times, they drive miles. Tonight, they start at Denny's and follow the flight path to a spot two miles away. “You go this way, that way. Sometimes we wait five minutes, sometimes two hours.” Even then, sometimes it's not enough. At the chosen location, the photographers will spread out in a wobbly line 25 to 30 yards long.
“Some people will get a shot, some will not,” Roa says. “It's a challenge. You have no control over it. You can't move the moon or the plane, so you move yourself.”
At around 8 p.m., the chase begins. “Everybody get in their cars and let's go!” Roa calls out. The caravan rolls to a nearby park, where the photographers deploy their tripods.
“Oh, beautiful moon!” Ut sighs.
The planes are descending from the East. “Maybe this one,” Roa says. “Stay low, stay low. Oh my God, this looks good.”
Then a collective, “Awwww!” as it misses – it's just a few feet too low.
By 10 p.m., planes have come, and planes have gone. Roa has said, “Uh oh, get ready” for what seems like the 100th time. “That's just cruel,” says Howren, watching another jet rumble by. “I feel like we're playing craps in Vegas.”
Roa rubs his neck. “I'm getting dizzy from looking up at the sky.”
“This is nothing,” says Ut. “I've been shot three times. Once in the leg.”
By 11 p.m., everyone is yawning.
“You're quiet tonight,” Howren says to Ut.
“No picture,” Ut mumbles. “Get mad.”
“They play with our emotions,” Roa agrees, miserably.
But at a quarter to midnight, just when all hope seems lost, they see it: a plane, perfectly aligned. “This is it!” someone cries. There's a flurry of clicks as the jet passes overhead. The tip of its wing grazes the moon's outermost edge. The photographers check their shots. Howren is the only one who got it.
“Some girls get excited about Prada. Some get excited about an airplane going over the moon,” she says. Then, with a small, appreciative laugh: “That is one sexy wing.”
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