Aerial photographer 'clicks' with 25-year Edwards career
By Airman 1st Class Stacy Sanchez, 95th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 13, 2008
EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- A flight test bug bit an Edwards Airman 25 years ago, and since then, he has been telling the base's story through pictures.
Steve Zapka, now a civilian aerial photographer here, first arrived at Edwards on Sept. 1, 1982, as a military aerial photographer.
"I felt like one lucky Airman," Mr. Zapka said. "When I heard I had the opportunity to train and become an aerial photographer, I didn't hesitate to come to Edwards. Ever since I've become a photographer, I have been so passionate about my job."
From 1981 to 1985, Mr. Zapka was an active-duty aerial photographer. After a four-year enlistment, he decided to enter the Air Force Reserves as an individual mobilization augmentee here until 2000.
Though no longer on active-duty, Mr. Zapka's love for photography transcended into the civilian world as he accepted a job as an aerial photographer with an aircraft company.
During his time in the Reserves, Mr. Zapka juggled his full-time job as an aerial photographer for McDonnell Douglas and his once a month visits to Edwards to document missions.
"I switched work hats quite often," Mr. Zapka said. "I wore my McDonnell Douglas hat when I needed to, then changed and wore my Air Force Flight Test Center hat when I came back to Edwards."
Though Mr. Zapka is now the project manager for Rohmann Services Inc., the audiovisual contractor for Edwards, he still finds time to indulge in his first love -- aerial photography -- twice a month.
Over the last 25 years at Edwards, Mr. Zapka garnered more than 5,000 hours flying in various aircraft such as the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-18 Hornet, L-39 Albatross, F-4 Phantom, T-38 Talon, A-4 Skyhawk, C-17 Globemaster, C-130 Hercules, KC-135 Stratotanker and the KC-10 Extender.
Some of his aerial projects have included the documentation of a shootdown of an anti-satellite weapon. He also helped document paratrooper jumps off a C-141 Starlifter.
"If you speak with anybody who knows Steve even a little bit, they have heard stories of his aerial photo days," said Bobbi Zapka, his wife and also an aerial photographer. "His eyes and face light up, and he gets so excited about any opportunity to speak about something he loves and is so passionate about. Aerial photography is his first love."
Not only did the La Mirada, Calif., native discover his passion for flight test here, he also found his wife.
"I met my wife Bobbi briefly in 1998 when I had to do a photo shoot in Arizona," Mr. Zapka said. "She was an aerial photographer at National Test Pilot School in Mojave, Calif., at the time but ended up getting a job at Edwards. After getting along so well for so many years, it was only natural that we ended up getting married."
To celebrate Mr. Zapka's time at Edwards, Lt. Col. Carl Schaefer, 445th Flight Test Squadron commander, recently presented Mr. Zapka with a flag and shadow box for his completion of 25 years.
"When I heard that Steve was completing 25 years at Edwards, I was honored to present this memento to him," Colonel Schaefer said. "There are very few people who have done what he has done here."
Growing up, Mr. Zapka said he never knew what was waiting for him "on the other side of the mountains."
"How many people can say that their first job in the military was to chase and take photos of the B-1," Mr. Zapka said. "I touched every major mission on base for the last 25 years. Still today, I am able fly a few times a month and do what I did several years ago."
Mr. Zapka said he couldn't have gone this far without all the help of the people who trained him in the beginning of his career as well as the people he is working with today.
"I learned from guys who had been photographers for more than 20 years," Mr. Zapka said. "My trainers were outstanding. I owe a lot of my great training to my trainers at the time who taught me all about motion pictures and still photography."
Mr. Zapka said if given a chance, he would do it all over again in a heart beat.
"I love to be around the test pilots here," Mr. Zapka said. "My job is all about telling a story and marketing a plane. I can go on and on with all sorts of great stories about this job. It meant so much to me when the (445th FLTS) presented me with a gift for completing 25 years. Our job can be stressful at times, but it is worth it."