The Making of Air Force One
Of course you realize nothing like this could ever happen.
- By George C. Larson
- Air & Space magazine, August 1997
(Page 2 of 3)
Bishop repeated this and other action sequences through 10 takes and 60 hours on the 747’s clock, which were stretched over many days by the limits of moviemaking and of the airplane itself. The landing at Ramstein is supposed to take place at night, but in order to get the light they wanted the camera crews could shoot only within a 15-minute window after sunset or before sunrise. And, like any star, the 747 had its own special needs. The 16 sets of brakes (only the nosewheels are not braked) have to be cooled down after each run. And it wouldn’t have been moviemaking without the glitches: In one instance a “doghouse” sheltering a ground-level camera was blown over by the jet blast from the number two engine; the moviemakers rebuilt it and anchored it securely. Then early one morning, with a front moving in and ground traffic sending the crew on long detours around the taxiways of Rickenbacker, they rolled the dice to perform a final take. And the gamble came up snake eyes.
“We ‘thermalled’ the tires,” Bishop says, “and the boss was not happy with that.” What happened was actually a built-in safeguard doing its job: To prevent explosive failure of the tires and rims from heat buildup, the braked wheels on the 747 have metallic plugs that melt on overheating to release all the air in the tire. Even taxiing creates tire heat, and the 747-146 is limited to slightly less than seven miles on the roll before it has to stop and cool its wheels. Somehow, in the course of braking hard and taxiing back for another take, the tires had built up enough heat to melt the plugs. “It happened at 6 a.m., and by 6 p.m. it was ready [to fly again].” Bishop says, crediting his crew for the rapid turnaround.
The shoot planned for the area near California’s Channel Islands involved a sequence wherein commandos extend a line from a Fulton Winch mounted in an MC-130 Combat Talon to an entry hatch on Air Force One. The commandos are supposed to slide down the line to get aboard the airplane, then reverse the process to get off.
This time, weather was the problem. To establish that the airplanes are over the ocean during this sequence, the cameras needed a view of the water. “What we got was crud from 4,000 feet down to sea level,” Bishop says. “And it was persistent. We were out there for almost two weeks…and we would take off every morning two hours before sunrise and look for a hole until the envelope for filming expired.”
Eventually, they got a break in the weather than enabled them to join up with the MC-130 and with the modified North American B-25 Mitchell camera plane. Flying at about 200 mph, well below the 747’s speed when it is slowing to approach an airport, Bishop flew with the flaps extended 10 degrees throughout the sequence. The formation join-up involving three “dissimilar airplanes,” as Bishop understates the problem, was ticklish. The 747 cruises at more than 600 mph, C-130s are comfy at 350 mph, and on a good day, the B-25 can handled maybe 230, tops.
The MC-130 flew with a cable trailing behind it; the special effects wizards completed the linkup by connecting the cable end to the 747 with their computers. “They also add the people,” Bishop says, though there was one exception when the moviemakers tried to put a human figure on the cable. “They did trail a dummy—they called him Felix, dressed in a suit and tie, out of the Talon. But [the 747’s] bow wave was moving him around, and first his tie comes off, and then his coat comes off, and I’m hoping it doesn’t enter our number two engine.” They decided to ditch Felix.
Bishop had to fly in tight formation with the turboprop MC-130, responding to direction from the camera crew aboard the B-25. Using hand signals, they told him how they wanted him to adjust his position. Bishop established a visual reference somewhere on the MC-130, sometimes lining up a wingtip light with a spot on the smaller airplane’s fuselage or lining up one of its antennas with a spot on his own windshield. Throughout this series, Bishop’s cockpit was only a few feet away from the Talon’s wingtip, and the other aircraft’s tail was about the same distance from his number two engine on the 747’s left wing. “I never thought I’d reach the age of 57 and have an experience like this,” he says.
Although the 747 featured in Air Force One lacks the bulge in the nose of aerial refueling equipment and a few of the antennas found on the fuselage of the real Air Force One, the accuracy of its paint and studio-supplied decal markings fooled a lot of people on the ramp at Los Angeles International Airport, who believed the president was in town. The ensuing uproar was easy to allay compared to the excitement of the young fliers aboard a pair of F/A-18s who were scrambled to intercept some unexplained radar targets. “They came up and saw what looked like Air Force One full of bullet holes [simulated by decals],” Bishop recalls. “Once they ID’ed it, [Los Angeles Center] told them who we were and they broke off and went home. But I can just imagine what was going through their minds,” Bishop says, chuckling.