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The Making of Air Force One

Of course you realize nothing like this could ever happen.

Here’s the concept: Some terrorists have a gripe with the United States. Terrorists are in the business of hijacking airliners, and as any terrorist worth his Semtex knows, there is one airliner without equal: Air Force One. And as along as you are going to hijack Air Force One, you may as well do it while the president and the first family are aboard.

In the action movie Air Force One, Harrison Ford is cast as the president of the United States and Glenn Close as the vice president, but the surprise star of this movie may well turn out to be an airplane: the Boeing 747-146 that plays the part of Air Force One, one of two modified 747-200s operated by the 89th Airlift Wing at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. To create a kind of stunt double for the presidential aircraft, the producers of Air Force One rented a standard production 747 from American International Airways, a charter cargo carrier based in Ypsilanti, Michigan, and founded by former drag-racing champion Conrad “Connie” Kalitta. The Boeing wide body, registered in the United States as N703CK, was the 54th built and the third to enter the Japan Air Lines fleet after it rolled off the production line in June 1970. All the other military aircraft in the film appear as themselves, with the services’ costs paid for by Columbia Tristar Pictures.

The director of Air Force One is Wolfgang Petersen, whose film Das Boot, a gritty tale of life aboard a World War II German submarine, established his penchant for exhaustive research and painstaking accuracy.

To get everything right, Petersen relied on researcher Brian McNulty, who recruited experts from the Secret Service and the military. McNulty also scheduled the military aircraft, a nailbiter of an experience: “I find it to be quite exciting when you order up a dozen aircraft, and your first day of shooting is on a certain day at 1500 hours, and I’m standing there on the tarmac, and at 1500 hours they start to roll in.” McNulty acknowledges that there’s a price for such a high level of cooperation. The Air Force got script approval and the assurance of a positive depiction of the service and its people.

To obtain seamless realism in the flying scenes, which combine actual flying with shots of models as well as special effects created on computers, Petersen relied on McNulty’s experts and David Paris, the man responsible for the planning and coordination of every flying sequence. Paris, a helicopter pilot who learned his craft during eight years in the British Royal Navy, has an eclectic roster of motion pictures to his credit, from Ishtar to Mission Impossible.

Piloting the 747 was Paul Bishop, an AIA captain with more than 25,000 hours, 4,000 of them in 747s. The film involved two primary flying sequences, one shot near the Channel Islands off the California coast and another at Rickenbacker International Airport near Columbus, Ohio. In the latter sequence, Paris had to have the big Boeing veer off the runway, out of control, then take off and barely clear a parked C-141 transport. In the story, the crew members lock themselves into the flight deck after hearing gunfire aboard. They plan to deviate to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where special ground units can storm the airplane and overwhelm the terrorists.

While the AIA 747 was off getting a $300,000 paint job to replicate the Air Force One color scheme, Paul Bishop was busy at meetings to map out how the sequence would be shot. “David [Paris] had a storyboard, like a comic book, where each scene is drawn out,” Bishop recalls. To shoot the portion in which the 747 goes out of control and veers 45 degrees off the runway toward a near-collision, cameraman David Nowell planned to reduce the risk by using a time-honored trick and slow the camera down to half speed: 12 frames per second. “The sequence begins with us [stopped] on the runway, then we accelerate to pass camera center at 60 knots,” Bishop says.

The film crew prepared for the shoot by using the aircraft performance manuals to calculate the acceleration and braking distances for the 747’s weight and the air density at the airport to establish a maximum speed. Then Bishop assigned flight engineer Harvey Sigmon to observe the speed readout on the inertial navigation system while he and copilot Robert Earl “Jet Man” Jeter handled the power and the steering. When the final takes were projected at the normal 24 frames per second, the 60 knots looked like a speedier 120.

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.

Whether real or replicated, Air Force One is more than just an airplane. “What attracted us to the project is the idea that Air Force One is the flying White House…. [As a symbol] it’s as if the president is bringing the crown jewels,” says McNulty. Air Force Once has long embodied presidential prestige and global influence. Now, with Hollywood’s help, add action-movie star power to that list.

About George Larson

George Larson served as editor of Air & Space from 1985 to 2005. He is currently an inactive pilot, but holds a commercial pilot's license, with instrument and multi-engine ratings. He is between airplanes at this time, but has owned or operated a Grumman American AA-5B Tiger and a Mooney 201. He has been writing about aviation since 1972, when he joined the staff of Flying Magazine.

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About Tony Reichhardt

Tony Reichhardt is a senior editor at Air & Space.

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