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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.

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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