UNLESS YOU WERE A U.S. OR ALLIED MILITARY PILOT, you could never hope to get a front seat to view a Red Flag exercise, the intense air combat training held at Nevada’s Nellis Air Force Base. Now an IMAX® film produced by Stephen Low and Pietro Serapiglia will provide audiences in large-format theaters worldwide with the sights and sounds of the world’s most exciting aerial arena.
Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag, sponsored by Boeing, will premiere on December 9 at the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport in Virginia, just in time for the first anniversary of the facility’s opening. Audiences will experience events through the eyes of an actual fighter pilot, U.S. Air Force Captain John Stratton.
Airborne IMAX cameras capture the whirling action as blue (friendly) and red (not so friendly) forces tangle. The blues’ mission is taking out ground targets, while the reds, made up of Nellis’ Adversary Tactics Division pilots, who are trained in the tactics used by hostile nations, defend against the attack. Since it was started in 1975, Red Flag is estimated to have trained some 400,000 U.S. and allied military air crew members.
The training is as realistic as the instructors can make it without deliberately putting the participants in life-threatening situations. The range can confront pilots with electronic jamming, simulated anti-aircraft missiles and artillery, and hostile radar sites. Even though Red Flag is a simulation, Stratton says, the pilots’ stress level is as high as or higher than it is in actual combat. And being told you’ve been shot down is a real low.
At the heart of the training is the sophisticated Nellis Air Combat Training System, or NACTS, engineered by the Cubic Corporation. NACTS can track up to 100 aircraft in the restricted airspace over Nellis’ vast desert training ranges. Each aircraft carries a sensor and communication pod, and transmissions from the sensors, as well as the pilots’ radio transmissions, are picked up by ground stations scattered throughout the huge training range. A central computer records the action for replay during classroom debriefings. During these sometimes frank sessions, each pilot gets to re-experience decisions that led to scoring or being scored upon.
Fighter Pilot explores almost all aspects of the weeks-long Red Flag experience, from the classroom to all-night maintenance sessions, from fire drills to search-and-rescue operations. The 40-plus-minute IMAX experience is an action catalog of U.S. and allied fighters, along with the tankers, transports, and helicopters that support their mission. And Stratton himself has a back story that forms the bookends for the film: His grandfather was a Vought F4U Corsair pilot and recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross during World War II, inspiring Stratton to pursue an Air Force career.
With their eight-story screens and digital audio systems, IMAX theaters provide the best way for viewers to experience the intensity of air-combat action. The dates when Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag will open in IMAX theaters are still tentative; check www.airspacemag.com for a schedule and for additional locations as more dates become firm.