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And the Oscar Goes to... the Airplane!

Some of the airplanes that loom largest in our collective memory have flown only in the movies

MiG-31 in Firefox (1982)

In 1977, Welsh author Craig Thomas published his bestseller Firefox, which featured a fictitious Soviet fighter based on the most advanced MiG at the time, the -25. Thomas upgraded it with telepathic avionics—it could be flown by thought alone—and dubbed it MiG-31. Five years later, Clint Eastwood directed and starred in the film version. “Clint had some very specific ideas about what he thought the airplane should look like,” says special visual effects producer John Dykstra. “This was when stealth technology was just becoming public. So faceted surfaces were an important part of the design. But at the same time, he wanted it to have the elements of a kick-ass airplane. So it had very large engines, which were antithetical to the stealth concept, and a delta wing configuration. We went with a chisel-shaped nose and added canards.” Several models were built, including a radio-controlled version. “It was a handful to fly,” says Dykstra, a private pilot and RC enthusiast. A full-size mockup was fabricated out of a radio tower skinned with plywood and foam. It was powered by a four-cylinder Volkswagen engine so it could taxi on the runway while turbine fans blew flames out the back of the engine nacelles. Before the movie was released, the Soviets began production of a real MiG-31. But their Foxhound was no match for Eastwood’s Firefox.

Flying Wing in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark
(Casey Cotter)

To fashion several futuristic airplanes for Raiders, set in the 1930s, director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas tapped Ron Cobb, an artist familiar with aviation technology. Cobb was responsible for the Flying Wing that served as the centerpiece for one of Harrison Ford’s most memorable fight scenes. The aircraft appeared to have been derived from the jet-powered Horten Ho 229, tested by the Luftwaffe near the end of World War II, and Northrop’s post-war XB-35 and YB-49 flying wings. In fact, Cobb says he was inspired by experimental pre-war gliders built by Gotha—hence the turned-down wingtips. “Steven wanted it to fly in a steep bank and look like a shark fin while the ‘Jaws’ theme played,” Cobb recalls. “But George, being very practical, said it didn’t need to fly, and he thought four engines was too many, so they cut the ones I wanted on the wingtips.” On the full-size mockup, electric motors turned the propellers. One wheel was bolted to the ground and another was operated by a chain drive that pivoted the airplane in a circle while Karen Allen wreaked havoc with a turret-mounted machine gun. “I don’t think the bubble turret had been invented yet,” Cobb says. “But other than that, I tried to be faithful to the period.”

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