Primary shooting with the actors began in April at the Royal Air Force Halton base, outside London, where set designers created a full-scale mockup of a World War I aerodrome, complete with huge canvas hangars, a machine shop, a canteen, and assorted period vehicles. Full-scale but non-flying mockups of Nieuports, Sopwiths, and Fokkers were built to fill out the flightline.
One of the major challenges in filming Flyboys was finding locations appropriate for the time period, devoid of modern buildings and roads. And the landscape had to look like France. The Lafayette Escadrille was based in Chaudun, northeast of Paris, near the German border.
For the most part, these limitations led to filming at national parks or grand old estates. The producers got lucky when the British army gave them permission to film at the 30,000-acre Stanford Training Area, carved from a section of East Anglia in 1942 as part of the preparations for the Allied invasion of Europe. In the construction of the military range, the government evacuated six villages, leaving them perfectly preserved in their 1942 condition (which could double for 1917 in a pinch, especially from a few thousand feet up).
With the fleet of aircraft in place on a set that created a believable illusion of 1917 France, Bill and the pilots were ready to re-create World War I aerial combat.
"In researching Flyboys," says Bill, "I came across some amazing footage of early aerial stunts—crashing real airplanes into real houses, into lakes, into trees. [There was] one incredible stunt of a pilot stalling and spinning his plane into a barn." But Bill wasn’t looking for stunt flying; "I wanted aerial combat circa-1917, a very different form of aerobatic and reckless flying."
There is no existing footage of aerial combat in World War I. Bill and his screenwriter David Ward created scenes from 1917 based on their imaginations. "The [flying sequences] were written by David first as part of our story, not as reproductions of any particular event," says Bill. "This is not a documentary."
On the set of Flyboys, safety was paramount. "Our pilots wore chutes, but I dreaded any of them trying to get out of those tiny cockpits in time to deploy them," he says. "Several pilots died making movies like Hell’s Angels, [and] no movie is worth death or even injury."
For the pilots, flying the antiques was physically hard work. Though the radial engine replicas are easier to fly than the rotary engine originals, early fighter aircraft are notoriously tricky and unforgiving. The controls are heavy and imprecise, requiring constant adjustments by the pilot and absolute concentration, particularly in low-level flight or tight formation. Pushed to their limits by the demands of the airplanes and the director’s quest for the perfect shot, the pilots returned after two hours of airborne shooting stressed out and sweaty, their arms sore; sometimes they were so exhausted they could climb from the cockpit only if someone helped them.
The flight sequences filmed early on were relatively simple: basic shots with the actors, takeoffs and landings, and formation flying. "We did a lot of taxiing in those first few weeks," says King, who arrived in early May, along with Kellett and most of the other stunt pilots.
The dogfighting sequences were done later, and for the most part, those were computer-generated.