At the Movies: Take Two
World War I airplanes star in a feature film about the Lafayette Escadrille.
- By Tom LeCompte
- Air & Space magazine, July 2006
(Page 2 of 11)
Director Tony Bill, a 3,500-hour commercial pilot with experience in gliders and aerobatics, first thought about making such a film 30 years ago. In the late 1960s, Bill and aviation writer Richard Bach spent a summer barnstorming in Kansas, giving demonstrations and selling rides in Bach’s vintage biplane, a 1929 Parks P2A. A few years later, when Bill was a young producer, he pitched director George Roy Hill an idea that came from his experience: a movie about a couple of former World War I pilots barnstorming around the Midwest. Hill made the movie—The Great Waldo Pepper, starring Robert Redford—but without Bill.
"I’ve wanted to make an aviation movie my entire career," says Bill. And when the chance came with Flyboys, Bill insisted that the film rely, at least in part, on real airplanes. Using modern filmmaking technology like miniature "lipstick" cameras and gyro-stabilized camera mounts, Bill would make the airplanes the true stars of this film. But flyable airplanes from the early years of aviation are very rare, and the moviemakers’ first challenge was to find enough of them to put together a mock squadron.
The only genuine Nieuport 17 in the world sits in the Royal Army and Military History Museum in Brussels, Belgium. Only replicas still fly, and of the half-dozen available, a majority work the airshow circuit and are booked more than a year in advance. To help round up the aircraft needed, Bill called on Sarah Hanna, who with her father, Ray, a former airline pilot and once the leader of Great Britain’s Red Arrows aerobatic team, has run a museum and airshow business, the Old Flying Machine Company in Duxford, England. (Ray Hanna died last December.)
Bill also turned to Mike Patlin, who had worked as an aircraft provider and aerial coordinator on several film productions. Patlin introduced Bill to Ken Kellett and Andrew King, two pilots who probably have more experience with early aircraft than anyone else in the United States.
In addition to his Old Rhine-beck background, King, a tall, friendly man who has a taste for adventure, works on vintage aircraft at his airplane repair and restoration business in Virginia. He has 2,750 flying hours (all but 200 of which are in vintage types) in 100 types of vintage aircraft. His earliest memory, he says, "is of Cole Palen’s Nieuport 28 being run up on the ground, with three or four guys on each wingtip holding it back."
Kellett, a youthful-looking man in his 50s with a laid-back, chatty manner, started flying at 15. He’s flown about 50 types of airplanes, a dozen of which were vintage, and been involved in 45 restoration projects. He also has the distinction of having built and flown a full-scale replica of the earliest aircraft. For the 75th anniversary of the first powered flight, Kellett flew his Wright Flyer replica in front of a crowd of 10,000 at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina, and landed on the front page of nearly every major newspaper in the country. "I have four minutes total time [flying the airplane]," says Kellett. "And I couldn’t look you in the face and say that I ever truly had the airplane under control. You get on it, ride it, and hope you don’t get hurt in the end."
Today Kellett is a restorer at the Fantasy of Flight museum in Florida, owned by pilot and collector Kermit Weeks. For years visitors to the museum were greeted by a Nieuport 17 replica suspended over the museum entrance.
Weeks agreed to have the replica removed for use in Flyboys, but the airplane, built in 1971, was unflyable. Once Kellett got it down from the ceiling, he discovered it needed a new engine, firewall, tail skid, control cables, and fabric covering.