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 3 of 11)
In just six weeks, Kellett managed to complete the job. He called on King to help work out the bugs in the new engine and to flight test the airplane.
In the meantime, Kellett was tasked with tracking down a two-seat fighter. He knew of a replica two-seat Sopwith 1 1/2 Strutter for sale. Built in 1915, the Strutter was a forerunner of the famous Sopwith Camel. The Strutter replica, built in 1992, was part of a private museum in Guntersville, Alabama, whose holdings were being sold off.
"[The Strutter] had never been flown," says Kellett. "The FAA saw it on Friday, we test flew on Saturday for [the required] five hours…tore it apart Sunday, and shipped it to England on Thursday."
In addition to the Strutter and Weeks’ Nieuport 17, Patlin and Sarah Hanna put together a fleet that included another Nieuport, two German Fokker DR I triplanes (made famous by German ace Manfred von Richthofen, the "Red Baron"), a British Bristol F-2 fighter (of the first six of these biplanes built, four were shot down by von Richthofen on the Western Front in 1917), a French Blériot XI, and a Royal Aircraft Factory SE-5a. The fleet was still short. To make sure there were enough airplanes to fill the takeoff and landing shots as well as backups, Bill wanted at least four more Nieuports. Patlin called Robert Baslee, of Holden, Missouri, who builds full-scale replicas of vintage aircraft using techniques of ultralight aircraft builders. His replica, made with aluminum tubing and a Volkswagen engine, weighed less than half what an actual Nieuport does, but Baslee promised the airplane had comparable performance. Baslee started in December 2004; in 52 days, he built four Nieuport replicas.
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.