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 4 of 11)
"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.
"I don’t think we ever got 100 feet off the ground," says Kellett. "My flying [in the Sopwith Strutter] was right on top of the water and right around trees. It scared the crap out of me."
Some tension emerged on the set when it came to melding the working style of aviation people versus that of movie people. Aviators typically plan ahead and keep to a schedule. They don’t like surprises. Movie productions make a schedule, then another, then another, then say "Hurry up and do this right now!" Numerous times, the pilots on the aerial unit set their alarms to be on set for 8 a.m. shoots, only to wait around most of the day while the film crew tried to figure camera placements or tweak shot sequences.