This is not what we usually mean by “flying standby.”
The recently-unveiled trailer for the summertime action extravaganza Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation builds to a shot of what is presumably the movie’s blue-chip stunt: Star (and producer) Tom Cruise hot-foots his way across the wing of a taxiing Airbus A400M, then grabs hold of the military airlifter and holds on for dear life as it takes off and climbs, the ground beneath him falling away like taillights in a rearview mirror.
As with the prior instances of gravity-defiance in the five-film-deep, 19-year-old franchise—most notably, a stroll up the side of the world’s tallest building in 2011’s Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol—the aircraft-hang is no greenscreen-enabled illusion. It’s a genuine feat of (meticulously planned and rehearsed) derring-do by Cruise, now 52 years old but determined to maintain his much-publicized habit of keeping stunt doubles in the unemployment line.
In an interview with Yahoo! Movies last week, Cruise and Rogue Nation director Christopher McQuarrie discussed the genesis and execution of the set piece, which was shot at RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire, England, last November. Preparation involved the creation of a special frame to mount a camera under the wing of the airlifter and withstand wind resistance, as well as a pair of full-eyeball contact lenses for Cruise so that he could open his eyes while the aircraft was in flight. As the actor told Yahoo! Movies:
The things we were all very concerned about were particles on the runway and bird strikes. We spent days clearing out the nearby grass of any birds, and they brushed the runway as best they could. My stunt coordinator would poke me if he got reports of bird strikes. The pilot had to be on the lookout for anything in the air that could impact me in any way.
I also was testing how to keep my eyes open so you have a shot—I can’t have my eyes closed the entire time. The thing that no one else was thinking about, but I was, was the fuel. You have jet fuel coming right out of the back at me because I’m on the wing above the engine. Even when we were taxiing, I was also inhaling the fumes and they were going in my eyes.
Because the script called for Cruise’s character to wear a tailored gray suit, there was no protection from the cold at 5,000 feet. He performed the stunt eight times before he and McQuarrie were satisfied they had enough footage to create a thrilling action sequence.
The movie’s first poster features an image of the airplane-hang in progress. When it was unveiled, I wondered why a military cargo airplane would have a suspiciously-handhold-sized lattice on its side. The piece of equipment Cruise is holding onto, prominently visible in this Daily Mail photo gallery, is a “deployable baffle,” intended to give paratroops an instant to get clear of the massive aircraft when jumping before they’re caught in the Jetstream. Airbus’ website notes the A400M—a four-engine turboprop design that had its first flight in 2009—can be configured to carry up to 116 paratroops. Dispersing that many soldiers quickly would likely necessitate the use of the cargo ramp as well as the spoiler-protected paratroop doors on either side of the fuselage.
While the stunt represents Cruise’s first flight, or eight flights, on the outside of an aircraft, he’s held a pilot’s license since 1994, according to Forbes contributor Matthew Stibbe. The star’s personal fleet includes a World War II-era P-51 Mustang. No pilot license is required for PC users to download Airbus’ A400M—The Game. I’m using a Mac, so I can’t tell you whether or not the game includes a level where you must try to shake off an unusually determined secret agent who’s fixed himself to the side of your airplane.