And the Oscar Goes to… the Airplane!

Some of the airplanes that loom largest in our collective memory have flown only in the movies

(Courtesy Warner Communications / Your Trailers)

Helicopter in Blue Thunder (1983)

Blue Thunder
(ABC Photo Archives / Getty Images)

Unlike most of Hollywood’s fictitious airplanes, the eponymous helicopter in Blue Thunder actually had to fly for the camera. So instead of making do with a plywood mockup, Columbia Pictures bought a pair of Aerospatiale SA-341G Gazelles. As its name implies, the Gazelle is a graceful helicopter—precisely what the screenplay didn’t call for. (The movie poster describes the Blue Thunder Special as “the most lethal weapon ever made.”) To make the helicopter look more ominous, designers clad the canopy with faux armor plating, replaced the original bubble shape with flat windows, and added a six-barrel, 20-millimeter cannon and spooky surveillance gear. Although the Gazelle was filmed in the air, the extra weight rendered it too nose-heavy to fly the more ambitious stunts. So the producers imported a fleet of radio-controlled scale models, which were just then becoming popular for movie applications. A spectacular 360-degree loop was performed by national RC heli champion John Simone Jr., who also custom-built the model. The full-size Blue Thunder helicopters continued to fly after the movie was released. First, they appeared in a short-lived TV spinoff, also called “Blue Thunder.” Three years later, by then painted black, they were featured in the mini-series “Amerika.”


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