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)

Willis JA-3 in Chain Lightning (1950)

Chain Lightning
(Hulton Archive)

The Warner Brothers screenplay for this Humphrey Bogart film called for an experimental airplane able to reach 90,000 feet and 1,400 mph. No such thing existed in 1949, so the studio approached Paul Mantz, Hollywood’s go-to guy for aerial stunts. For $15,000, Mantz agreed to build “one futuristic jet-propelled airplane…full scale, extremely rakish in lines, [that] will taxi on the ground under its own power at a speed not to exceed 50 mph and will have the real JATO [jet-assisted takeoff] for taxi runs.” He then took a derelict Bell P-39 Airacobra and re-skinned it to resemble a swept-wing Bell X-1. Its new designation: the Willis JA-3. Although the script specified both rocket and jet power, Mantz neglected to fit the mockup with an air intake for the engine. Another blooper was a tow cable that could be seen when the JA-3 was supposed to be taxiing down a runway at Edwards Air Force Base in California. But most moviegoers were blinded by what the New York Times called “a super bird’s-eye view of the future—or is it already the present?”


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