At the Movies: Take Two

World War I airplanes star in a feature film about the Lafayette Escadrille.

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"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.

In addition to the interminable waiting, the frequent changes, and the unpredictability, there were breakages and mishaps—snapped tail skids, bent axles, broken wing spars, ripped fabric coverings, and cracked cylinders. King, Kellett, and the other pilots had to do much of their own maintenance work, often late into the night.

Even make-believe war can be hell.

The camera platform for aerial shots was a Eurocopter AS-350 helicopter. The 640-horsepower Ariel turbine engine gave it more than enough power to outperform the vintage airplanes, but to maximize the helicopter’s maneuverability, the filmmakers stripped it of unneeded equipment and filled it with only enough fuel to get through each shoot.

"It was white-knuckle stuff," says Kellett. "You really had to pay attention to the helo. The rotor was about five feet behind my tail [at one point]. When he moved in close, I could hear the rotor clicking in my headset. But I kept telling myself Stay calm and let him do what he’s supposed to do. It was intense."

The helicopter pilot was a Frenchman with the unlikely name of Fred North, who lives in Santa Monica, California. "You have to know what is desired photographically, and what can be done practically and safely," says North of the tricky flying required of him.

While the emphasis in Flyboys will be on real airplanes and real flying, the movie will also have plenty of special effects. "Our philosophy was that we’d do everything real that we possibly could do real, and then augment that with other techniques," Bill says. Crashes, explosions, unsafe maneuvers, and—yes, watch for them, purists—maneuvers impossible for real aircraft to perform were all created by computer graphics. And in one case, the computers took over when the real aircraft failed.

During the filming of a formation takeoff with the Baslee ultralight replicas, one of the airplanes lost control shortly after takeoff, pitching up and nearly rolling into another airplane. "They had done the take several times," remembers Kellett, who was on the ground watching the shoot. "It really wasn’t a big deal. But the helicopter decided to re-position alongside the runway, and it was amazing how quickly everything fell apart."

The pilots all managed to recover and no one was hurt, but from that point on, the featherweight replicas were grounded. They were too light, too vulnerable, and too difficult to control. For the rest of filming, they served only as set dressing.

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