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

MiG-31 in Firefox (1982)

In 1977, Welsh author Craig Thomas published his bestseller Firefox, which featured a fictitious Soviet fighter based on the most advanced MiG at the time, the -25. Thomas upgraded it with telepathic avionics—it could be flown by thought alone—and dubbed it MiG-31. Five years later, Clint Eastwood directed and starred in the film version. “Clint had some very specific ideas about what he thought the airplane should look like,” says special visual effects producer John Dykstra. “This was when stealth technology was just becoming public. So faceted surfaces were an important part of the design. But at the same time, he wanted it to have the elements of a kick-ass airplane. So it had very large engines, which were antithetical to the stealth concept, and a delta wing configuration. We went with a chisel-shaped nose and added canards.” Several models were built, including a radio-controlled version. “It was a handful to fly,” says Dykstra, a private pilot and RC enthusiast. A full-size mockup was fabricated out of a radio tower skinned with plywood and foam. It was powered by a four-cylinder Volkswagen engine so it could taxi on the runway while turbine fans blew flames out the back of the engine nacelles. Before the movie was released, the Soviets began production of a real MiG-31. But their Foxhound was no match for Eastwood’s Firefox.

Flying Wing in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark
(Casey Cotter)

To fashion several futuristic airplanes for Raiders, set in the 1930s, director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas tapped Ron Cobb, an artist familiar with aviation technology. Cobb was responsible for the Flying Wing that served as the centerpiece for one of Harrison Ford’s most memorable fight scenes. The aircraft appeared to have been derived from the jet-powered Horten Ho 229, tested by the Luftwaffe near the end of World War II, and Northrop’s post-war XB-35 and YB-49 flying wings. In fact, Cobb says he was inspired by experimental pre-war gliders built by Gotha—hence the turned-down wingtips. “Steven wanted it to fly in a steep bank and look like a shark fin while the ‘Jaws’ theme played,” Cobb recalls. “But George, being very practical, said it didn’t need to fly, and he thought four engines was too many, so they cut the ones I wanted on the wingtips.” On the full-size mockup, electric motors turned the propellers. One wheel was bolted to the ground and another was operated by a chain drive that pivoted the airplane in a circle while Karen Allen wreaked havoc with a turret-mounted machine gun. “I don’t think the bubble turret had been invented yet,” Cobb says. “But other than that, I tried to be faithful to the period.”

Rutland Reindeer in No Highway in the Sky (1951)

(Hulton Archive)

Boeing and Douglas would have been understandably reluctant to provide an airplane for No Highway. The plot revolved around an aeronautical engineer, played by Jimmy Stewart (pictured), who insisted in the face of universal skepticism that a new state-of-the-art airliner would suffer from metal fatigue and break apart in flight. For the movie’s so-called Rutland Reindeer, the producers procured a non-flying Handley Page Halifax, a four-engine bomber that had seen action in World War II and had then flown 116 sorties during the Berlin Airlift. To camouflage its origins, designers covered the Halifax with wood, fabric, and metal so it appeared to have a pointy nose, a bubble canopy, stubby wings, and, most notably, a weirdly scalloped biplane tail. The airplane wasn’t airworthy—it was so tail-heavy that the rear end had to be supported by scaffolding—so scale models and stop-action photography were used for the flying scenes. Despite the fantastic appearance of the Rutland Reindeer, the movie, based on a novel by former aeronautical engineer Nevil Shute, is best remembered for eerily foreshadowing the inflight breakups of the de Havilland Comet airliners in the 1950s. Fittingly, after the film was completed, the Halifax was scrapped.

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?”

F/A-37 Talon in Stealth (2005)

(US Navy / Photographers Mate 3rd Class Tyler J. Clements)

In the plotline, the F/A-37 Talon is the Navy’s next-gen fighter, so for its design, artist Oliver Scholl drew heavily on one of the finalists in the competition for the Advanced Tactical Fighter, the Northrop YF-23. His creation was “an intricate combination of angular and smooth shapes,” he says. “They don’t look organic, but they’re not as planar as the original stealth airplanes.” The result was so realistic that when photos of the swing-wing mockup, sitting on an aircraft carrier, circulated on the Web, they set off a firestorm of misinformed speculation about the Navy’s newest fighter. For the fully autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle featured in the movie—called EDI, for Extreme Deep Invader—conceptual illustrator James Lima was allowed to indulge his blue-sky fantasies. His original inspiration was the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird. “Even though that plane is 50 years old, it’s still got an element of bad-assness to it,” he says. The EDI’s nose chine came from the Blackbird, while the wings recalled the North American XB-70. “Look at how the control surfaces blend into the fuselage,” Lima says. “I wanted it to look like a quasi-living machine.” EDI pointed to a coming era of robotic air combat—except for one detail. “Originally, there was no canopy,” he says. “But that had to be changed to accommodate a plot point.”

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.”

Drake Bullet in Test Pilot (1938)

Test Pilot
(Cal Pierce)

When the Twin Wasp engine of his so-called Drake Bullet develops an oil leak while chasing a cross-country speed record, Clark Gable lands on a Kansas farm and falls in love with the farmer’s daughter, played by Myrna Loy. Aviation buffs would have recognized the Drake Bullet as a dead ringer for the Seversky SEV-S2, which is exactly what it was. The streamlined S2 was a race version of the Seversky P-35 fighter, with the canopy cut down for greater speed. In 1937, shortly before filming began, Frank Fuller had flown the S2 to victory at the Bendix Air Races at a record 258.2 mph. The airplane (shown here in a Burbank, California hangar) was rented by MGM and flown in the movie by Ray Moore, who finished sixth in the Thompson Trophy Air Races, at which plenty of footage was shot; the race footage was later inserted in the film. (Fuller finished second in the Bendix Air Races the next year and won again in 1939.) In addition, a full-size wooden mockup was built to use on a sound stage. Later, the mockup appeared in the movies Too Hot to Handle, Flight Command, and Pilot #5. And 21 years after Test Pilot was in the can, the mockup was emblazoned with a rising sun and cast as a Japanese fighter in Never So Few.

Savoia S.21 in Porco Rosso (1992)

Porco Rosso

Hayao Miyazaki, who is sometimes referred to as the Japanese Walt Disney, is one of the masters of the Japanese form of animation known as anime. Miyazaki was captivated by the seaplanes that raced for the Schneider Trophy during the 1920s, and, as he explained in Helen McCarthy’s 1999 scholarly biography, “I wanted to express my love for all these ships.” Set in, around, and over the Adriatic Sea in 1929, Porco Rosso is densely populated with stylized combat versions of several of these between-the-war beauties. The eponymous hero of Porco Rosso—a cynical World War I ace-turned-mercenary-pilot known as the Crimson Pig—flies a gorgeous seaplane identified as a Savoia S.21. In fact, the real S.21 was an ungainly biplane that never raced in the Schneider Trophy. Actually, Miyazaki styled the airplane on the basis of childhood memories of the more successful—and much more attractive—Macchi M.33, a monoplane with a single engine housed in a nacelle mounted on struts above the sleek fuselage. In 1925, the M.33 was defeated in the Schneider Trophy by a Curtiss R3C-2, which, not so coincidentally, is the airplane (modified by Miyazaki into a fighter) flown by the villain in Porco Rosso. Another non-coincidence: Miyazaki named his company, Studio Ghibli, after the Ca.309 Ghibli (desert wind) twin-engine transport produced by Italy’s Caproni aircraft company.

Gilbert XF-120 in Toward the Unknown (1956)

Toward the Unknown
(Air Force Flight Test Center History Office)

Largely forgotten today, Unknown remains a cult favorite of aviation buffs. Set during the heyday of experimental airplanes at Edwards Air Force Base, the movie stars a Bell X-2 and showcases a Douglas X-3 Stiletto. But the rarest bird of all is the so-called Gilbert Fighter, technically designated the XF-120. In fact, this was the last surviving Martin XB-51, a stylish three-engine, swept-wing, supersonic bomber designed to replace the A-26 Invader for night attack and close-air-support missions. The XB-51 lost out to the English Electric Canberra, which eventually entered service as the B-57 (built by Martin). One of the two XB-51 prototypes was destroyed during testing at Edwards. The other appeared in this Warner Brothers film, with no changes other than the fictitious name painted on its nose. In the movie, test pilot William Holden warns about structural overstress but is ignored, and the experimental bomber’s wings buckle in flight. Fact followed fiction, with an odd twist: After a refueling stop in El Paso, Texas, while flying to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida to shoot additional footage, the bomber crashed on takeoff, streaming wreckage as it disintegrated. Initially, identification of the aircraft was complicated because the shredded fuselage retained the Gilbert XF-120 logo.

Tallmantz P-1 Phoenix in Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

Flight of the Phoenix
(Bettman / Corbis)

Phoenix dramatized the aftermath of the crash of a Fairchild C-82A Packet—called a Salmon-Rees Skytruck in the movie. The survivors painstakingly piece together a new airplane out of the wreckage of the old one and fly it out of the desert. 20th Century Fox commissioned a scratch-built—and airworthy—airplane from Tallmantz Aviation, a company formed by Hollywood stunt pilots Frank Tallman and Paul Mantz. To design the mongrel, Mantz and Tallman hired Otto Timm, an aeronautical engineer who in 1922 had given Charles Lindbergh his first airplane flight. Timm created the inner wings, wheels, tail section, and fuselage of tubular steel with wooden bracing and a plywood skin. To this, he attached a Pratt & Whitney R-1340, a cowling and cockpit from a North American T-6G Texan, the outer wings from a Beech C-45 Expeditor, and the tailwheel from a North American L-17 Navion. (The wheels were camouflaged by homemade skids.) Predictably, the Frankenstein-like airplane was hard to handle. While Mantz was simulating a takeoff for the camera, the skids dug in on a sand hummock, the fuselage split in two, and the 62-year-old pilot was killed (see “Hollywood’s Favorite Pilot,” Oct./Nov. 2007). To complete the shoot, the filmmakers substituted a North American O-47A modified to look like the Phoenix. Pictured: Dan Duryea, George Kennedy, and Alex Montoya present Jimmy Stewart with a prop blade from Phoenix.

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