Filming air combat is as risky as a dogfight

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Until "Flyboys" came along, there hadn't been a major World War I flying movie in decades, and that isn't entirely because Hollywood has a short memory.

The film business has been more riveted by the heroism of World War II ("Saving Private Ryan"), the darkness of Vietnam ("Apocalypse Now") and the turmoil of Iraq ("Jarhead").

A big reason for the neglect is that it is so hard -- and dangerous -- to film the aerial dogfights that were central to the combat of 90 years ago. Real dogfighting was up close and personal in a way that barely exists in today's modern jet forces. World War I pilots flew in fragile wood-and-fabric contraptions with nothing to shield them from the elements except a tiny windscreen, a pair of goggles and a leather coat and helmet. Because planes were slow and turned sharply, a dogfight could be contained over a large pasture, just above the treetops. A lot of men were killed, and many of the fatalities occurred when planes collided.

"The only modern way to describe a World War I dogfight is to imagine a knife fight in a phone booth," says Tony Bill, who directed "Flyboys," which MGM is releasing today. The film tells the tale of the Lafayette Escadrille, a squadron of American pilots who volunteered to fight for France in the early days of World War I. The squadron finds itself in a ferocious battle with a band of formidable German opponents who pounce from above. In one wide shot, the scene resembles a cloud of gnats swirling above a summer picnic.

According to the Lafayette Flying Corps Memorial Foundation, 180 American volunteers flew combat missions in French uniform. Fifty-one pilots were killed in action, six were killed in training accidents and six more died from illness. During the four-year conflict, more than 150,000 airplanes participated in the aerial jousts over the fields of Europe.

In the early days of Hollywood, filmmakers obsessed about how to film that sort of action. Two of Hollywood's earliest blockbuster movies were World War I flying epics. "Wings," released in 1927, was so popular it played two years straight in movie houses in New York. It was the first film to win the Academy Award for what then was called outstanding picture. In 1930, young millionaire aviator Howard Hughes spent a then-unheard-of $3.8 million to direct and produce "Hell's Angels," which remains one of the most ambitious aviation films to date.

Mr. Hughes amassed one of the world's largest air forces at the time and hired wartime aces to fly the stunts. After three of his pilots were killed while filming dogfights, the others complained that Mr. Hughes wanted them to take unnecessary risks. Mr. Hughes then climbed into the cockpit to get one of the shots himself and was seriously injured in an ensuing crash.

In the decades since, filming the intensity of dogfights has proved elusive, even as filmmaking technology has made quantum leaps. Insurance regulations -- and common sense -- have discouraged stunt pilots from engaging in the deadly head-on stunts that would be required.

Although modern aerial combat training derives many of its tactics from those early days, comparable battles between jet-powered fighters today would likely be spread out over many miles. The newest fighters are designed to detect and shoot down an enemy from miles away, in part to avoid the risks of losing a multimillion-dollar machine and its pilot in a dangerous face-to-face confrontation.

Into this breach comes "Flyboys." Producer Dean Devlin, who made "Independence Day," first started trying to find backing from the major studios in 1999. "The answer we got was that after Tom Cruise and 'Top Gun,' people only wanted to see fast jets," Mr. Devlin said.

Another thing militating against World War I movies is that few people are still alive with first-hand memories of the war, and it isn't a big part of public consciousness. "Even among people who live and breathe aviation, there are very few who can tell you much about the planes or the flying experiences of World War I," said Jay Miller, an Arlington, Texas, aviation author.

"Flyboys" got its estimated $60 million in financing after aerobatic pilot and aspiring filmmaker David Ellison, the 23-year-old son of Oracle Chief Executive Larry Ellison -- heard that Messrs. Devlin and Bill were looking to make a World War I epic. The younger Mr. Ellison, who later took a role as Escadrille pilot Eddie Beagle, said he showed the script to his father, who decided to finance a major chunk of the budget. David Ellison declined to specify how much.

The filmmakers acknowledge the film must overcome the challenge of attracting general moviegoers to what many may see as a niche film. The younger Mr. Ellison agrees that is a risk, but added: "We don't need to come in No. 1 at the box office this weekend to be OK."

One challenge the filmmakers faced was realistically depicting dogfights. In recent years, Hollywood has increasingly relied on computer effects to replace so-called seat-of-the-pants stunt flying that once added spice to thrillers. Veteran Hollywood stunt pilot and aerial coordinator J.W. "Corkey" Fornof, who in 1983 piloted a tiny BD-5 jet through an open hangar at more than 150 miles an hour for the James Bond movie "Octopussy," lamented that, today, few directors would consider such a stunt. "They'd just whip it up in a computer lab," he said.

For "Flyboys," Mr. Bill, an avid aerobatic pilot himself, pressed for making the flying sequences believable to real aviators -- a hurdle that few aviation movies have cleared. "So many so-called flying movies are so bad that pilots just roll their eyes and wait for it to be over," he said. By using a new type of digital camera, the filmmakers captured much longer action sequences than is possible with standard film cameras, so they were able to string together a lot of real flying.

Messrs. Devlin and Bill gathered 22 airplanes on the set of their World War I turf airfield, including a 1909 Bleriot owned by the Shuttleworth Collection in England. Three French Nieuport 17s, like those flown by the American squadron, came from private museums, and four replicas were built for the movie. "Compared to modern airplanes, all of these planes are quite a handful," said David Ellison, who got some stick time in one of the old planes.

The filmmakers reserved computer animation for the most harrowing scenes, such as those that required airplanes to come within inches of colliding during head-on gun battles. To make the scenes as believable as possible, Mr. Bill outfitted one of the World War I planes with a device that measured flight data and then filmed the plane as it twisted and rolled through violent combat maneuvers. The data was fed into the animators' computers so that "even the simulated stuff has to follow the laws of aerodynamics as much as possible," he said.

A few weeks ago, the filmmakers showed "Flyboys" to several hundred pilots who attended the annual mammoth week-long air show in Oshkosh, Wis. After it was over, the audience gave the film a standing ovation, which was led by World War II fighter pilot Bob Hoover, who after the war became a popular aerobatic show pilot.

Although Mr. Bill said that moment will be hard to beat, he will feel like he has really done his job "if I can make just one person who comes to see this movie feel airsick."


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