For Movies, a Technical Advisor Only Advises

By Larry E. Nazimek
Air Line Pilot, September 2003, p.18

We’ve all seen films with aviation scenes so ridiculous that they drove us to laughter and/or anger. You may have asked, "Why don’t these movie people get some experts (or for that matter, anyone with any aviation experience) to set them straight?" Well, the next time you see fighter crews flying with their oxygen masks dangling from their helmets, just watch the credits: they do have some highly experienced fighter jocks advising them.

I learned while serving as technical advisor (TA) on Unconditional Love that the TA merely provides advice. The director, along with many assistants, decides what to do with that advice. After all, movies are made for the general public, and the director is ultimately responsible for the success of shooting the scenes just as a pilot-in-command is responsible for the conduct of a flight. Obviously, a director, who does not have a Federal Movie Administration scrutinizing the movie for evidence of compliance with federal movie regulations, has more leeway than does a pilot.

Airport terminal scene

My work on the movie began as I served as an "extra" (i.e., person in the background) for a scene at Chicago O’Hare Airport’s international terminal. I was joined by an American captain, four flight attendants—one from Ryan International and three from United—and several extras who the casting company felt looked the part. As for the wings for our uniforms, I happened to have a bunch of plastic Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association "future pilot" wings, so I distributed them. They would suffice because we would not be involved in any close-ups. Besides, this was a comedy, as I would later be told numerous times.

We reported for duty at 4 a.m. and worked for about 13˝ hours. Because this was January in Chicago, this meant that we began several hours before sunrise and finished after sunset. Work days can be very long in the film business because getting things set up and taken down, processing the actors, getting dressed and checked by the wardrobe folks, getting powdered by the makeup artists, and doing many other things that do not meet the eye take a lot of time. With all of that "dead time," making the most of it only makes sense. Besides, the moviemakers don’t want to tie up an international terminal for 2 days if 1 day will suffice.

Each phase of a scene that may run for less than 1 minute, once it’s on the screen, requires numerous takes. We kept standing, walking, pausing, etc., as the film crews instructed us. For example, I had to repeatedly walk and stop in my tracks to avoid being run over by Dan Aykroyd as he ran through the terminal. I pity the poor women who had to do this sort of thing that long day in high heels.

While this was going on, the terminal remained open, so some of the people seen in the background are actual passengers on their way to departing flights.

Striving for precise realism(?)

A week later, I was called to see if I was available for an in-cockpit scene. I jumped at the opportunity.

The day before the shoot, an assistant director called. Obviously she was in the middle of a shoot because I would hear "rolling" and "action," followed by her voice dropping to a whisper. "What airplanes have you flown?" she asked.

I replied, "F-4, T-38, B-52," when she interrupted with, "What civilian airplanes have you flown?"

"Learjets and various light planes."

"What about a Boeing 767?" to which I answered, "No, I haven’t." The tone in her voice indicated that she thought that just about all pilots had flown it.

"Is the Learjet similar to the B-767?" she asked.

I explained that it was not, but that the B-52 was certainly large, and a lot more complex than most airliners.

She still questioned whether a pilot without experience in the airplane could "fly" one in the film. I explained that going from one airplane to another was not like going from a Ford to a Chevy, but that the basic flying procedures would be the same from one large airplane to another, especially since, as I understood it, we would only be "flying" a mockup. I told her that I would be a bit slow in running a checklist and going through an engine start but that the flying would be no problem. She explained that an engine start would not be necessary because the scene was to take place in flight. I assured her that I would have no problem, and I then heard her whisper to someone else, "He says it’s like other airplanes in flight and he can handle it."

She then asked, "Do you know what the navigator would be doing?"

To that, I replied that airliners haven’t had navigators for many years. Any third crewmember would be a flight engineer, even though a B-767 does not have one.

She insisted that the airplane in this movie would have a navigator, and she wanted to know if I could instruct the person playing the role on what he should be doing. I told her that it would be no problem because I was a U.S. Air Force navigator before I was a pilot. (I didn’t bother telling her that I hadn’t touched a nav log since I graduated from nav school, some 25 years ago, in the T-29C, an airplane that was allegedly made obsolete when the Soviets developed an oil-seeking missile.) She then whispered, "He used to be a navigator, so he can do it." I offered to bring some old charts for props.

"Reel" thing—not real thing

The next day I reported for duty at Chicago Studio City. I was asked to look over the mockup to see if I could handle it.

This B-767 was actually a generic airline cabin and a generic cockpit. It had been trucked in from California, where Aero Images maintains it. The cabin is constructed to allow cameras to shoot from the ceiling or various other positions. The cockpit and cabin can be joined together for scenes calling for an actor to proceed between the cabin and cockpit. The cabin is mounted on springs, and to provide "turbulence," crewmembers on the outside of the cabin jump around.

As for the cockpit area, the exterior resembles a Shorts 360. The first thing I noticed about the interior was that the panel for the third crewmember definitely called for a flight engineer and not a navigator.

I then noticed that while the cockpit had three throttles, it also had gauges for only two engines. The No. 1 oil temp gauge was opposite the No. 2 oil pressure gauge, and vice versa. Because the levers on the throttles were short, a wide hand could easily conceal their number.

The landing gear handle was down, but as I tried to raise it, it came off. That isn’t terribly unrealistic—I’ve had knobs fall off or break when flying the "Buff."

As for transponders, a military unit was mounted next to an ancient one with two digits for the Mode 3 squawk.

Neither the seats nor the rudder pedals were mounted on the floor.

When power was put on in the mockup, warning lights lit up like a Christmas tree. The power did nothing, however, for the gauges. The attitude director indicators, the large ball type, were the real thing, but the "OFF" flags remained. I explained that the lights would be on before the engine start, but once the airplane was flying, they would not all illuminate unless the airplane was hit by a missile. I was told that directors want to see plenty of interior lights.

To get this off the ground, we would need the likes of Mary Poppins….

Getting set up

I played the first officer/copilot. Robert Jones, a Chicago actor, who asked me which side he would be sitting on, played the captain. He was relieved when he learned that his "good side" would be in the center. The second officer/flight engineer (people kept referring to him as a "navigator)" was Doug Wax, also a Chicago actor.

My job was to tell them what to do if they wanted to look like real crewmembers. Everyone appreciated the extra airplane tie tacks I supplied.

Far too many airline scenes show the cockpit crew wearing their coats, but this is not one of them. I prevailed on that point. Nevertheless, "wardrobe" wanted to be prepared for anything, so the coats were tailored to fit.

As the film crew set up the camera, lighting, and everything else, various lighting meters were used, as well as some instruments whose purpose and operation were a mystery to me. One of the things pointed my way resembled a dentist’s X-ray gun, and I wondered if I should be given a lead blanket to protect my ability to have kids who weren’t mutants.

A camerawoman named Suzanne Tenner was taking still shots of everything with a camera that appeared to be an old rig used for aerial photography, but I was assured that it was merely a 35 mm, with an unusual lens.

I didn’t want to sound too impatient by asking for too many things, but I did have to ask, "How about some headsets?" They had completely overlooked the headsets, and one person said that the scene might have been scrapped if it hadn’t been for my call.

Shooting the scene

The script called for cruising flight amidst turbulence and lightning. The passengers don’t like the turbulence, so passenger Julie Andrews goes into the cockpit, dons a headset (after removing her earrings), reassures everyone, and sings "Getting to Know You." We join in the singing. During the whole thing, I am supposed to be maintaining aircraft control.

After the first run, the director, P.J. Hogan, reminded me that we were flying through turbulence and that I should act like it. For the second take, I recalled a very turbulent low-level B-52 flight through "Vomit Valley" (near Rock Springs, Wyo.). That was more than Hogan wanted, so I toned it down a bit for the remaining runs.

I was reminded many times that "this is a comedy." By the time the whole thing was over, I realized that I could not have summed it up better.

In the aviation world, we have no rehearsals (but lots of training), and we’re expected to get things right the first time. The motion picture world, however, has numerous rehearsals and retakes.

When the scene was shot to the director’s satisfaction, we left the cockpit. Wax and I were then handed paperwork pertaining to the Taft-Hartley Act. He looked as though he had just won the lottery, but I had no idea as to its significance. Would my name appear in the credits, and would I get tickets to preview night? I was told that it meant I was eligible to join the Screen Actors Guild and that it was indeed a milestone.

That incident made it even more evident to me that I knew as little about the movie world as they knew about our world of aviation.

If you ever get a chance to work on a movie set, by all means, do it. It can be a two-way learning experience.