formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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April 9, 2013 Airplanes in the Movies

The Liberty Gazette
April 9, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Inside the cockpit occupants are jostled about as the aircraft rocks and rolls and flashes of lightning surround it …and the thunder, oh the thunder. The young girl in the seat covers her eyes in fear. We see their faces clearly as if it were daylight, though this is supposed to be a night scene, and for some reason no rain streaks across windows to obscure the view of the their faces. The hero of this show is at the controls and will save the day once again. The film industry has come a long way in imagery and technology since those episodes of Sky King were filmed.

For scenes such as this which were filmed in a studio the "aircraft" was set upon a movable base and rocked and rotated by stagehands tugging on ropes. The background was a projection on a screen behind the prop (pun intended) to show motion. Linda and I will often watch the old children’s TV show, Sky King, just to laugh at obvious mistakes and some pretty bad acting. Technical accuracy wasn’t a high priority in the motion picture industry then and we suspect that is still true today, especially when aviation is depicted in film.

Linda: The movie and aviation industries have grown up together. The Great Train Robbery, the first motion picture that "told a story" was produced by Thomas Edison in 1903, the same year the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. The airplane – that magnificent flying machine – would become a staple in the growing film industry; and those courageously crazy stunt pilots would become legendary.

Greenville, Texas native Ormer Locklear was one of the early motion picture pilots. Ormer performed stunts in cars when he was just a kid in high school, so it’s only natural that the daredevil in him would take to the new world of aeronautics, building a glider being one of his early endeavors. Then, as though it was not enough to train U.S. Army Air Service pilots to become heroic aviators of WWI, nor enough that he performed barnstorming acts to recruit young men for military service, Locklear became a wing walker so he could do "in-flight repairs" to the wings of aircraft. If you’ve watched old movies of wing walkers, now you know where the idea originated.

Over time stunt flying in the movies became a cottage industry even more difficult to break into than a career with the airlines or the Astronaut program. Movie producers looked for the most unique acts, and because of that preference pilots vying for those coveted roles became inventors with new, one-of-a-kind airplanes, or special features such as aircraft filming platforms.

Today’s fraternity of stunt pilots is still small in number but the aerial sequences they perform have been inspiring many people to learn to fly for over a century.

As great inventions and discoveries have led to gigantic leaps in the capabilities of the modern world’s aeronautical fleet, so too has technology in the Silicon Valley drastically changed the film industry. Computer generated imaging (CGI) has replaced a lot of the more dangerous stunts performed by pilots. While the acting in our beloved Sky King shows wasn’t the greatest, and simulated flight wasn’t too believable, when it comes to airplanes in the movies I’ll take that over CGI any day. And none of these will ever compare to actually being there.

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