Why Aviation Movies Don’t Work

With an ice storm dripping supercooled misery outside, I'm inclined to dip into one of my collection of aviation movies — or better yet, I love it when I stumble upon one on the classic movie channel while surfing. Huddled under a blanket on my couch, munching popcorn, it's fun to fantasize. 'Twelve O'clock High'; 'The Blue Max'; 'The Great Waldo Pepper'; 'Spirit of St. Louis'; my list goes on and on. And for me, the ultimate in historical accuracy is Harry Saltzman's 'Battle of Britain' — right down to the scene where the dirty-faced London street urchin challenges the sergeant pilot's status as a Spitfire pilot for not leaving the top button of his tunic unbuttoned. (more trivia: Kenneth More, who played the stuffy RAF station master, won fame in the UK 23 years earlier for his 1956 portrayal of legless RAF legend Douglas Bader in the biographical film, 'Reach for the Sky.' Bader was a consultant on 'Battle of Britain.')

But there is one thing missing from all of these fantastic aviation movies. The flying scenes are far too two-dimensional to offer any sense of what flying is really like. And I'm discounting the really lame ones from the 1950s where they filmed with a projected sky screened behind a "pilot" actor sitting in a mock-up cockpit. The best of today's computer animation is dynamic and compelling (if unrealistic as hell, as in 'Pearl Harbor.'), but still lacks the head-swiveling component that is part of the basic element of flight, even to a primary student on his first hop.

I have the same issue about two-dimensional views with even the most robust aviation video games. And even in the film 'Battle of Britain' where they mounted a camera in the front cockpit of a two-place Spitfire, the sensation of flight is shallow, compared with the real thing (and I can testify, having had the privilege of flying in that very Spitfire). The lack of realism in even the best aviation movies was brought out all the more abundantly the first time I saw, 'To Fly' in IMAX. As anyone who has experienced the realism of a full motion simulator knows, the panoramic view of the moving landscape is not only enough to properly stimulate the memory chips in pilots' brains, it's also enough to cause viewers to lose their balance and fall out of their seats. It really works.

I felt the same sense of 'Aha, yes. This is it!" when I experienced 'Soarin,' at Disney World — a truly realistic sensory representation of flight. Again, the main feature was the wrap-around screen. It's all about that wide-angle view. And that's what even the largest, highest-definition flat screen cannot replicate. Again, simulators that use side screens incorporating coordinated video views of the landscape provide the most realistic display.

The latest in television screens seems to be 3D, and having seen a few 3D movies in theaters, I'm sure it is a compelling effect. But I still hold out for a wrap-around screen when it comes to the best in realism when it comes to aviation moviemaking. As long as I can still keep my blanket and popcorn.

Call to action: If you have any tips of your own you'd like to share, or have any questions about flying technique you'd like answered, send me a note at enewsletter@flyingmagazine.com. We'd love to hear from you.

Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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