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Letters From Readers - May 2010 Aviation History

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: March 16, 2010 
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Letters continue to pour in with comments about Walter Boyne's "Top Ten Best and Worst Aviation Movies" in the March issue. We begin with a sampling of responses.

Wings Behind the Scenes
I loved the article on the best and worst aviation movies, though I would have included The War Lover and Dr. Strangelove among the top 10. I also have a bit more insight into the making of Wings. The flying was mostly done by active-duty Army Air Service pilots, and the man chosen to fly the plane of the star, Buddy Rogers, was a young lieutenant, Hoyt S. Vandenberg. "Van" made the takeoffs and landings, and also performed the aerobatics and dogfighting scenes. Whenever the cam­era mounted on the front of the plane was turned on, Van would duck down in the seat to reveal Rogers, sitting behind him.

To simulate being shot down in one scene, Van filled a large bag with flour and lampblack. The plan was to pitch up the aircraft, stall and enter a spin. At that point he would open the bag, and cameras would record the downward spiraling aircraft trailing a thick plume of black smoke. Unfortunately, when Van opened the bag its entire contents dumped back into the cockpit with him. He said later: "I was blinded, suffocated, bewildered and even unhappy." While he gasped for air and wildly flailed his arms to dissipate the smoke, the plane was gyrating around the sky. Finally he managed to regain control. Rolling to a stop, he staggered out of the cockpit and collapsed. But the film crew ran over to him, ecstatic: It was the most realistic near-crash scene they had ever seen! Would he mind doing it again?

Two decades later, Vandenberg wore four stars and was the Air Force chief of staff. At the midpoint of my own 30-year Air Force career I was sent to the University of Michi­gan to get a Ph.D., and chose to do a biography of Vandenberg as my dissertation. I found the story about Wings in the chief's papers, and his son, "Sandy" Vandenberg, also confirmed the account.

Colonel Phillip S. Meilinger, USAF (ret.)
West Chicago, Ill.

Kudos From an F-15 Instructor
Your article overlooked my second most favorite Korean War film, The Hunters, starring Robert Wagner as an F-86 pilot. The opening musical score alone should earn it a special category. The World War II movie Mosquito Squadron, starring Cliff Robertson, should have at least made your top 10 list. But let me add my vote to the thousands of others you've no doubt received that the single best aviation movie ever made was The Great Waldo Pepper! Vintage aircraft, realistic story line, tragic deaths and exhilarating flying scenes—not to mention Robert Red­ford—what more could you ask for?

Your critique of Top Gun was spot on, and for many reasons you didn't go into. If the movie had been about F/A-18s, at least the dogfighting scenes would have been believable. The F-14, however, the last of the dinosaur fighter aircraft (pre–John Boyd influence), couldn't dogfight its way out of a wet paper bag on a rainy day. As a former F-15 instructor pilot, I had to give my students "incomplete" grades in Dissimilar Air Combat Tactics if the only adversaries the school could drum up were F-14s. Eventually it became a pretty good bomber, though.

Top Gun sort of captured the competitive nature of fighter pilots, but it missed the essence of fighter-pilotry, the camaraderie. With very few exceptions, the fighter pilots I've flown with have been friendly, witty, extremely smart, exceptionally competent and downright fun to be around. Those who aren't are usually run off rather quickly. My squadron mates wouldn't have tolerated an "Iceman" among us, let alone a "Maverick."

And that's the other thing—call signs! I guess Navy jocks confer heroic names upon themselves, like "Viper" and "Iceman" and such, but the movie shows them using their personal call signs as tactical call signs on missions, which would be an unforgivable security no-no.

Lt. Col. Gary L. "Waldo" Peppers, USAF
Cape Coral, Fla.

More Real-Life Fliers
Although not nearly as big a fan of World War I aviation as Walter Boyne, I do agree with most of his comments—though I feel that The Flight of the Phoenix (with Jimmy Stewart) should have been given at least an honorable mention. I was also intrigued with his list of actors who were or are either pilots or aircrewmen. Several were new and surprising to me, but I wonder whether he meant to list Gene rather than "Alan" Raymond [he did –Ed.]. I know that Gene Raymond was a private pilot and a U.S. Army Air Forces officer who served with the 97th Bomb Group and VIII Bomber Command in England. How­ever, judging by a brief item about him on the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force Web site, Raymond was an intelligence and operations officer. I have seen no evidence that he actually flew on any missions, but of course that doesn't mean he didn't.

I can also add some names: George Gobel was a private pilot and a flight instructor in WWII; Arthur Godfrey was a lifelong private and commercial pilot, as well as a U.S. naval reserve officer (but not a Navy pilot); Jock Mahoney, of Tarzan fame, was a U.S. Marine fighter pilot and flight instructor in WWII; Sabu (Dastagir) served as a tail gunner on a USAAF bomber in the Pacific and reportedly was awarded a DFC; Treat Williams is an experienced commercial pilot; Paul Newman (how could Boyne forget him?), who enlisted in the Navy's V-12 pilot training program but did not qualify because he was color blind, served as a radioman/gunner on an Avenger torpedo bomber.

Steve Blake
Mission Viejo, Calif.

Great Crashes and Revivals
As a longtime aviation buff, pilot and college professor who has taught courses on aviation history and lore (always incorporating films into the classroom experience), I was stunned by the thoughtfulness and comprehensiveness of your team effort. I also learned about some movies I'd never heard of, which I now certainly intend to see.

A few of my own favorites: Under your "Outstanding Depiction of Air Crash Forensics," I'd add two runner-ups: Con Air (1997, Nicholas Cage), featuring one of the most amazing crash scenes ever made. The pirated C-123 (a real fuselage on railroad tracks) slams into downtown Las Vegas and demolishes a real casino (the old Sands Hotel, which had been scheduled for demolition); watch out for the flying prop! And The Aviator (2004, Leonardo DiCaprio), for its digitalized but excruciatingly convincing immolation of Howard Hughes' XF-11 prototype, with Hughes at the helm [see "Extremes" in the May 2010 issue].

I would also have given out awards in another category, "Most Fantastic Aircraft Resurrection," to both versions of Flight of the Phoenix (1965, with Jimmy Stewart's C-82, and 2004, with Dennis Quaid's C-119). They prove that a clever model airplane builder can actually design a flyable airplane…as long as his companions believe he's an aeronautical engineer. (The C-82 actually flew but, sadly, wound up killing stunt pilot Paul Mantz.)

Mike Heaney
Hartland, Vt.

Don't Forget The Dawn Patrol
I agree with all of Walter Boyne's selections, but I would have included the 1938 version of The Dawn Patrol with Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone and David Niven in the top 10. Originally produced in 1930, it was so well received that MGM produced a new version in 1938. I saw it over and over again as a boy, and at 82 I still enjoy watching it on DVD. The opening dogfight with the goggled Flynn grinning behind his chattering Vickers is just unforgettable. The excitement conveyed by these films, as well as another early two—Ace of Aces, with Richard Dix, and The Eagle and the Hawk, with Frederic March and Cary Grant—overshadows the fact that while some ground scenes used real World War I fighters, the awesome combat flying scenes were actually done with biplanes of early 1930s vintage.

Francis X. Tuoti
North Salem, N.Y.

And More Best/Worst Votes…
Walter Boyne overlooked what I consider WWII's most moving film, The Way to the Stars (1945, U.S. title Johnny in the Clouds), the story of an RAF base that was taken over by a U.S. Eighth Air Force B-17 bomber group. Based on a poem by John Pudney, it was immensely popular in Britain for many years. The stellar cast included John Mills, Michael Redgrave and Trevor Howard.

Michael D. Hull
Enfield, Conn.

Walter Boyne's excellent article brought back fond memories of the first movie I saw with my Dad. It was titled Men With Wings, starring Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland, and it made a lasting impression on me.

Don Van Dusen
Owls Head, Maine

How could you leave out Captains of the Clouds, with James Cagney, Dennis Morgan and the usual suspects from Warner Bros.? Another one that I enjoy is a John Wayne film about the crash of a DC-3 in the north. Can't remember the name [Island in the Sky –Ed.].

Joe Rota
Putnam Station, N.Y.

You guys did a very good job, but add Fighter Squadron, with Edmond O'Brien, Bob Stack and the young actor who played Jimmy Olsen in the Superman TV series [Jack Larson –Ed.].

Walter V. Paruch
Via e-mail

May I suggest two worst movie additions? Despite having some good historic film, Spitfire, with David Niven and Leslie Howard (two great actors), was simply awful. And The Flying Irishman, the story of Douglas "Wrong Way" Corrigan, starred Corrigan himself—possibly one of the worst acting performances in motion picture history!

Adam Lynch
Monroeville, Pa.

Two Views of Pearl Harbor
I own a café/coffee shop frequented by several aviation veterans. Today I was reading the book Zero, by Masatake Okumiya and Jiro Horikoshi, the story of the Pacific air war in the eyes of the Japanese. I had just finished reading the chapters about Pearl Harbor when someone brought in the January issue of Aviation History. I started reading the article "Duel in the Rising Sun" and was shocked to realize that I had just read about this same incident from the Japanese viewpoint. It was uncanny; the details of both the combat and the aftermath were so similar. I want to congratulate you on your publication's quality—it's the hottest magazine in our café.

John Szabo
Positively 4th Street Café
Ocean City, N.J.

XB-70 Windshield Fix
Your article on the XB-70 bomber ("Extremes" in the January issue) was very good, but I noticed one small error. Walter Boyne states that the fixed windscreen was replaced by a movable windshield ramp, a la the Con­corde. In fact, it was just the opposite. I know this because I served as a structural designer, later as supervisor, of the XB-70 forward fuselage. This is how the change to the windshield came about:

I had been sitting in the XB-70 mock-up one day, looking at the instrument panel and thinking about the design problems that came with a pressurized collapsible ramp and a long, sloped, pressurized windshield. The idea came to me of using a nonpressurized structure ahead of a flat, vertical windshield just above the instrument panel, with the windshield also serving as a part of the forward portion of the pressurized cabin. The change was adopted, resulting in weight savings and reduced cost. Strangely enough, the only patent that followed was on the edge attachment between the windshield and the surrounding structure.

Lester Hall
Encino, Calif.

Send letters to Aviation History Editor, Weider History Group, 19300 Promenade Drive, Leesburg, VA 20176-6500, or e-mail to aviationhistory@weiderhistorygroup.com.
 



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