On any other day, three American Airlines jets flying wingtip to wingtip over Lake Michigan would be a "deal" for the controller and a ton of paperwork for the pilots. But on September 22nd, American sent a 737, a 757, a 777 and six of its best pilots out at dawn to pose in formation for a 35mm motion picture camera in Clay Lacy's Learjet. If you were lucky enough to be in the skies over Lake Michigan at sunrise, you saw it live. If not, producer/director Fred Ashman was there directing the footage, taking stills and making notes on what went into making "On The Move," his film for American Airlines.
December 12, 2000
|About the Author ...
Ashman is a 3,800-hour pilot who has been a pilot for 28 years. He
flies a Mitsubishi MU-2. As president and senior creative director of Multi
Image Productions, a company he formed 28 years ago, Fred and his team have
written, directed and produced hundreds of award-winning films, documentaries,
videos and major events for American Airlines (a client for 22 years) and many
For more spectacular aerial scenes Fred suggests visiting the American
Airlines C.R. Smith Museum in Dallas, just 5 minutes from the DFW airport.
Admission is free and you can see one of two 70mm "Imax" type films
(Dream of Flight and Spirit of America) Ashman created which includes a
restored DC-3 and DC-6 in-flight. The DC-6 flies on the giant screen with a
757 and MD-80 in another formation flight.
Other Multi Image aviation clients include Cessna, Learjet, United, US
Airways, Galaxy Aerospace, and Rockwell International. Sony, ATx, NCR,
Taylormade Golf, Pitney Bowes, AMCC, Pizza Hut, Royal Caribbean International,
Temerlain McClain Advertising, are a few of their non-aviation accounts.
0600. Over Lake Michigan, eastbound at 320 knots, out of 10,000 feet, looking
into the predawn skies. Just under the calm professionalism of the Learjet
photo crew, veterans of hundreds of air-to-air filming for commercials and
movies, it's clear there is something very special about this mission. A
three-plane formation of American Airlines jets, 737, 757, 777 is the subject,
and the concerns for safety are paramount. All six airline pilots have
military formation experience and the thorough briefing the night before has
covered everything from how to assemble, how to maneuver and how to
A frontal system is approaching from the west, bringing high winds, upper-
and lower-level clouds and the promise of thunderstorms. Alternates for where
we can fly to get clear of the weather are discussed at length. In the end it
is decided to talk via cellphones just before departure. Scott Patterson, Clay
Lacy's chief pilot, is at the controls of our Lear 25 and will fly from the
right seat, to get the best visibility as we maneuver around the right echelon
As director for the project and veteran of numerous missions with Scott and
Clay Lacy, my job is to evaluate each shot and give Scott input as to the look
and composition I'm looking for, and be another set of eyes. I am in the left
seat, with co-pilot duties, where I can best see the action outside and on the
cockpit video monitor. Scott is pilot in command and must fly the Learjet like
a camera dolly around the other jets. This is very specialized flying, and
there are very few pilots I trust with this kind of maneuver. Only one person
will communicate with the other planes to avoid any confusion. Another pilot,
Ed Warnock from Clay Lacy Aviation, sits in the jumpseat as a third set of
eyes. In the back of the Lear, all the plush leather has been removed or
covered over with canvas, even the side walls. It's a Spartan look, with only
the back bench seat as a reminder this was once a very comfortable interior.
the center of the cabin is a large rig with a 35 mm motion picture camera
connected to a snorkel lens which extends through a pressurized port in the
floor. Film magazines, each holding 400 feet of 35mm motion picture film, are
neatly stacked to the left side, with a belted jump seat on the right with
supplies and film cans on the right.
Camera assistant Scott Smith, a veteran
of many aerial filming assignments (including "Apollo 13" where he
was one of the few who did not get sick filming the weightless sequences in
the "vomit comet" flights) loads film, sets
f-stops for proper exposures and hovers over the Astrovision camera system.
Seated on the bench seat in back the only comfortable seat in this
working jet in front of a large video monitor and remote controls is camera
operator Doug Allen. He will rotate and tilt the camera system in coordination
with the pilot as we make each pass. The lens is fixed at 50mm. With this
configuration there is no capability for zoom. If we want the image larger we
must fly closer. No special effects or tricks means great flying will be
required to get the shots I've planned for the program.
0610. Chicago Center, whose controllers are amazingly helpful throughout the
morning, provides a vector and we are soon approaching the American 777 at our
two o'clock position; its position lights and strobes clearly visible is the
breathtaking predawn glow. Its massive form begins to loom in silhouette as
the sky turns red, blending into shades of blue then into black overhead and
to the west. The predawn light will soon be pierced by the first
reddish-orange rays of sun; the moment we're here to capture.
The 777 is beautifully designed and proportioned. To the untrained eye it
could easily be mistaken for a 737 or a 767, until you get close and realize
just how huge this magnificent airplane really is. That is one reason why we
are doing this formation flight to start with; the 777 needs another airplane
near it to appreciate its size. Some 60 miles ahead the 757 has formed up on
the 737, which will fly lead. They hold 250 knots and start an orbit holding
pattern to allow us to catch up. In a few moments we catch sight of the two
airliners in formation, just making the turn from our left. If we time it just
right the 777 should be able to join up as they pass left to right and fly
away from us. They are at 15,500, we're at 15,000. Maintaining precise
altitude for separation is very important, especially when joining the
Time: 0630. Scott pulls our Learjet out and away to
allow the 777 to join as we follow the parade around the orbit. Turns are
gentle at 15 degrees bank angle. The light is quite good but time is running
short as the sun breaks over the horizon. Visibility is over 100 miles and the
rapidly moving front to the west has not yet appeared. Conditions are perfect
with no noticeable winds and smooth air. Now the work of maneuvering the
formation to the best heading for each shot begins. As briefed, turns will be
made to the left, and if a right turn is needed the formation will loosen up
and the 757 (flying the the middle) will move into lead for right turns. Any
pilot can call a halt to any maneuver he's not comfortable with. At first the
formation is spread out, too wide for the best shots, but as the morning
progresses and each airliner pilot becomes more at ease with flying the
formation, it tightens up to a crisp, perfect military style echelon. The Blue
Angels would be proud.
The low cloud deck, then areas totally clear, the shimmering waters of Lake
Michigan, sun glistening off its surface along with the farmlands of Michigan
and Wisconsin, all make a perfect backdrop. The pilots 777 Captains Eugene
Richardson and Tom McBroom; 757 Captains Steve Allen and Rich Grue; and 737
Captains Brian Will and Paul Desrochers are all former military. Their
experience shows. Later the formation leader, with agreement from the other
two pilots, offers to make shallow-bank right turns in formation, saving
precious minutes when slight heading changes are needed. For the next two
hours it is absolutely a labor of love, setting up each pass and shot.
The project: American Airlines needed a motivating,
informative and inspirational video for its management meeting and for
employee groups. There are lots of positive things going on in the company. No
group knew much about what the others were doing. My job was to build the
communications bridge and a big group that's hard to reach is pilots. I knew
if we pulled off this shot, every pilot would want to see it and in the
process see the video and get the message. But mostly it was the spectacular
image that conveyed excitement and boldness to make the message "We're on
the move" as a company comes to life on screen.
Time: 0830. Limited by fuel in the Lear and a flight
schedule for the airliners, we finish, the big American jets returning to
O'Hare, the Lear to Battle Creek, Mich., for fuel and a late breakfast.
Spirits are high. Everyone is elated. Andrea Rader, project manager for
American, who sat beside Doug in the Lear, is beaming from ear to ear. A total
of 4,000 feet of film will run through the Arriflex motion picture camera, and
eight rolls of 35mm still film will be shot on my Nikon F4 to capture the
stunning images of the spectacle before us. After a hearty breakfast and fuel,
we head back toward Van Nuys, California. This is my second favorite part as now I
get some stick time in the Lear.
VHS and DVD copies of "On The Move", and limited edition
from the shoot are available from MultiImage.