Something Special in the Air

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.


Time: 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 communicate.

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 formation.

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.

In 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. in flight 1 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.

in flight 2Time: 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 formation.


View a :50 QuickTime video clip of “On the Move”

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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 prints
from the shoot are available from MultiImage.