CEO of the Cockpit #63: Flyboyz

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My nephew Kermit and I rarely miss a movie that has flying in it. We've watched classics like "Islands in the Sun" and endured dogs like "Pearl Harbor" but we've always enjoyed each other's company and popcorn at the movies.

During one of my days off last week, I took Kermit to see the highly hyped movie "Flyboys" that was supposed to be about the Lafayette Escadrille -- a group of American volunteer pilots who entered World War One before the United States did.

Kermit summed up the whole movie as we exited the mall's Cineplex: "Well, that sucked."

What do you mean, Kermie? I said with more than a little cynicism in my voice. Those over-computerized flying sequences were sort of OK if you squinted your eyes and ignored the obvious flaws.

"That is not exactly what I mean," continued my 14-year-old compatriot. "I've played more accurate video games with better graphics than this movie, but that isn't my point. Why can't they make a flying movie or even a television show about aviation that leaves out the millions of tired clichés and shows flying for what it is really like?"

"Why," he continued, "do they always have to have some jive love interest that takes over the plot and wastes at least half of the film? They do it every time. Even in that awfully done movie "Pearl Harbor" they wasted most of the time with some stupid love triangle."

Adolescent Authority

Gotha G.IV

Ahem, Kermit? You are 14 years old and your flying experience can be summed up as about 50 hours with me in the family 172 and about a thousand hours of Microsoft Flight Simulator. On what exactly do you base your concept of reality? Plus, I thought the girl was cute and way more realistic than the flying scenes.

"You are kidding me, right? I've spent more time in libraries and on the net researching everything there is to know about flying for at least the past 10 years. You've taken me to at least a dozen museums, including the Air Force one and Air & Space in Washington. I can recite chapter and verse on characteristics of the aircraft, pilots, situations, battles and outcomes. I know a Gotha from a Vickers and even though I'm young, I'd put my aviation knowledge against anyone."

Except me, right?

"Unc, you are an OK guy and I think it is really cool that you fly airliners and all, but in the world of aviation history and trivia I can kick your butt from here to that stupid knife shop over there next to the food court."

Things were quiet for a few minutes as we got our traditional slice of pizza and drink and settled on a mall bench to eat our post-movie meal. Then I tried to spring my awesome flying knowledge on this little newt of a self-appointed aviation expert.

Fighter Falsehoods

OK, Kermit, let's do a little question and answer here. What was the first recorded combat use of aircraft by the United States?

"You probably think that I'll say World War One," began Kermit, "because we just saw a movie that at least claimed it was about that conflict, but you'd be as wrong as wrong can be. The first use was during the U.S. military's attempt to track down Pancho Villa."

That's right. It was the first time that our military chased a single terrorist into a foreign desert with our Air Force and failed to bring him to justice. Pancho Villa had a lot in common with Osama. He killed American citizens on American soil and sought refuge in a desert. In that case, just like the post-9/11 one, we failed to catch him and, according to Mexican legend, Pancho's people were the first to capture and later try to fly an American military aircraft.

And, of course, we didn't try to take the entire country of Mexico over just to get him and we never accused him of producing nukes.

"OK, you've got me there," said Kermit, chosing to ignore my lame political aside. "Pancho Villa stole a U.S. military airplane?"

Yeah, you won't see this in any USAF accounts of the conflict in Mexico, but according to Mexican legend and a popular Mexican song of the time, Villa's forces managed to sew together an American flag and waved it at an approaching Jenny one sultry day in the Mexican desert. The lost pilot landed, thinking he had found U.S. forces. They killed him, stole the airplane and tried, unsuccessfully, to fly it against our army. They crashed on takeoff but still claimed it as a victory. Parts of the wrecked plane are supposed to be on display in one of their museums, but I don't know which one.

Dirigible Delusions

Scene from "Flyboys"

"My turn," said Kermit. "I'll make this trivia question simple since I know you are old and it is way past your nap time. What was wrong with the Zeppelin raid scene in the movie we just watched?"

Gee, where do I begin? In the first place, the raid was held in daylight, something I'm pretty sure the Germans weren't that interested in doing. All Zeppelin bombing raids were performed at night; hopefully, nights with enough moonlight to see the target but not enough to attract ground gunners.

Second, they talked about using incendiary bullets in their guns but it was much later in the war when they were introduced. The incendiary bullets were developed for use against lighter-than-air machines. Regular bullets would just pass through the gasbags without exploding the hydrogen inside.

Third, it is unlikely the Zepp would have come in that low. One of the main advantages to the dirigible was that it could attain very high altitudes that Allied fighters couldn't reach.

Finally, the relative speed of the Zepp in relation to the Fokker Dr-1s that were escorting it shouldn't have matched like they did in the movie.

Snoopy's Slip-Ups

"Good try uncle," Kermit said. "What does the "Dr" mean in the Fokker's name and why was the tri-wing unlikely to be all over the place like it was in this regrettable movie?

That's an easy one. I've had enough Frankfort layovers to know that "Dr" stands for Dreidecker, meaning three wings. The Fokker was all over this movie simply because of Snoopy. Snoopy was a cartoon dog that fought an imaginary Red Baron in the comic strip Peanuts. Just like every person in America equates general aviation with the Piper Cub everybody in this country equates World War One German pilots with the Fokker tri-wing. They didn't make all that many of them and they didn't even enter service until the war was nearly over. The first one was delivered in August of 1917.

The Fokker Dr -1 was a good dog-fighting aircraft but was damn hard to fly and had wing design problems that sometimes led to them falling off at inopportune times. Good gun platform and the aircraft had another advantage over its rivals: It had no strut wires. The wires on other aircraft were easy targets and when broken could lead to all sorts of control problems for the pilots.

Oh yeah, because of the tri-wing design, it could out-climb and out-turn everybody but wasn't that fast, strong or big.

Lost Labels and Landing Lights

B-727 Landing Light and Slats

OK, Kermit ... it's my turn and the subject is changing from World War One whining to real airline trivia.


Where are the four places that the word "Boeing" appears in the cockpit of a 727?

"You've already taught me that, one on each control wheel on the old 100 models and on the window latch releases. Other than that, the word doesn't appear anywhere.

Here's one I haven't taught you yet. When an MD-88 loses an engine on takeoff, what happens to the landing lights? It used to be that this question was only for night time but we leave the landing lights on below 18,000 all the time now for traffic avoidance."

"I have no idea. Do they go out?"

They not only go out, they retract. Remember, they are out near the wing-tips and are motored out and on when they are needed. As part of the system that turns off the air-conditioning packs on an engine-out to conserve thrust, the landing lights are also automatically retracted to reduce drag.

The New Flyboys

Kermit pretended to be suitably impressed with my old MD-88 knowledge and when his mom came I was sorry to see him leave the mall. I wish they could produce a movie about combat flying that captures the fear, exhilaration and stupidity of the whole thing but I know it will never happen.

Movies, fly-ins and talking with old farts like me are just about the only connection that young people have with aviation today and it is a shame. They don't have the access I had growing up and the idea of wandering around an airport ramp by themselves is totally foreign to them even though it was a given for me.

The contact that kids do have to flying is artificial. It is in the form of lame, Pixar-like special effects, bad story lines and ill-conceived films. The day of the airport bum is over I'm afraid, and with that loss comes the loss of a good education for a lot of kids like Kermit.

If enough kids keep their interest up as high as my nephew has, I have no fears about the torch when we finally get around to passing it to them. Even if Kermit doesn't become a captain, I have hopes he can produce films and make the very first real movie about real fliers that has ever been done.

Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.