By Wayman Dunlap Photos Courtesy of Aero Telemetry
If you haven't seen "The Aviator" by now, a lot of this won't make much sense to you but the Academy Award-winning feature film - nominated in 11 categories and taking the Oscar in five - is a tour de force for just about everyone involved.
While director Martin Scorcese came "this close" he didn't win for best picture or director (we think he should have) but luckily, the voters who select the best cinematography and art direction are themselves involved in such pursuits and know a smashing good job when they see one. Particularly considering two aspects of the movies: there wasn't a single real airplane used in the movie, and two, the important ones you did see were not computer generated.
The three most important planes used in the film, and some of the lesser ones, were hand-built, radio controlled scale models that flew up to 140 mph and could climb to 10,000 feet. Outstanding aerial photography by Craig Hosking and his helicopter-mounted camera crew, combined with the artistry of the workers at a division of Joseph Bok's Aero Telemetry Corp. called Aero F/X of Huntington Beach made the magic.
In just three months, they designed, built and flew the Hughes Hercules (Spruce Goose), the H-1 racer and the XF-11 high altitude recon ship, using materials such as fiberglass, carbon fibre, composites and even wood (from Aircraft Spruce & Specialty) for the Goose's wings. Two of the models were powered by European-built, two-stroke, 273cc 30 hp drone engines built by a company called JFX.
They were running on nitro for more horsepower and were packed with sensors and telemetry data that fed a constant stream of information to the ground crews and RC pilots, some as far as seven miles away from their planes.
The 'Goose, however, ran on eight electric motors running through gear boxes with "hundreds" of batteries packed in the nose because the engine nacelles, even at its large scale, were too small to house conventional engines. ("We couldn't have a cylinder (head) hanging out," Bok explained.)
The 40-year-old CEO said when he was first approached by Warner Brothers about building the models, his company's main experience with building aircraft was in constructing drones for the military. This, however, was a whole new ballgame.
He knew right away, however, that their request for some tiny scale models just wouldn't work.
"Part of what I told The Aviator people when we started in designing (these planes) was that bigger was better for their application because they needed something to really mimic a full-sized airplane," he explained. "They didn't want to something to get up in the air and have the wind blow it around."
Bok convinced the studio mavens that even though the planes would be models, they had to conform to the same aerodynamic principles as the ones they were modeled after. That mean large scales, correct wing planforms as well as proper weight and balance.
Take the XF-11, for example. When it was finished, it had a 30 foot wingspan and weighed 540 lbs and "flew solid as a rock," he said. After some initial test flights at San Bernardino International, Aero Telemetry upped the horsepower on the engines and barged it over to Catalina Island for filming.
With a density altitude close to 1,800 feet, the XF-11 roared off the runway with Hosking's helo in close pursuit.
Catalina was chosen because the filmmakers thought it would look like LA in the '30s, according to the studio publicist.
Bok explained that even though the planes were mostly out of sight, he had two things working for him; one was Hosking's expert instruction over the radio and second was the telemetry. They even had a simulated cockpit complete with instruments Bok designed for a laptop computer, giving headings, altitude, rate of climb, angle of bank and other information.
The XF-11 also featured propellers that turned in opposite directions, like a P-38's, which helped keep it stable. That worked so well, they did the same thing to the Hercules, with all the engines on the starboard side running clockwise, and the port engines running counter-clockwise.
Warner's original plan was to strike a deal with Jim Wright of Oregon to use his H-1 replica for the aerial scenes involving Howard Hughes' transcontinental speed dashs. When Wright tragically crashed on take-off near Yellowstone while returning from Oshkosh, however, Warner's called Bok and pleaded with him to take on another model.
"I thought about it for three days," he said, "then decided we could do it."
However, plans for the plane were not easy to find and it took a dedicated internet search to even find the specifications. Once all the information was collected, the plane was designed at slightly over half scale with the correct wing chord, planform and wing loading.
Although the original H-1 had a two-bladed prop, that wouldn't work with the model because of the smaller engine, which necessitated something bigger. A Southern California ultralight propeller manufacturer called Ivo Prop came up with an in-flight adjustable 46" three-bladed propeller, that, with the proper gear reduction, saved the day.
The planes were flown by two RC experts: Jason Soames flew the H-1 and Bill Hemphil, who flies drones for the military, flew the XF-11 and the Spruce Goose. Bok, himself a pilot as are several of his staff, helped with the XF-11, which had separate controls for taxiing and landing gear.
Let's stop for a minute and consider the undertaking layed on Bok and his staff of some 35 people, who ended up working two and a half shifts for weeks at a time to get the job done. Warner Bros. declares they will need three, realistic, flying models of Hughes most famous airplanes.
In addition, they needed a 12th scale Sikorsky S-38 seaplane, some flying 1/5th scale models of Camels, Spads and such for background scenes in the Hells Angels recreation, and some accurate scale models for the motion control scenes (where the planes are anchored to a motion simulator in front of a blue or green screen and the background will be added in later).
Oh, they also need a Gotha bomber and they start shooting in three months.
Bok said he and his crew had doubts that they'd ever see their work on the screen and they were overjoyed not only to see their planes in every piece of promotional material, movie previews and publicity, but the Spruce Goose even made it on the Academy Awards show.
"The work that we've done and more especially the way it was filmed, it's going to impact the way that they do this in the future, especially if they run into a spot where you don't have a real plane," Bok said. "When they first came to me and said, 'Let's just fly the quarter scale model,' my answer right away was, 'No, it's going to look hokie.' "You need something that's going to operate under standard flight control laws, something that acts like a real airplane."
But not even he realized how much work he'd talked himself into.
The XF-11, for example, had some seven completely separate systems, including up to 15 receivers, a video and a data telemetry downlink.
"That thing was complicated," he laughed.
In fact, the hydraulic aluminum alloy landing gear on the two land planes was especially designed and built by Bok and his crew because nothing of that size existed.
"Then we had to make sure the electric pump on board didn't interfere with any of the radio transmitters or receivers," he explained.
The necessity to use batteries in the Spruce Goose to power the electric motors actually solved one of their big problems, Bok said, and that was the weight and balance of the airplane. With that relatively giant tail, the plane was nose light.
But once the batteries were fitted, it flew perfectly and lifted off from the same spot in Long Beach Harbor that its original namesake did on Nov. 2, 1947. It even had vintage boats in the background and using forced perspective lenses, everything looked to proper scale.
In the case of the 375 lb. 'Goose, it's a little bit larger than 1/16th scale with a 25 foot wingspan, the 450 lb. H-1 has an 18 foot wingspan and was slightly larger than half scale. The original Hughes XF-11 was a monster airplane, featuring a 100 foot wingspan, and a weight of some 58,000 lbs. The scale model is a little larger than 1/4th scale, Bok said, and has a 30 foot wingspan and a dry weight of 526 lbs.
Although neither he, his crew nor Hosking and his aerial wizards were given a gold statuette for the mantle, it's clear - to us, at least - who the real stars of the movie were. The rest was just acting. Article reprinted with permission of Pacific Flyer