Type: design and 1/8th scale model for Hollywood movie
Powerplant: 1 x OS 1.08 glow fuel engine
First flight: November 2003
When 35-year-old director and flying nut John Moore signed on to remake the 1965 classic The Flight of the Phoenix (dubbed after the mythical bird that rises from ashes), he cast real-life pilot Dennis Quaid in the James Stewart role as a gruff airman, Captain Frank Towns, who flies a Fairchild C-119. Loaded with oil wildcatters and gear, the plane crashes in a desert sandstorm. The crash leaves the plane half-buried and the crew stranded with no hope of rescue. Giovanni Ribisi plays an engineer who figures out how to construct a single-engine craft out of a wrecked twin-engine plane. Ribisi's character devises the plan to remove one of the plane's two booms, and use it as the fuselage of a new, smaller craft.
No one had forgotten that famous pilot Paul Mantz crashed and died during the shooting of the original movie. Yet, Moore and his team first wanted to have a real Phoenix built. Moore hoped to film a full-size flying version, so his team contacted Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites of Mojave, California, for help with the flying Phoenix plan. The idea was to build a full-scale, flying version with stunt aviators; it was going to look exactly like the plane which appears in the movie, and this project almost came true. A design was developed, which Rutan wanted to build out of composite material. A full-scale flying version was under construction at Task for the movie, but it ended up overweight and never flew. "We did some wind tunnel tests, but it proved to be extremely nose-heavy. We were constantly trying to move the centre-of-gravity backwards", says Moore.
Moore is clearly a practical man, who likes old style special effects rather than computer-generated images. In this respect, it is clear that Burt Rutan, who has always working from an actual drawing board rather than a computer, was the perfect person for his dream to take flight. The asymmetrical aspect of the plane was also consistent with Rutan's previous research on the Boomerang prototype. As a proof-of-concept vehicle, Scaled aeronautical engineer Dan Kreigh scratch-built an 1/8th scale Phoenix model with a 10' wingspan, which weighed about 15 pounds. It was powered by an OS 1.08 glow fuel engine, and first flew in early November, 2003. Despite the asymmetric wing and tail, the model flew amazingly well and realistically. In flight, it required minimal aileron trim to offset the wing asymmetry. Construction was quick build with hot wire foam, balsa sheet and carbon tube spars. Finish was silver monokote. The Phoenix model took Kreigh three months to complete, working part time.
Unfortunately, the film's production had already spent a lot of money, notably on wind tunnel testing. They also had some problems creating the composite material to have the art-direction finish of aluminium. Composite materials are shiny, and look like fibre-glass, so it was difficult getting that to work on screen. While the people at Scaled were trying to reformulate the composite material to not be shiny, they fell out of an insurance group. The composite material that's shiny is a known quantity, so the insurance people could have insured it, but the only way to do it was to fall into an experimental bracket and as the insurance group didn't know anything about this, they deemed the project uninsurable. Consequently, John Moore's team couldn't build the airplane and they gave up on the project altogether.
Moore and his team therefore relied on an array of full-size and scale models, vintage aircraft and a junkyard full of parts. They had a full-scale model being pushed by a drag racer on the ground and built a big-ass radio-controlled model for the flying. The full-size Phoenix, built for the film's climactic takeoff run, had a 90-ft. wingspan and a vintage radial engine. "We used actual parts cannibalized from original C-119 wrecks," Moore says. To propel the craft, special effects director Stan Parks mounted a '70s-era dragster underneath the fuselage. "It could go over 50," he says. (During postproduction, the dragster was hidden behind clouds of digital dust.) Though definitely not built for airborne travel, the big craft "did like to get light at the speed we were going," Parks notes. "It was scary," says Ribisi, who was strapped to the wings along with the other actors. "Hit one dune and you're screwed." And then for the inside stuff, where people are being rolled around upside down and stuff, the crew built a 360-degree gimble. They took a fuselage from a real airplane and built a wheel around it which was 14-metres tall. As they were shooting in the actual Namibia desert, they wrapped a steel cable around it and tied it to a truck, so that the truck would drive off and spin the gimble.
The production relied on radio-controlled scale models and CG effects for the flying scenes. "There were two crashes," says Parks, "both in the model world." The crash sequence was done through very, very unsophisticated but practical methods. Effects technicians bounced a radio-controlled one-fifth scale model off a series of 100-ft. sand dunes at the film's Namibia location. The scale model "was the most beautiful thing that you've ever seen in your life, but we were going to have to crash it," says Moore. The giant model, which was built for a cost of around $250,000, was suspended from a large gantry and "flown" down to the crash site along guiding wires. Initial crash proving runs to work out camera positions were made using a large dummy shape, or "pig". "Every time the pig stopped short of the camera position, so we thought it was fine. But when it was time to crash the model, the thing was built so perfectly it actually flew and travelled further than the dummy shape, hitting the camera," Moore adds.
"Everything you see is very doable," Moore says of building the plane. To enhance that realism, Moore tried to minimize the use of computer-generated (CG) imagery. "There's very little CG in that scene. We used miniatures, which is a bit of a dying art." A miniature Quaid "pilots" the plane from a cockpit cut into the boom, while "passengers" hang onto the wings. "The great thing about the desert is that there's no sense of scale", says Moore. "We used a 1/5th miniature, but we could have used a 1/2 you know, it wouldn't have made much difference."
Population: one 1/8th scale flying model by Wild