John Moore's 21st century remake of the classic 1965 movie Flight of The Phoenix was released last week. How did he mock-up an aviation catastrophe?

How do you "crash" a giant model Fairchild C-119 Packet into sand dunes and make it seem catastrophically realistic? Even more challenging, how do you invent a hybrid aircraft that could theoretically be built from the parts of the downed C-119, and then make a scaled version of it fly convincingly?

These, and other equally massive challenges, have been taken up enthusiastically by Irish-born film director John Moore who recently jumped at the chance to make a modern Flight of the Phoenix. The film tells the tale of a small band of crash survivors who attempt to re-assemble an aircraft from the wreckage and fly it out of the wilderness to civilisation.

Moore, whose previous film credits include the 2001 Bosnian war drama Behind Enemy Lines, was also keenly aware of the responsibility that goes along with directing a remake of an aviation film classic. "Being an aircraft nut I realise it is one of those 'holy grail' movies. I know it has a relatively small, but very loyal, following and story-wise I wanted to keep it bang on the money. There's really nothing that varies from the original apart from maybe one iPod joke," quips Moore.

C-119 search

But Moore's passion for accuracy almost stopped the film dead in its tracks before it even started. "One of the biggest challenges was getting the actual aircraft and we scoured the world, looking everywhere from Thailand to Kenya, before we found a flyable C-119 in Wyoming." In the original 1965 film directed by Robert Aldrich and starring James Stewart and Richard Attenborough, the story was based around a twin-boomed Fairchild C-82 Second World War transport. The C-119 Packet is the direct descendent of the C-82, but even this is now virtually extinct except in "bone yards" and museums.

"It was becoming grim at one time," says Moore, who says salvation came in the form of an aircraft from Hawkins & Powers Aviation, a Wyoming-based fire fighting specialist. "It needed some work doing on it before it could fly to Africa, where we were doing the filming," says Moore.

"We overhauled it and gave it a brand new paint scheme for the movie. We also found three unused fuselages in Kenya, which had to be trucked to Namibia. There were no actual sets, we filmed everything using real aircraft and we kind of concocted our own boneyard."

Transporting a C-119 fuselage across Africa was almost as big a production as the film itself, he adds. "We sent a couple of tough characters to get it from Kenya to Namibia on a really big trailer." The journey was an adventure, interrupted at one point by the sinking of a ferry on which the trailer was travelling. After being salvaged, the fuselages arrived at Swakopmund, a town on the Atlantic coast of Namibia just to the north of Walvis Bay.

Filming was conducted between late 2003 and March 2004 at a nearby area famous for its massive shifting sand dunes, a Mecca for fans of the growing sport of sand boarding. Unlike the Buttercup Valley setting in Arizona used in the 1965 production to represent the desert wastes of North Africa, the Namibian location was intended to represent a remote depression in the Gobi desert. But why Outer Mongolia? "One of the biggest challenges we faced in making the film was basically the question: is anyone going to believe it anymore? Where the hell do we put them where they can get lost in this world of GPS and satcom and modern navaids," says Moore.

Research, and advice from the pilot community, produced a remote zone in the Gobi desert that "was effectively blank. No relief maps are even available for that area, which is also surrounded by a mountain range that is highly magnetic, so it could screw-up some navaids," says Moore who acknowledges that in the 21st century the premise of the mid-20th century Phoenix story is "still a bit of a stretch".

The C-119 arrived on location after a two-week journey from Wyoming. "Everyone was so happy when it finally got to Namibia. I'd been working on the movie for two years and had never seen it fly until it literally overflew the set. It was like a movie star turning up," says Moore. Dennis Quaid, the lead actor who plays the role of pilot Frank Towns (portrayed by James Stewart in the 1965 version), "was just like a kid when he saw it", says Moore.

The film's centrepiece is the crash of the aircraft, which was staged using a gimballed centre fuselage section for the internal shots and a 6.7m (22ft) span, 385kg (850lb) scale model of the C-119 for the exterior angles. The main fuselage section was enclosed within a "big wheel" says Moore. "It could be turned through 360¡ and we could strap in the actors and whirl them around. It produced a sort of zero g effect, with hair hanging down and cigarettes falling out of pockets. The actors weren't acting - they were terrified," he adds.

Perfect model

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.

The impact also broke a cameraman's leg, an incident which, together with the earlier ferry sinking, raised the ominous question among the more superstitious crew members as to whether they had unwittingly awoken the "curse of the Phoenix". This was said to have pervaded the original film, which was marred by the death of stunt pilot Paul Mantz during a touch-and-go sequence with the original Phoenix. This was put together using parts from a Beech C-45 and North American T-6, but was structurally flawed.

During a pass for the camera, one of the wheels hit a mound and the jarring action is believed to have led to the failure of the fuselage aft of the wing-body join. The aircraft immediately nosed over and Mantz was crushed by the engine. Although the 1965 film contains brief shots of the original Phoenix, the necessarily truncated flying scenes were shot using a modified North American O-47, rented from the then Ontario Air Museum.

The curse of the Phoenix almost struck again when the C-119 was damaged on the ground by a special-effects driver, who hit the wing with his truck. The damage, to the leading edge and wing fuel tank, was enough to keep the aircraft grounded in Africa for three months. Fear of the curse, but more importantly massive insurance costs, also kept the film makers from flying their own Phoenix. "We were building a full-scale version and we ended up making a Phoenix that could be taxied. But the flying scenes were shot using a radio-controlled model and computer graphics," he adds.

The makers contacted Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites of Mojave, California for help with the flying Phoenix plan. A design was developed, which was to have been made from composites. "We did some windtunnel tests, but it proved to be extremely nose-heavy. We were constantly trying to move the centre-of-gravity backwards and in the end the insurance company said it could not be done," says Moore.

However, seemingly against the odds, the new Flight of the Phoenix has been completed and the film premiered in the USA on 17 December. It is due to open in Asia and South America in January, and will go on release throughout most of Europe in February. Moore's enthusiastic pursuit of realism could well guarantee a place for the 2004 version among the modern "holy grails" of aviation cinematography.


Source: Flight International