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Legends of Flight — a new film I saw

14 June 2010

Legends of Flight — a new film I saw

Legends of Flight 3D IMAX movie poster — photo by Joe May

Last week I flew to Washington DC to attend the premier of a new IMAX movie, Legends of Flight 3D. It was an invitation event and we were feted with coffee and a brunch of fruit and pastries. Speakers discussed aspects of the movie, filming in 3D and of flight in general. There were a few dozen of us and the setting could have hardly been better since we were sitting in the historic lobby of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport — this lobby dates to the original construction of the airport in 1941. Soon we were invited onto the usually closed outside balcony. Something was going on but I didn’t know what to expect. However, several ground service personnel were obviously waiting for an arriving aircraft. Perhaps a private jet where we would see the director disembark then stride up the stairs to introduce the new film?

There! Low in the sky and on approach! Eight of them, graceful and slow with two wings each :)

As they came closer we could see they were all Stearman PT-17 trainers, brightly colored and lined up for landing. After watching airliners landing these aircraft seemed to hang in the air, but they did gradually begin to arrive. It was more exciting than planned as the third aircraft in the queue landed but suddenly flipped over its nose onto its back. Thankfully, pilot and passenger were uninjured. A video blogger captured the event from ground level and the passenger, a nationally renowned aviation reporter, was also recording the flight in HD video. Both clips can be seen on the Washington Post web site. Many have opined about why the incident occurred, and with no more facts than what are on the video clips, but I’ll await the NTSB finding — I’ve learned that the quicker the opinion the less chance it has of being correct. Six or seven airliners were delayed in taking off as they had to reverse and taxi further down until they could get back onto the Runway 1 where it intersects Runway 4 so the accident scene with its emergency vehicles and personnel would be free from jet blast. This runway appeared to be closed about an hour or so to landing, as well,  but the inverted PT-17 was removed quickly, I thought, and Runway 1 reopened. Runways 4 and 33 served during the interim.

Stearman PT-17 arriving for the Legends of Flight 3D IMAX film premier — photo by Joe May

Seven PT-17s with their radial engines running and propellers reflecting the morning sun taxied to their spots on the apron below the lobby balcony. This indeed was an excellent opening act!

Seven Stearmans on the apron for the Legends of Flight IMAX film premier — photo by Joe May

The director: Steven Low, described the challenges of IMAX 3D filming. The camera has three minutes of film in the magazine per shot, the camera-to-subject distance is not more than 15 feet (4m), getting that close to a flying aircraft required rare flying skills, the film editing and some compositing. Filming and production took 4½ years enjoying unrestricted access to the Boeing 787 production line, through good times and not so good times.

The host: Mike Carriker, a name perhaps unknown but a chief engineer with Boeing and a man who has piloted more than one hundred aircraft types. He is the narrator and the face most often seen in the film. Carriker is an excellent person to be in this movie since he is handsome, as humble as he is qualified — and he has a perspective of flight dynamics that comes only with study, experience, age and accomplishment. Often he goes to Nature to compare and for inspiration. He mentioned how a Honey Bee sips fuel so frugally that it could fly around the world using only one gallon (3.8L) of honey; and how the Wandering Albatross’s wing is so efficient that these birds fly for months without landing with hardly a wing beat (I found that their glide ratio is 22:1). He then segued ultimately to the design and design history of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

The movie: what a movie :) IMAX film resolution wonders hardly need to be mentioned and the 3D filming means not only that things are large but they are also close. And close hardly describes the effect! When flying in formation the audience feels closer than a pilot flying in formation can be. But I am getting ahead of myself. We start with the Wandering Albatross, mostly in animation. Segue to a Schleicher sailplane, incredibly you feel as if you are stationed between the tailplane and wing as the aircraft soars through mountain passes … then flying in trail behind a Stearman PT-17. One is suddenly with three Harriers as they fly at sea level to form up with a frigate of the Canadian Forces Maritime Command (Canada’s navy), then to occupy a perch in front of the lead ship while looking back to see the three Harriers and frigate — incredible! Three of the six aircraft in the film are products of Boeing, and they are one of the movie sponsors, but I did not get the sense that Boeing’s interests were overdone. Problems with the Dreamliner design were honestly stated without minimization, or spin, while favorable comments were given toward the A-380 without mention of its recent and significant delays in deliveries.

Then the film moves to the airliners, beginning with what could be the ultimate piston engine powered aircraft used for passenger transport — the Lockheed Super Constellation — the “Connie”. This film is worth seeing just to see the start up of engine number one ;) Moving on, the movie takes us to the Airbus A-380, where Carriker states it was the first new airliner design to take flight in the 21st Century, beating Boeing by years. Seeing one of the 380’s main trucks lower, and the huge Michelin® tires, from only feet away is impressive and makes one feel as small as a child. Carriker explains that Boeing almost made a company ending decision to design a high subsonic speed airliner that would have failed in the current market and then lets us feel the company’s excitement and anxiety when the choice was made to commit to the Dreamliner design.

The remainder of the film is about Boeing’s 787 with its live wing design, sharing carbon fiber composite construction with the Airbus A-380, and its market niche. This niche is to fly fewer passengers than the A-380 but more economically and to more airports. This is a strategic point as the number of airline flights are limited not due to lack of airplanes but to lack of available open gates. The 380 will be successful, all agree, but will be limited to less airport gates dues to its size and need for multiple gangways for passenger loading and unloading within 30 minutes. The 787 is smaller in size than a Boeing 777 but slightly larger than a Boeing 767. Much is said of the 787’s fuselage, like the 380 it shares better passenger comfort with less noise, higher cabin pressure and bigger windows. It is the wing though that is amazing to me — a live wing. As winglets imitate the primary feathers of birds to reduce drag inducing vortexes, now this wing imitates a bird’s intuitive and constant shaping of its wing feathers to increase lift and reduce drag. Computers, sensors and carbon fiber composite technologies unite to make this possible. The film takes the viewer along the first test flight of the Dreamliner, after we see the one of main trucks undergoing testing, with immense Bridgestone® tires.

During the construction and testing of the 787 the audience sees many of the Boeing plant workers at their stations during their day-to-day. Perhaps most noticeably is a petite woman of Asian ancestry whose small frame is ideal for climbing into the wing, using her education as an engineer, taking measurements which aided in determining the redesign the wing for more strength to resist flexing. This film is dedicated to her, Lisa Meyers, who died of an illness before she could see the completed film. She reminds us that inspired and professional people are the foundation supporting these legends of flight.

Carriker mentions two closing comments I have remembered long after watching this movie, mulling them over in my mind on my journey back to my home. In the film he mentions how we have moved closer to Nature’s perfect flying machines with our advances in technology and research. During the press briefing he concluded by mentioned that building two miles of road will get you two miles down the road, but build two miles of runway and you can go around the world. As was said before … a perspective that only comes with study, experience, age and accomplishment.

The film opens soon in over 100 IMAX theaters across five continents in both 2D and 3D versions, depending upon the theater, and it is well worth a look. It is especially worth a look for children as the movie exposes the importance and wonder of learning science as well as math … modern design tools and testing methods are also shown to compliment the flying scenes. The technology that is illustrated is incredible and almost beyond belief.

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