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Fighter pilot film about teamwork, thrill of flight

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

CHANTILLY, Va. (Dec. 03, 2004) -- Civilians and Airmen alike can get breathtaking insight into parts of the Air Force they may not have seen before.

The IMAX film "Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag," premiered Dec. 2 at the National Air and Space Museum here. Filmgoers got an inside look at one of the Air Force's largest training exercises, called "Red Flag."

Capt. John Stratton discusses his role in the new IMAX film "Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag." He served as the star of the film. The movie chronicles his experience as he participates in his first Red Flag exercise. The film made its premier Dec. 2 at the National Air and Space Museum here. U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Jim Varhegyi.

But the film is about more than an exercise, said Lt. Gen. Stephen G. Wood, Air Force deputy chief of staff for plans and programs.

"This movie is about our Air Force and what it means to be in the Air Force," General Wood said. "The title is 'Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag,' but it is really about the whole Air Force. That pilot wouldn't be in the air without the maintainers, support personnel or (firefighters)."

Red Flag exercises are run by the Airmen of the Air Warfare Center at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. General Wood was the director of the center during the making of the film.

A typical Red Flag exercise pits “friendly” blue forces against “hostile” red forces in mock combat situations to test the mettle of pilots and support crews. Blue forces are made up of units from the Air Force and its sister services, as well as units from American allies. Red forces are composed of Red Flag's adversary tactics division, whose pilots fly F-16 Fighting Falcons.

Capt. John Stratton is an F-15 Eagle pilot assigned to Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., and the "star" of the film -- a young pilot who had never before been to a Red Flag exercise.

The captain narrates much of the film, providing insight into what drives him as a pilot. At the beginning of the film, viewers learn the captain's grandfather was a Marine Corps fighter pilot in World War II and served as a role model and hero for him in his youth.

Captain Stratton came to the Red Flag exercise with aspirations of proving himself, of being a hero and of "winning." But what he learns during the course of the film, and what he conveys through his narration, is that Red Flag is not about being a hero. Rather, it is about being part of a team of Airmen that come together to complete the mission.

"What I take away from my experience is the realization that we are all part of the greater team of the Air Force," Captain Stratton said.

That team includes the pilots, mission planners, engine mechanics, firefighters, search and recovery teams and anybody else who wears the Air Force uniform.

The film is full of breathtaking scenery. The audience is treated to a rollercoaster-like ride through the valleys and mountains of the Nevada desert -- the range where most of Red Flag takes place. But the film takes plenty of diversions into areas where most people enamored with the thrill of flight might not have thought about.

Filmgoers see Airmen building bombs that will be loaded on blue force aircraft. They see a team of engine specialists repairing a damaged jet engine and then reinstalling it onto an aircraft. They see firefighters training to pull pilots from a burning aircraft.

At one point during the film, viewers get a close-up of a technical sergeant removing a stone from a crevice on the flightline. A voiceover explains the dangers of foreign objects being sucked into aircraft engines. The camera tilts and pulls back to reveal an entire line of Airmen pulling debris off the flightline. With the music, the scenery and the camera angle, an early morning "FOD walk" never looked so cool, and it is apparent no job is too small at Red Flag.

"While I was at Red Flag, I came to appreciate the idea that I was part of a team," the captain said. "It was sobering. We go to Red Flag as a team, we go to war as a team, and we fight as a team. I really hope people take that away as well."

"Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag" was directed by veteran film maker Stephen Low.

Mr. Low said one of the challenges of making the film was finding a way to compress the massive scale of what happens at a Red Flag so moviegoers could see it all on screen and understand it.

"How were we ever going to get in the middle of a 600-mile-an-hour air war with 125 aircraft of all types at every conceivable altitude … and taking place over many square miles of desert?" he asked. "I don't think we knew when we started how much we had bitten off."

But Mr. Low said Air Force officials, with the help of people at the Boeing Corporation, ensured the film could be made.

"(They) were committed to making a great film," he said.

Also challenging was ensuring the film was true to life, he said.

"(The) pilot and everybody wanted it to be absolutely real -- none of this in a fake cockpit in a studio," he said. "Pilots wanted real dogfights, with real aircraft fighting it out."

General Wood said he also wanted it to be real. There is a lot of action in the movie, a lot of close-ups and a lot of white-knuckle twists and turns. What is not in the film is unrealistic flying for the purpose of thrilling the viewer.

"There is no hot-dogging in the Air Force," General Wood said. "There will be scenes, because of the magnification, that I hope are very exciting. But there is nothing in there that we don't practice day-to-day in training for conflict.

"I was concerned they were going to make this into something it wasn't.

But I know the fliers in it performed superbly and by-the-book, and I hope people walk away with a pride and respect for the Air Force," he said.

The film will be showing in as many as 70 IMAX theaters around the United States over the next year.

For more information about the movie and to find local theaters that show the film, visit www.fighterpilotfilm.com.