- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

The new Imax featurette “Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag” is as kinetically cool as a supersonic flying spectacle — and potential recruiting supplement — is likely to get.

Opening today at the National Air and Space Museum, “Red Flag” provides a frequently awesome overview of war games at the Air Force’s 414th Air Combat Training Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. The subtitle of producer-director Stephen Low’s film borrows the name of a two-week exercise that has honed the flying and maintenance skills of an estimated 132,000 aircrew members from the United States and allied countries since 1975.

Capt. John Stratton, who flies an F-15C, is the “typical” stand-in for 128 pilots being tested in simulated air combat missions designed to provide them with a structured sensory overload comparable to the first 10 missions in an authentic war zone. One of the breakthrough discoveries of World War II aerial combat was that pilots who survived at least 10 missions seemed to acquire a lasting savvy. Modern training is designed to hasten progress along the learning curve well before pilots are sent into combat.

The other officer given a significant identity between the scenically stunning airborne sequences is Maj. Robert G. Novotny, the air boss for the exercises. This skeletal human-interest foundation suffices for an Imax novelty, since the overriding appeal depends on placing us in privileged, breathtaking viewing positions in high-performance aircraft. Nevertheless, a format bringing a few more fliers into the foreground would have been welcome.

“Fighter Pilot” is never shy about exploiting the prodigiously magnified audiovisual resources of Imax films. Indeed, it often adroitly enhances them. An early demonstration is a sequence of lap dissolves that observes five F-15s landing at Nellis, seemingly one after another and from the same reverse angle but with diverting variations in touchdowns. Some are more flush than others, and one or two kick up spiraling little whirlwinds that seem to scoot across the runway. Imax cameras can bring more than vast landscapes and skyscapes into your field of vision; they catch some elusive, transitory sights as well.

Although the movie attempts to help us appreciate the complexity of massed air maneuvers and the prowess needed to deal with organized chaos while piloting a jet aircraft, you never expect to sort things out. The thrills are paramount, but they do not seem the property of movie effects shops and digital animators.

Several sequences are devoted to the work of maintenance and rescue crews; in fact, there are many felicitous touches of the down to earth, notably the sight of a “dawn patrol” picket line that extends across the Nellis runway, looking for stray desert pebbles that might cause a hazard to aviation if sucked into the engines. It’s not the kind of thing you tend to think of when the illusion of being up there in a swift and potentially lethal aircraft is being communicated with exceptional vividness. But between highs, it’s worth being reminded of ground level.

***

TITLE: “Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Documentary account of military training, with frequent allusions to the perils of combat flying, but no objectionable language or depiction)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by Stephen Low. Cinematography by Michael Reeve.

RUNNING TIME: 45 minutes

WEB SITE: www.nothinglikethis.com/fighterpilotfilm

WHERE: Imax Theater, National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, Chantilly, Va.

WHEN: Three screenings daily

TICKETS: $8.50 for general public; $6.50 for children 12 and under or seniors 55 and older

PHONE: 877/832-4629

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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