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The too-too glamorous life of a Hollywood pilot

If you watch movies, these guys are basically knights in flight suits
/ Source: contributor

The best way to ruin a pilot movie is to watch it with an actual pilot. “Top Gun,” for example, was officially destroyed for me the day I was summarily informed that this movie was completely ridiculous because everybody knows that the airbrake of an F-14 is activated by a slide mechanism on the side of the throttle quadrant — and here Tom Cruise was moving the throttle forward.  Bah!

I was, as you can imagine, absolutely shattered.  You — you mean the filmmakers presented supposed factual information in an erroneous manner?  I barely collected myself in time to appreciate the most intellectually vital aspect of the entire film, which as we all know is the skins vs. skins beach volleyball scene.

This is not to say I take issues with pilots paying attention to detail.  I want the person in charge of transporting me from Orlando to Cincinnati to boast sharp discernment skills, as opposed to me, a person who until very recently thought that a filibuster was an appetizer only available at TGIFriday’s.

But I fear a similar ruination of “Stealth,” a futuristic film which indicates that U.S. Navy pilots have, since the Top Gun Class of ’86 displayed its mighty forearms, developed the ability save the world fully clothed.  More’s the pity.  As a teenager I found great comfort in the notion that in the event the United States was drawn into full-out war with the Soviet Union, Val Kilmer’s pectorals were adequately lubricated with SPF 15.

Knights in flight suitsHollywood seizes upon our notion of pilots, particularly those of the military persuasion, as the latest model in knighthood.  Not every industry can be portrayed in this manner; English majors, for example, hardly ever analyze the rhyme schemes of Yeats fully aware that the FURther on the EDGE, the HOTter the inTENsity, no matter what Kenny Loggins might have us believe.  I also doubt that human resources managers elicit Meg Ryan-style cries of “Take me to bed or lose me forever!” on a regular basis.

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Is it the flight suit? Why are we so taken with what is essentially a full-body pocket protector?  From whence is this confidence inspired by a profusion of zippers and Velcro enclosures?  What other profession outfits its participants with the ability to carry the entire pen aisle at Staples on his person?

Rather, it’s because planes are cool.  They light up and go VROOOOOOOOOOOOOM and present the ability to bypass the entirety of Detroit in four seconds.  There is something tingly in the simple act of attaining cruising altitude:  I am higher than you.   Ergo, I rock.

Airplanes bear upon their wings a certain erotic allure; they are all curves and steel and joysticks located between the knees.  It is therefore safe to assume that The Pilot is having The Sex.

Actors who play pilots, consequently, assume in the public imagination the perpetual mantle of the flight suit.  When simultaneously presented with an actual pilot and a Hollywood pilot, the world will lick the hand of the fictional flyer every time, for Maverick never tells us that we are now fifteenth in line for takeoff but might be able to make up some time in the air.

Upstaging actual heroesJohn Travolta — who happens to actually have a pilot’s license but is more important than most other pilots because he played a cheerful, bomb-stealing one in “Broken Arrow — recently emceed the opening ceremonies of the annex of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  He stood amongst Neil Armstrong, John Glenn and Amelia Earhart's flight suit, and an AP story covering the event discussed Travolta’s misty eyes for many words before getting around to mentioning that the first person to set foot on the Moon also happened to be hanging around.  But then again, Armstrong wasn’t featured in “Look Who’s Talking Now,” poor sap. 

We must note, however, that one of the most famous aviation-heavy scenes in Hollywood history — the closing moments of “Casablanca”— the pilot of Ingrid Bergman's getaway plane is thoroughly dissed.  Who’s flying this plot device?  Who started up the propellers?  We are not told.  We should be told.  If anybody has earned The Sex, it’s this guy.  At least show him honking the horn telling Ingrid to get a move-on.  I doubt the scene would have played quite so well had Bogart insisted that if she did not get on that escalator to the mall mezzanine, she’d regret it soon and for the rest of her life.

There’s an ironic reality to this.  Actual piloting (and this is the big dirty secret of aviation) does bury moments of un-fun within the fuel mix. The powers behind “Pearl Harbor,” for some reason, declined to shoot a scene in which Ben Affleck fills out requisition forms for “One (1) Official Pilot Pencil, Semi-Sharpened, Size Medium.”

An amazing achievement by the movie-makers; they’ve found a way to sex up engineering.  Many movie pilots, for example, speak with much angst of “the envelope.” They must push the envelope! Press the envelope! Lasso, write book reports on, and deep fry the envelope!  Nobody ever sits the viewers down for an explanation of what the envelope is, exactly; when I first heard of it in “The Right Stuff,” I assumed the pilots were speaking of a large, “Tic Tac Dough”-style dragon hanging in the sky, or a great wall of flame, or, at the very least, an actual envelope, preferably one from Publisher’s Clearinghouse announcing that you may have already won.

The reality is crushing.  Last year I followed a pilot friend through pre-flight procedures, and clapped my hands like a small child when he called me over to a computer screen and asked if I would like to learn all about The Envelope, which, as it turns out, is nothing more than a highly boring graph dealing with atmospheric conditions and decimals and how much a person weighs, and other such mildly unpleasant things.

Still, this may or may not make for a high-octane 2006 summer blockbuster.  The Envelope!  Starring Nicholas Cage! Will Smith! Hillary Duff! And as Ed McMahon as… The Envelope


Freelance writer Mary Beth Ellis runs , which to date is the only site on the Internet to feature a photograph of a cow directly above the album cover of the New Kids On the Block's delightful "Merry, Merry Christmas."