Actor James Franco Learns To Fly For Part
by Aero-News Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. 'Hognose'
Move over, John Travolta. There's a new pilot in the ranks of
actors: James Franco, best known to fans from the Spiderman series
of films (where he plays Peter Parker's friend-turned-enemy Harry
Osborne), decided that he wanted to understand what a pilot felt
like before trying to play one in an upcoming movie: "Flyboys,"
which tells the story of the Lafayette Escadrille.
The problem was, shooting was going to start in a few weeks. But
the motivated young (27) actor dived right in. "I got my pilot's
license and now can legally fly a private plane," he proudly told
the Hollywood paper, Daily Variety. "I did it because I'm
obsessive and want to feel what it's actually like to be a
There's no word on whether he plans to pursue advanced ratings
like Travolta has done so successfully, or whether he plans to
remain current, as many Hollywood pilots including Clint Eastwood
(who flies helicopters) and Harrison Ford (who flies copters and
land- and seaplanes, and chairs EAA's Young Eagles program) have
done. But if nothing else, his pursuit of accuracy is noted and
Of course, the Lafayette Escadrille was a different type of
pursuit, and to make a movie you need pursuit planes. But World War
One airplanes that once were built in the thousands are rare 85
years later. Where do you get them? The answer, to some people,
might be "CGI them," but that didn't fly with director Tony Bill,
whose producers have a $60 million budget for the film. (Bill
himself is an accomplished pilot). There was no question that
they'd be flying real planes in the filming. But, where to get
Like many filmmakers, Tony Bill turned to Airpower Aviation of
Thousand Oaks, CA, for help. The company specializes in everything
aerial for the film industry. Michael Patlin of Airpower recently
returned from location in Britain, and the photos from the set --
the ones where the planes have markings -- are actually crops of a
single large photo he sent us. As you see, they found enough World
War I planes -- thanks to Bob Baslee and Airdrome Aeroplanes of
The Nieuport 17s you see here are Airdrome replicas -- Baslee
and his mechanics had to build four of them for the movie, and
their schedule was as compressed as Franco's -- can you build the
planes in two months? Baslee finished the planes, from
first-two-ordered to all-four-licensed-and-test-flown, in 52 days.
If you're not impressed yet, he was ten days into the first two
when the filmmakers doubled his order, so two of the planes were
built in just 42 days. They are full size, but their frames are
made of aluminum, not wood; they're over 400 pounds lighter than an
original Nieuport. Instead of castor-oil-slinging Le Rhone
rotaries, they're powered by civilized VW powerplants, slinging a
92-inch prop through reduction gears. A rotary-engine mock-up,
visible in the set photos but not the test-flight ones, adds some
character for filming.
Along with five Baslee replicas (including Bob's original
factory demonstrator, which was also called to the colors), the
movie will use a largely-original Nieuport from Kermit Weeks's
collection. While the Weeks original will make it back to Florida
at the end of filming, not all the Baslee birds will be so lucky --
the script consigns two of them to destruction. Other replica
aircraft that will be seen on-screen include Fokkers and a Sopwith
1 1/2 Strutter.
Why a Sopwith, when the Lafayette Flying Corps didn't operate
that type? Well, for reasons they're not elaborating on, the script
needs a two-seater. The French two-seaters the LFC actually flew
don't exist in airworthy form -- so sometimes, even filmmakers'
magic is limited by what's possible.
The filmmakers are taking the time to get this right. After all,
this is the first World War One flying movie since, perhaps, the
Blue Max (we can't really count The Great Waldo Pepper, can
Is there anybody who's not happy about this? Well, apart from
the Kaiser? Not really. Bob Baslee's regular kit-builders are
missing being able to pick up the phone and get straight answers on
building his line of Nieuport and Fokker replicas; he's been on
location since May 24th. But they're also excited about the
prospect of planes like theirs showing up on the big screen.
Wouldn't you be?
The movie is currently filming for a projected 2006 release. But
if the film wraps in time, perhaps we'll see Franco at Oshkosh. (I
always make it a point to drop by Baslee's display. I wonder if
he'll remember me, now that he's in pictures?)