NOVA Online (click here for NOVA home)
Battle Alert in the Gulf
Site Map


Kirk Wolfinger Veteran director Kirk Wolfinger
Behind the Scenes

In April 1998, veteran director Kirk Wolfinger spent three weeks with a U.S. Naval Battle Group in the Persian Gulf while filming for the NOVA program, "Battle Alert in the Gulf." Following are the e-mails he sent colleagues back home about life and work on an aircraft carrier.



Jimmy,

My main character flies an F/A-18, so no shortage of incredible pix there. Also, I've now spent about 20 hours in a Sikorsky Seahawk filming so much from there that I can feel my teeth chatter in my bed.



Today we shot the most awesome scene out the side door of the Seahawk. Most of the air wing flew right at us, over the deck of the carrier in a diamond formation; we were at 1,000 feet, and they were at 500 feet so they actually flew below us with us using the carrier deck as background...freakin' awesome, as you might say. I then had them do it again and got the same thing from the side of the carrier and then again from the stern as well...all different heights. By the time I finished the Admiral was ready to have me thrown off the ship, but even the pilots said that for all the time they've been photographed they'd never seen a shot set up like that. I overheard some of them in mess talking about it later, saying, "that helicopter came out of nowhere." Of course, they were all asking if they could get a copy since you could just about count their nose hairs. After that, we flew out and got right down on the deck and had a fast attack sub surface right under our lens. We ran with him on the surface and then got an incredible submerging scene. The last thing you see is the periscope slip beneath the waves.

Air wing flying in diamond formation Air wing flying in diamond formation.

As you can see, this work is real drudgery. Actually it's getting hot as hell, and while the outside stuff is great we earn every scene we shoot inside the boats. The Carrier is about 90 feet high from bottom deck to top, and the ship has about 200 hundred "ladders" (stairs) and we've been on just about every one of them...several times. The soundman has taken to calling the Carrier the USS Stairmaster, and with good reason. It's been 10 years since I filmed on the JF Kennedy, and I can say with certainty I'm not in better shape than I was then.

More later,
Kirk




Takeoff Plane launching from carrier.
Jimmy,

Being the aero-geek that you are, you would die and go to heaven on this gig. I really must get you out on the flight deck during flight ops some day; you'd be enthralled. There is really nothing to compare it to. Today we stood between Catapults 1 and 2 as they were launching F-14's, F/A-18's, A6 Intruders, and an E2 Hawkeye, one every 30 seconds on alternating Cats. We had to keep moving the camera four feet with every launch (back and forth) to avoid being decapitated by a wing. The sound was 186db (that's real, not an exaggeration). We were filming slo-mo sequences of the guys who hook up the planes to the Cats that send them off the deck. The smoke, the noise, the drama...surreal. When they stoke that afterburner on an F-14 and push the throttle to the firewall, the dual engines become an angry fire mouth. The pilot is just sitting there for 10 seconds with the blast shield up waiting for the Cat officer to touch the deck and release him. His hands are off the controls gripping the harness in front of him, because any thought of actually "flying " the plane is ridiculous until three or four seconds after he's airborne. Between the Cat being released and until he's several hundred feet over the front of the deck the pilot is merely a passenger on the e-ticket ride of the century. It's all done with so much precision and with such dexterity that the scientific impracticality of what they are doing escapes you. It's only after it's done and you've seen it (in my case about a hundred times) that you say to yourself, "They can't do that!" I'll show you the film and you'll be impressed. I'll play you the sound and you'll be turned on. But if you stood in the middle of it and experienced it, you'd swear you'd seen God.



That's all for now. Write me before the end of biz today, and I'll still get it first thing in the morning before we depart to Stennis.

Kirk



Film Crew aboard the Stennis Kirk Wolfinger and his crew work on board the Stennis to film NOVA's "Battle Alert in the Gulf".

Well, Waldo, we're back at sea and back at the maritime epic. We are now aboard the John C. Stennis, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. Unlike the "Indy," which needs to refuel the ship and the air wing about every couple of weeks whilst on patrol, the Stennis can go 22 years before she needs an atomic top-off. That means all the fuel on board can go to the air wing, a vast difference from the Indy.

Looks are deceiving, however. As we approached on Saturday in the COD (Carrier On-board Delivery) airplane it looked similar to the Indy in most ways. We made our carrier landing (complete with arresting cable and the appropriate G's to get your attention but not your lunch) and stepped onto the John C. Stennis. One look down from the Air Bosses tower and you quickly realize that, "Hey Dorothy, we're not on Indy anymore." The flight deck is a full acre larger than Indy's, and while that may not appear to be much to you and me, if you're pointing a speeding bullet of a jet at a pitching and rolling deck doing 150mph, I'm sure it looks like the Ponderosa compared to most carriers.

Interesting sights here too; today as we were filming flight ops in the middle of the Gulf a couple of dead camels floated by. While I felt badly for the camels I kept wondering what happened to the riders. These guys on board say they see that kind of stuff all the time.

Listen, the local public affairs guy wants his e-mail back so I've got to go. The day and a half in Bahrain was great. After seven days on the Indy going at it hard, Bahrain's puritanical atmos seemed like paradise. Even Anthony loosened up and enjoyed it after a couple of hours when he realized there was no way to avoid this break in the action.

More later,

Kirk

Continue



Breakdown of a Battle Group | Women on the Carrier | Behind the Scenes
Resources | Transcript | Site Map | Battle Alert Home

Editor's Picks | Previous Sites | Join Us/E-mail | TV/Web Schedule
About NOVA | Teachers | Site Map | Shop | Jobs | Search | To print
PBS Online | NOVA Online | WGBH

© | Updated October 2000

Support provided by

For new content
visit the redesigned
NOVA site