Behind the Scenes
Veteran director Kirk Wolfinger
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.
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.
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.
Air wing flying in diamond
Plane launching from carrier.
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.
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.
Kirk Wolfinger and his
crew work on board the Stennis to film NOVA's "Battle Alert in the Gulf".
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.
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© | Updated October 2000