One gloriously hot summer morning last month I joined a group of intrepid film journalists and kids’ TV presenters at White Waltham Airfield in Berkshire to meet the filmmakers behind Disney’s Planes and experience some truly epic aerobatic flying. White Waltham is one of the oldest airfields in the country, and you may have seen it doubling for a 1950s’ Heathrow Airport in the 2011 film My Week With Marilyn.
The day started with a short safety briefing, where four-time British National Aerobatic Champion Alan Cassidy demonstrated some of the aerobatic techniques used by Dusty and the other Planes characters in the film. Using a small wooden model plane he took us through the various racing turns, half Cubans and, most terrifying of all, the vertical reversal (pulling back on the stick until you’re flying straight up and then, at the top of climb, turning the aircraft to point downwards and swooping back down in the opposite direction). As Alan gave us advice on how to always look for the horizon to avoid sickness, it became apparent that not only would the day involve an impressive display of these aerobatic techniques, but that we would be the ones at the controls! Judging by some of the expressions around the table it was also clear that this was something of a shock to some.
Briefing over, and having enthusiastically scribbled my signature on the scary-looking paperwork, we all headed outside. Our plane was a bright yellow Pitts Special biplane (two-winged plane) emblazoned with the distinctive Disney Planes logo. With Alan seated in the rear instructor’s seat, I climbed into the front. As I was strapped in I felt like quoting Owen Wilson in Armageddon (“Will you make mine really tight? Cos I don’t want to fall out. I mean, almost to the point of cutting off circulation”), but it was easy enough, and then the Perspex canopy was pulled over our heads, the engine switched on, propellers started whirring and we were trundling off across to the runway on the far side of the field. There was a brief wait for another small aircraft in front of us to take off and then it was our turn. We yanked the canopy shut and it immediately got very hot inside the aircraft, but Alan assured me the temperature would cool once we got airborne. He lined us up with the runway and released the throttle. White Waltham is a grass airfield and not levelled at all so it was a bumpy ride down the runway but not long until we were off the ground and climbing fast.
Alan took us through a number of manoeuvres and encouraged me to have a go on the front control stick. I’ve been in a light aircraft before but nothing this small and manoeuvrable, and being able to control it with a delicate nudge of the stick was just incredible. Shoving the stick all the way to one side rolled the plane over onto its back for some upside down flying (a strange feeling indeed to look up and see Reading and the M4 passing below us!); yanking it right back took us into a loop – imagine a rollercoaster feeling that lasts and lasts; combining the two put us in a tight racing turn (the 4G turn we made makes you feel like you’re 4 times as heavy as you are on the ground). The vertical reversal was the highlight – as we flew straight up, Alan told me to keep my eye on the piece of string attached to the wing strut. The string flipping back and forth in the wind suddenly went slack and there was a curious feeling of weightlessness as we stopped in mid-air at the top of our climb, turned to face the ground, and then plummeted straight down to pick up speed before pulling back on the stick to achieve level flight again. With cameras attached to the wings and another inside the canopy it’s perhaps the closest I will ever get to being a Blue Peter presenter.
Back on the ground we gathered again in the briefing room for a short presentation on Planes by the film’s director Klay Hall and producer Traci Balthazor-Flynn. Mr Hall must have made this same presentation hundreds of times to journalists all over the world and yet his enthusiasm for both the animation and the aviation (“my two passions”) shined through.
He spoke about the months of research that went on before a single frame of the film could be shot, about capturing the jargon of air traffic control to inform the dialogue and the “use of unique sound effects to import truth”. With 130 characters and 27 different plane types that’s a lot of truth to import, and the makers spent hours attaching microphones to aircraft in order to capture each plane’s unique engine and wheel noises, and tweaking the computer animation to get the flying scenes just right. Early on the planes moved too fast and looked weightless “like they were on strings.” Flying in a real bomber helped the filmmakers understand how to give a sense of weight. A keen aviation enthusiast who took his first flying lesson at the age of 12, it was clear that authenticity was important to Mr Hall. He was especially enthusiastic about his trip to the UK to record John Cleese (the voice of Bulldog), who he described to as “a treasure for you guys, and a treasure for the world!” He also teased us with the hint of a Pixar character cameo somewhere in the film – when pushed he let slip it was a character from Cars 2 – so keep watching the skies!
Huge thanks again to Disney, Organic PR, and Alan and the other pilots for creating such a memorable experience!