‘Airport 1975’ and the Mid-Air Stunts That Took Action Cinema to New Heights

Welcome to Yippee-Ki-YAY, a regular column that celebrates action cinema in all its glory. This edition looks at the air-based stunts in Airport 1975, Cliffhanger and The Dark Knight Rises.

Ever stick your hand out of the window of a speeding car? Remember the sensation of how it wobbles, rises, and falls? Now, imagine putting your whole body out into the wind at four times that speed. In the world of physical stunts, the Holy Grail of gags is that which takes place in mid-air. The most elusive of all aerial stunts is the plane-to-plane transfer of a living breathing human being, and performing it is considered a redoubtable badge of honour. While its lineage reaches deep into stunt history, the modern air-based stunt owes its resurrection to Airport 1975, a 1970s schlockbuster whose DNA found its way into a 1990s actioner and a modern superhero epic.

Before exploring these films, however, let’s take a visit to aerial stunts’ earliest days. During the 1920s, World War I pilots and daredevils toured the United States in barnstorming events that thrilled Americans in person and cinema newsreels. Whether they were dancing the Charleston on the top of a bi-plane or hanging by their teeth beneath a canvas-and-wood aircraft, the aerial performers of the post-war period were gutsy trailblazers.

One legendary aerial stunt pioneer was Gladys Ingle. Part of the boldly named “13 Black Cats” flying cadre, Ingle was celebrated for a mid-air stunt that saw her climb from one biplane to another as they flew in tight formation. Starting on the lower wing of the first plane, Ingle clamoured to the top wing before moving across to the second airplane’s lower wing. Notably, she wore a full-size landing gear tire on her back rather than a parachute. As the two planes struggled against turbulence, Ingle dangled below the second biplane to “fix” the aircraft’s missing landing gear tire. In case you were wondering, Ingle lived a long life, dying at the age of 82.

Naturally, Ingle’s airborne performance influenced filmmakers. Aerial stunts have been around since the dawn of filmmaking, but the Charlton Heston vehicle Airport 1975 saw them reach new heights. In the film, a Boeing 747’s flight deck is ripped apart by a mid-air collision in the film, leaving the passenger-filled plane without pilots. While a cabin crew member, played by Karen Black, attempts to hold the aircraft in the air, a scheme is hatched to transfer pilots to the jumbo jet in flight from a U.S. Air Force helicopter. While Heston’s drop into the cockpit was done via dodgy rear projection, the actual air-to-air stunt was carried out by a stunt performer who dangled out of an HH-53 helicopter. The stunt was realized via a government helicopter flying just ahead of an actual 747 over the western United States. The stunt performer was hooked up to what appears to be a Fulton Air Recovery winch. Designed to pluck downed pilots from the ground via balloon and cable, the Fulton was instead reversed by the filmmakers to lower a stunt performer out of a speeding helicopter.

Flying a hefty helicopter at its cruising speed in front of a jumbo jet near its stall speed is hazardous enough. Dangling a human in front of a 747 is positively dangerous. The genuine Air Force helicopter unspooling a stunt performer towards a Boeing 747 in-flight makes for a riveting scene in an otherwise schlocky film. Two decades later, however, the stunt was one-upped in Sylvester Stallone‘s Cliffhanger.

The aerial stunt in the Renny Harlin film became famous for its precarity and notoriety of its stunt performer. In the film, a DC-9 bearing government gold is intercepted by a private jet full of thieves. Taking the gold in mid-air requires jettisoning the DC-9’s tail cone while the smaller private jet lines up just below and behind. A weighted cable is unreeled down to the pursuing jet, which reduces altitude by a few feet, allowing gravity to pull the loot downward.

Doubling the film’s rogue federal agent, stunt performer Simon Crane slid down the same aerial tether as the cases of gold. The stunt, however, did not go smoothly. Wearing a concealed parachute, Crane slowly let himself down the cable towards the private jet which held the trailing wire in an open hatch. As Crane neared the trailing jet’s left-side entrance, he was suddenly tossed onto and over the top of the aircraft before swinging perilously close to the private jet’s tail-mounted engines. The chase plane’s pilot, who reportedly flew too fast during the stunt, quickly peeled off, and Crane cut himself loose and parachuted to safety. Crane was just inches away from actually moving, in mid-flight, from a passenger jet to a private aircraft. Almost 20 later, a quartet of stunt performers executed an equally dangerous feat.

Noted for his interest in keeping effects real and in-camera, Christopher Nolan and company synthesized decades of aerial stunts for the Bane-led kidnapping scene in The Dark Knight Rises. The sequence features a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft overtaking and hooking a smaller Embraer passenger plane. The scene was filmed by breaking the stunts into individual components, starting with the tethered hijackers descending from the C-130. Planning and training for the ambitious stunt took two weeks. Flying at over 160 miles per hour, the military transport released four individually tethered stunt performers simultaneously. The quartet descended a 100-foot line, around 8-feet apart, to the smaller private turbo-prop. Even though the stunt performers were close enough to land on the Embraer, the hazards of putting humans close to the aircraft’s spinning propellers meant an actual connection was too dangerous. The next aerial stunt had the gun-toting stunt performers suspended beneath a Eurocopter Super Puma for the final, dramatic fracturing of the turbo-prop plane. As the hoist helicopter flew out of shot above, the stunt performers scampered around the wingless airplane mock-up swaying from a helicopter 3,000 feet above the Cairngorm Mountains.

Scenes like those in Airport 1975, Cliffhanger, and The Dark Knight Rises realise the drama of a century of aerial stunts. Each attempted to capture a life-or-death stunt in-camera. Each film advanced the idea of what could be safely done to thrill an audience. They were barnstormers that saw stunt performers acting as living kites, putting their bodies in harm’s way for our entertainment.

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