GA at the Movies

The making of Six Days, Seven Nights

June 1, 1998

The venerable de Havilland Beaver flies low over the brilliant blue and green waters, hugging the rugged coast of Kauai, Hawaii, the old radial's throaty rumble in stark contrast to the beautifully tranquil and lush landscape viewed out the right side. As we fly around a point of land jutting into the ocean, a short landing strip comes into view over the nose and the pilot points to it, indicating that we'll land there. m Pumping the Beaver's idiosyncratic manual hydraulic flaps down, he turns base, then final, the offshore wind bouncing us around as he lets down, passing close over the few sunbathers and surfers on the beach under the approach. Deftly handling the wind shift as we cross the end of the strip, he sets the old workhorse down in a perfect three-point landing as if he'd been doing it all his life.

As we roll out, the pilot looks over, grinning as any pilot does when he greases one on. The thought crosses my mind that this smile is going to set millions of women's hearts aflutter this month when that same winsome grin lights up his face up on a big silver screen. That's certainly the furthest thing from Harrison Ford's mind as he advances the throttle and steps hard on the left rudder to bring us around to taxi back for takeoff.

Ford's love of general aviation and his acting career have been fortuitously married in Six Days, Seven Nights, his latest movie for Disney's Touchstone Pictures. Approaching the task with the same enthusiasm and intensity that has earned him accolades for his film work, Ford, AOPA 1328677, has quickly mastered the old bush plane. Wrangling permission from the studio to do the stunt flying in the film was no easy task — never before has a star of his caliber done that. But Ford is in fact doing the majority of aerial scenes in this romantic adventure about a rough-hewn and crusty freight dog named Quinn Harris, who has escaped the bonds and bothers of civilization for the less encumbered climes of the South Pacific. For pilots, the real costar is not Anne Heche, Ford's love interest in the film, but rather the beat-up old Beaver.

In reality, the Beaver only looks well-used, courtesy of Production Designer J. Michael Riva and his crew, who have carefully aged the immaculately restored classic with judicious dabs and streaks of dirt-, oil-, and grease-colored paint. The result is the image of "benign neglect" that Ford has in mind for his character's aircraft. In all, there are three flying Beavers and four nonflying Beavers used in the film, all but one here in Kuaui — and all made up to look exactly alike, right down to the grease spots and oil streaks.

The great Beaver migration

Where do you buy a half-dozen Beavers? The Pacific Northwest. All of the Beavers, including one on floats, were purchased there and flown or shipped to Van Nuys, California. Those tasked with flying were put through a complete refurbishment. The big, round Pratt & Whitney 985 engines and props were all overhauled, including a spare — just in case. The "Harris Freight" paint scheme was designed in collaboration with Ford, who ensured that it fit the persona he visualized for his rather cocky character. All seven Beavers were painted in one furious week, just before filming began.

Once finished, the airplanes were disassembled — with wings and landing gear removed — packed carefully into containers, and shipped via boat to Hawaii, then by barge to Kauai. Ford's own immaculate Cessna turbo 206, in which he did most of his initial flight training, was also crated up and shipped over for his personal use during the three months of filming on the island. He used it to island-hop and to fly into Lihue Airport from Princeville on the days they were filming flying scenes.

Ford takes the left seat

While the Beavers are at Van Nuys, Ford climbs into the left seat for the first time and begins the process of getting checked out with instructor Lou Tobin. Ford earned his tailwheel endorsement a few months earlier flying a Piper J-3 Cub and Stinson 108. The big 400-horsepower Beaver is a far different, more powerful, and heavier bird, but it doesn't take long for things to start falling into place for Ford. "The Beaver is really fun to fly, handles well, and I didn't have any problems adjusting to it," recounts Ford. "I love flying in this low-and-slow environment, and I love the Beaver's short- and rough-field capability." He confesses, "It felt great being able to get away with being paid to fly, not just act."

Fixed Wing Aerial Coordinator (and renowned stunt pilot) J. "Corkey" Fornof, AOPA 1368539, who is required by Disney's insurance provider to be in the back of the Beaver while Ford is flying, relates, "We've done some really difficult stuff to get the shots they wanted, the sorts of things that required very precise, potentially hazardous flying — exactly what we do as stunt pilots. Being in the back, I had to be confident in him and have faith in his abilities. Harrison has 'the touch.' Less than nine percent of all the pilots I've flown with have that touch. In all the hours we've flown together during the filming, I never had cause for concern." Wryly referencing Ford's role in the "Star Wars" movies, Fornof says, "He may not have 'the force' with him, but he has 'the touch.'"

On location

In Kauai, the team of A&Ps reassembles the Beavers, working out of a small work bay at Lihue Airport. The frequent tropical showers slow the pace somewhat, but offer a few moments of respite for the harried crew. Stunt pilot Neil Looy, AOPA 810977, flight tests each Beaver as the small crew of mechanics works feverishly to get all three airworthy. A Huey is used to airlift the floatplane to Nawiliwili Harbor. The aerial team must also prepare the nonflying aircraft; one will be used in the beach scenes, and another will repeatedly crash into the bay.

All the air-to-air and air-to-ground filming will be done from an American Eurocopter AStar helicopter, using a sophisticated, custom-built Flying Pictures USA Gyrosphere gyrostabilized camera attached to the right side. The chopper's agility and the Beaver's slow speed and stability make for a good match and allow shots that would be impossible to get from a fixed-wing camera ship.

Before each shot Aerial Unit Director Steve Stafford, AOPA 639960; Fornof; Helicopter Aerial Coordinator Robert "Bobby Z" Zajonc, who pilots the A-Star camera ship; and Ford gather to discuss the upcoming shots and safety issues. A pair of small models serves to illustrate the positions of the aircraft for each shot and how they will join up and maneuver. Because Ford has limited formation flying experience, the onus is on Zajonc to ensure adequate separation while Ford does exactly what's been briefed. At times the rotor blades are within a few feet of the Beaver's wing tip.

Stafford, himself an ATP and instructor in both airplanes and helicopters, as well as an accomplished stunt pilot and head of Studio Wings, takes pains to ensure that everyone understands how each shot will work and how to safely break off if things don't go as planned. Time and again he reiterates, "Safe flying is no accident." Ford and Zajonc, the pilots, retain ultimate authority, and nothing is done until they are comfortable with it. Ford is not shy about voicing concerns, as well as offering suggestions. All the actors and actresses, film crew, and others who will be in, around, or transported by airplane or helicopter are given a safety briefing.

General aviation makes it possible

The film crew has an opportunity to experience the flexibility of general aviation firsthand. Many of the scenes take place in the waters off the inaccessible west coast of Kauai, and a barge is moored offshore to serve as a working platform. The entire film crew is ferried by helicopter out and back from a staging area at Barking Sands Missile Range. An average of 135 people are transported daily in this shuttle operation, using four helicopters managed by Stafford's aerial unit. Another scene is shot on a mountain peak where the only access is by helicopter. A massive helilift operation is required. Helicopters are also used to ferry Ford, the director, and other principals to and from the many shooting locations spread across the island. In all, the helicopters fly 405 sorties during the filming. Without the flexibility they offer it would have been much more difficult to shoot the movie on location. All that time in helicopters sparks an already extant interest in Ford, and he'll go on to add a helicopter rating to his ticket.

Between takes, the aerial crew must also install in the Beaver the battery packs and lights, special communication and sound systems, and other moviemaking paraphernalia required for the filming. Lighting and other needs must be balanced against the weight-and-balance constraints and available space. Even the Beaver's vaunted load-hauling capability is no match for the hundreds of pounds of batteries and other gear that must be used. Compromises are the order of the day as competing needs and available space and loading constraints are sorted out. The interior of the Beaver doesn't look so small until you try to cram in four or five people and all this equipment.

Before each session a new film magazine must be loaded into the Gyrosphere camera and the assembly carefully rebalanced and leveled. The controls for the camera are in the helicopter's cabin, where a video monitor, fed by the video pickup piggybacked into the film camera, shows Director of Aerial Photography David B. Nowell the scene that he is filming. Nowell and Zajonc have worked together on countless films and can virtually read each other's minds, making for excellent crew coordination during the shoot. Zajonc nimbly maneuvers the chopper around the Beaver to give Nowell the exact shot Stafford has requested as the two aircraft perform their carefully choreographed dance in the sky.

For close-ups of Ford flying, a Vietnam-era bomb rack is hung on the left wing hardpoint and a platform attached to it, upon which the camera is mounted. Braces are added by the grip and an A&P to ensure that the camera won't budge or vibrate. Looy takes the airplane up for a test flight and pronounces it safe, although the added drag on the left side is definitely noticeable.

Stretching the limits

The somewhat far-fetched story line — stretching the limits of believability for pilots, at least — has Ford and Heche marooned on a not-quite-deserted South Pacific island where they have crash-landed on a beach as the result of a violent storm. In an effort to escape the modern-day pirates that they inadvertently run into on the island, Ford contrives to fit the Beaver with a pair of floats — ostensibly salvaged from a Japanese patrol plane that crashed on the island during World War II. (Beaver aficionados who happen to be moviegoers may wonder why the wheeled airplanes have elevator end-plates, which are normally found only on float-equipped models. For consistency's sake, all of the movies' Beavers wear the end-plates.)

In the course of their perilous escape, Ford is shot; and before he passes out, he must instruct Heche how to land the Beaver when they get back to civilization. Despite never having attended an AOPA Pinch-Hitter course, and with only this minimal instruction, Heche manages to put the Beaver down in more or less one piece. It's Hollywood and anything is possible.

To simulate the jury-rigged float installation, the crew has dressed up the floatplane with lengths of bamboo, rope, cargo straps, and driftwood. While it looks real, the question is, will it fly? Looy takes it for a test flight, and after a long run down the harbor, the Beaver staggers into the air. "Flies," pronounces Looy, "but not well." The crew removes some of the dressing, producing much better results, but the director doesn't like the way the dressed-down version looks. So they are back to an aircraft that is only marginal in flight, but which needs to be filmed not only flying, but taking off and landing in 10- and 12-foot seas.

Ford doesn't yet have his seaplane rating, so Fornof taxis the floatplane for the takeoff scenes, pushing the Beaver's limits as he crashes through the waves. They destroy five sets of floats in the process of filming the takeoff, and only the foresight of filling the floats with foam saves the airplane on a couple of occasions.

With a wild crash-landing into the water required for the finish, even the experienced Fornof has reached his safety limit. In search of a solution, Stafford recalls moving the floatplane to the harbor, slung via long line from the Huey, and comments how natural the Beaver looked as it "flew" along. He has a brainstorm. "Let's fly the Beaver to a [crash] landing at the end of the long line." No one had ever heard of its being done before, but a test "flight" with the Beaver's engine running proves that it works. Even with the Beaver at the end of the 200-foot cable, Huey pilot Tom Hauptman has enough control to make it safe and appear as if the Beaver is really flying. A magneto cutoff switch must be rigged to satisfy the FAA, and then it's time to roll film.

Back on the mainland

Inside the cavernous former Air National Guard hangar at Van Nuys, California, another Harris Freight Beaver is perched 21 feet in the air on top of the "gimbal," a veritable Medusa's head of thick hydraulic hoses and electrical lines. A bright blue canvas screen — made even brighter blue by the special blue lights illuminating it — is stretched across the back of the hangar. The unnaturally blue screen will allow a computer to distinguish that portion of the frame from the objects filmed in front of it, so that the background scenery previously filmed by the helicopter crew in Kauai can be dropped in, giving the illusion that the Beaver is really flying. This is where they will film most of the dialogue that occurs in the aircraft.

The difference between these process shots done in the hangar and those done with Ford flying the Beaver are easy to recognize if you know what to look for. Tight shots with minimal background in the scene are process; those that start out fairly wide and move in close or with lots of background showing are ones shot air-to-air.

The hydraulic cylinders and pistons attached to the gimbal serve the same purpose as they do on the base of a flight simulator, but in this case they are not controlled from inside the aircraft. With the director at his side, the special effects director sits at a sophisticated control panel with a joystick and rocker switches to control the attitude of the Beaver. Servos inside the airplane move the control surfaces in sync with the Beaver's apparent movement. There's no prop, but the spinner is connected to an electric motor, so it adds to the effect.

Not particularly pleased with the painfully obvious gaps between the script and reality, Ford sits in the Beaver as the cameramen and grips reset the shot. He makes tactful suggestions to Director Ivan Reitman, down on the floor of the hangar, about possible dialogue changes for this surreal Pinch-Hitter scene. Reitman is not a pilot, and it is clear that he simply wants the scene and dialogue to be brief and appropriately dramatic. Ford is interested in injecting some degree of plausibility into an inherently implausible situation — for any pilots who might eventually view the film.

You will have to be the judge of the results. Six Days, Seven Nights opens at theaters nationwide on June 12.

More information about the film is available on the World Wide Web (