By Sarah Brown
He has flown in formation with boats, motorcycles, cars, and even a horse. He has doubled for Roger Moore and Catherine Zeta-Jones. With three decades of film stunt flying and aerial coordinating under his belt, J.W. “Corkey” Fornof is the authority on aerial film productions. He commits to film the type of precision flying that cannot be replicated by the most sophisticated computer animation.
Fornof came to AOPA Aviation Summit in Tampa, Fla., Nov. 5 through 7 to show off the aircraft he’s been flying lately: the aerobatic LoPresti Fury. He has logged more than 17,000 hours in 300 aircraft, and his movie credits include Six Days Seven Nights, Face/Off, Mission Impossible II, Jurassic Park, and Indecent Proposal, among others.
Fornof takes exception to the term “stunt pilot” for what he does. It is precision flying, a blend of art and science. When he planned the scene in the James Bond film Octopussy during which Bond flies a BD-5 jet through a hangar and exits sideways on the other end, Fornof worked with a Grumman engineer to plan the difficult maneuver.
“The key was to find the right speed,” he said. If the airplane went too fast, pressure feedback would slow the aircraft significantly and make it difficult to control, he said. He flew the shot six times in the airspeed window the engineer had recommended. On the sixth, he pushed the throttle just to the edge of the window and felt the aircraft quiver slightly as he emerged from the hangar sideways.
The daring feats captured on film are products of meticulous planning. Fornof said studios come to him with a rough idea of the script and ask him, “Can we do this, Corkey?” He writes the flying scenes, coordinates the timing, and considers details such as lighting, background, and scenery for the shoot—all while keeping the insurance company happy.
“They don’t hire me to take risk. … They hire me to eliminate risk and put it on those little squares of film,” he said.
Fornof’s good relationship with the insurance company came in handy when he was working on the film Six Days Seven Nights with Harrison Ford and Anne Heche. Ford, a pilot and AOPA member, wanted to do some of his own flying in the film. Fornof took him out in the airplane to see if he was ready. Ford, who at the time had logged about 300 hours, had a feel for the airplane and adapted well to the unusual circumstances of movie flying, such as flying next to a helicopter, Fornof said. Impressed with the actor’s skills, he convinced the insurance company to let Ford fly.
“If he wasn’t working on the set, he’d come drag me off the set and we’d go flying,” Fornof said.
While Fornof flew the most difficult scenes of the film, Ford occupied the left seat for many of the flying scenes. Fornof recalled Ford’s acting prowess as he flew the de Havilland Beaver in one particular scene.
“I was between the seats, Harrison’s been flying. He’s been shot, he’s slumped over.” Crouching out of view from the camera in a blacked out suit, Fornof told Ford to add a bit of power, and without breaking character the actor seamlessly advanced the throttle.
Fornof’s own acting credits are often viewed from a thousand feet or more—a distance that can make him look like just about anyone. “I have worn more dresses and wigs than you can imagine,” he said.
Now, Fornof is performing in the Fury and has the luxury of taking his pick of movie jobs. As for his career in the movie business, Fornof put less planning into that than he does his meticulously timed aerial scenes.
“There was no planning. It kind of grew. … The phone kept ringing. But it was never planned,” he said.
November 17, 2009