Skipper and I headed out early Monday morning to the NASA facility at Wallops Island on the outer banks of Virginia. During the two hour drive from Richmond, he mostly lectured me about my errant use of one of the company’s 16 mm Arriflex cameras, used without permission ,to shoot a scene for my film. The night before he caught me returning the gear to the studio after I finished. Reverend Al Stewart owned the camera, and used it mostly for his Religious films. The Reverend would have been furious if he knew I had taken it without permission. Al was the type of guy if something went wrong on one of his shoots, he would stamp his feet and then cry.
Did you ever do something for art that just ain’t right? I’d been using the bell- tower of the city hall as a vantage point to take progress still shots of the new post office being built across the street. It was part of my job. The clock works inside the tower was a glorious array of dusty large cogs, gears and wheels with a spiral metal staircase leading to the pinnacle where the silent bells hung dormant . I put an actress in the Victor Hugo world and achieved an erie atmosphere on film.
You had to love Skipper. He had seen action in WWII at Pearl Harbor and became head of the US Navy Signal corp photograph unit. He’d seen a lot, so an over enthusiastic employee with filmmaking aspirations was not too outrageous. After all it was a motion picture company.
Our job for the day was to film test of the US weather plane taking off and landing. A new concept in runway grooving was being tested for hydroplaning and has since been adapted for highway use. There was a NASA fire battalion standing by to hose down the test strip of runway. The massive weather plane sat quietly in position at the end of the strip and the Bell Helicopter used as the camera platform for filming was off to the side of the runway.
Skipper introduced me to the head honcho and headed off to the Officers Club to schmooze with his buddies, make deals and drink the day away.
I was shown the intricacies of using the Tyler camera mount from the ground flight crew and learned how not to fall out of the open portal of the helicopter. My legs were outside of the copter, using the landing struts as foot braces, I positioned myself in the seat of the floating pod equipped with a pylon for the cantilever boom arm for the camera. After checking the zoom and focus controls – I strapped in and was ready to go.
” Tiger, tiger ready for take-off,” the Pilot answered the flight crew chief’s call.
“You set back there?” The chopper pilot asked me over the headset.
“Roger that, standing by.”
With deafening, screaming jet engines the big plane started to move, we were flying parallel. close to the ground; the turbulence was incredible. I was rolling film close-up of the wheels of the monster plane as it gathered speed and lifted off the tarmac. Our copter set down amidst the kicked up sand and debris from the rotors – as the giant fixed wing plane banked out over the Atlantic. Jack, the copter pilot, and I cooled our heals as the ground crew wetted-down the runway again with fire hoses.
A hundred mile loop and half an hour later, the four engine jet was on an approach course for the landing. Jack and I got going and met her about a mile out over the ocean. The ride was smooth, and the blue sky made a great background for the plane as I started rolling just before she landed and carefully zoomed into a close-up of the wheels as they touched down and sliced through the water on the grooved test area of the runway. Beautiful!
The behemoth giant rolled to a stop and the copter set down.
“How was that for you?” Jack called over the headset.
“Affirmative, good for me.” Resisting any wise-cracks about the alternate times when that phrase is used.
“You want to do it again?”
It was at that moment that I realized the power of motion pictures. They (the pilot, Jet and ground crew) were waiting for my report to see if they would repeat the procedure. After the hour it took to turn around the operation for a second take, we were ready again to repeat the performance for a second time.
This time, when Jack asked for a camera report, I said:
“I had a focus problem on that one,. Can we do it again?” I lied.
The third time was the charm and after I confirmed that the take was good we broke for lunch. Jack said we could grab some sandwiches from the cafeteria and shoot over to Assateague Island and have lunch with the wild ponies. I could get used to this.
The giant Dragonfly scared the wild horses off some distance; it was great
watching them galloping as we landed. Jack was a gent. He didn’t seem to mind I couldn’t talk fishing with him like the other guys who worked at Wallops. It was the main topic of most of the discussions with the guys there. I did offer some levity for Jacks behalf: “You ever see a one armed fisherman?” He shook his head and I put one arm behind me a stretched out my other like a trophy boast. “He caught a fish this big!” Jack rolled laughing. He said he couldn’t wait to lay it on the other guys when we got back.
The afternoon tests were with an iced down runway – the preparations were substantial. Dump trucks full of the stuff lined up for their turn to deposit their load, as the ground crew spread the crushed ice with rakes. The pavement was warm from the May sun and the crews worked swiftly before too much of the product could melt. The first test went smoothly as the huge tires shot ice out like Tiddlywinks. Now that I knew the drill I called for another take as a safety and the different departments went to work to make it happen. I had already decided, as we jockeyed for the return landing, not to ask for a third take because it was just too much work for everyone.
As we set down after the final landing, the “wash” from the egg beater rotors was fierce. I could feel my already tattered pants legs unraveling up to my knees. Then it happened – the extreme turbulence blew the cover of the magazine off, exposing all the footage from the day’s shooting. Jack was the first I told of the mishap and in his professional nonplused way he said, “We’ll just have to do it again tomorrow.”
I saw Skipper coming towards me from his car and he was miffed: “Why did you do so many takes? Do you know how much it cost each time that plane takes off?” I didn’t, but I was more concerned with telling him the bad news. He seemed to take that in stride more than the $4,000 cost of each take off. I felt like a politician cavalierly spending taxpayers money.
The next day’s test went unblemished and I curbed my enthusiasm and didn’t ask for more than one take each of the two test.
As we finished up, Skipper said, “You “can-out” the exposed footage and I’ll put the camera away.” I was sitting in the open door of the back of his car with the changing bag on my lap, down-loading the exposed footage, when Skipper, taking the zoom lens off the camera dropped it on the concrete. An award silence – and then he looked slowly up from the shattered glass to me and said, “You see, that could have happened to you over the weekend.”