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    Thursday, July 18, 2024

    Navy jets, flown by great pilots, roar through sky ‘literally inches apart’

    If you’re looking for a little bit of that “Top Gun: Maverick “ spectacle and thrill at the movie theater this summer, you’re in luck. A groundbreaking new documentary, “The Blue Angels,” is flying onto home screens.

    Using IMAX-certified cameras mounted on a helicopter, the filmmakers were granted unprecedented access to the U.S. Navy’s Flight Demonstration Squadron, both on the ground and in “the box,” the tightly guarded performance airspace. Unlike in a Hollywood movie, there were no staged recreations, second takes or computer-generated shots. And they had about “5% of the budget” “Top Gun” had, those involved estimated.

    The film was the brainchild of Rob Stone and Greg “Boss” Woolridge, a former Blue Angel and subject of a 1994 film about one of their historic tours in Europe. COVID-19 derailed plans to follow their 75th anniversary season, but a silver lining would emerge in the delay. By that point, aerial coordinator Kevin LaRosa II had worked several times with actor Glen Powell, on “Top Gun” and “Devotion.” Powell, he’d learned, had grown up with a Blue Angels lithograph in his childhood bedroom.

    “(Powell) said, ‘I’ll hook you up with the Creative Artist Agency in Hollywood and we’ll get this done,’” Woolridge said in a recent interview.

    Soon, they were also talking to J.J. Abrams’ company Bad Robot and figuring out ways to collaborate with IMAX and show audiences things that no civilian has seen before, under the direction of filmmaker Paul Crowder.

    Abrams, who also produced, had grown up living across the street from a former Blue Angel pilot and wrote in an email that he’d “always been intrigued by their skill, bravery and heroism.” This film would take that fascination to the next level.

    “Watching these pilots do their thing in this format — the jets literally inches apart — is utterly bonkers. Truly spectacular to see,” Abrams said.

    One of the craziest ideas was to put a helicopter with a camera mounted on it in the middle of a demonstration, in airspace where no civilian aircraft has ever been allowed. It would be during a practice demonstration, but Wooldridge is quick to remind that there is no real difference between a practice and the real show when it comes to execution, the level of excellence expected and the danger involved.

    “When Kevin said, ‘Let’s do this,’ my eyes got as big as saucers,” Wooldridge said. “I led the (Blue Angels) on three occasions, and I said, ‘I’m not sure I would allow this to happen.’”

    LaRosa had exhaustively studied how it might happen safely and ensured everyone was properly debriefed. Still, on the day, everyone was prepared to hear “no maneuver” over and over as everyone got used to the distraction of a helicopter in their airspace. Much to their surprise, the “boss” never called “no maneuver.” It all went according to plan.

    “We researched every possible way to film that information, and everybody’s done it different ways from the ground. But to get into the air with a wing-mounted camera and all the cameras in the cockpit?” Woodridge said. “It was unbelievable.”

    LaRosa had done such a good job flying the helicopter that they were able to inch even closer to the jets by the end of the shoot. Crowder also used a Phantom camera, which can shoot 1,000 frames per second (the standard is 24 fps), to get spectacular shots of the vapors coming off the jets.

    Beyond the spectacle, the film looks at the people in the jets as well, including the first woman to fly with the squadron as a pilot, Lt. Amanda Lee, of Mounds View, Minn.

    “You can read all you want, but until you’ve spent time in Pensacola at the air base and really spend time with these guys, watching them do what they do and dedicated everything that they are to it, you don’t really get it,” Crowder said. “What we were hoping to do in the film was to portray a lot of that.”

    After its one-week IMAX run last month, “The Blue Angels” is now available to stream on Prime Video. Crowder recommends ignoring “mom’s advice” and sitting as close to the screen as possible for the best viewing experience.

    Woodridge, who led the Blue Angels three times, said the experience of watching this film is better than being up there.

    “I’ve seen it from the cockpit, my cockpit, a bunch. I’ve seen it from the ground as we debrief,” he said. “But I’ve never seen it the way you see it in this movie. The perspective was so much better than I ever saw as a pilot. I’m wowed and awed by it.”

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