The Eagle has landed

The Pacific Science Center opened a new attraction at its Boeing IMAX Theater on Dec. 26. The film, "Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag," details the largest air-combat exercise in the world with 128 aircraft from six countries.

The Boeing IMAX boasts Seattle's largest movie screen, and this film puts audiences right in the cockpit to experience some unimaginable flight maneuvers.

Present at the press preview was Air Force Capt. Susan Gordon, who flies one of the huge C-17 Globemasters taking part in the film. Gordon is a local, living on First Avenue in Belltown and flying out of McChord AFB. A six-year veteran of the Air Force, she has been flying since she was 17; she had her license when she turned 18.

Gordon says the thing she loves about her job in the Air Force is the travel. She's been on six continents. Gordon also has spent some time in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The C-17 Globemaster is the enormous transport plane you often see flying over Tacoma. When you're driving down I-5 and the sun is suddenly blocked out, chances are that a C-17 is passing over. The plane can carry 117,000 pounds of cargo and take off from a field with a runway as short as 1,000 feet (although I don't think it can get off in that short a space if it is fully loaded).

Operation Red Flag's mission is to maximize the combat readiness, capability and survivability of participating units by providing realistic training in a combined air, ground and electronic-threat environment while providing for a free exchange of ideas among forces.

Established in 1975, Red Flag is a two-week, realistic combat-training exercise involving the best aerial forces from all four branches of the U.S. military, plus their Guard/Reserve components. It is commonly described by participating pilots as being even more challenging than actual combat.

Upon completion of Red Flag, graduates have the equivalent of their first 10 combat missions accomplished.

Since 1975, NATO and the air forces of 27 other countries have joined the U.S. in these intensive exercises, along with individuals from other counties (such as India) who have participated as observers.

Red Flag exercises have provided training for more than 400,000 military personnel, including more than 132,000 air-crew members flying over 350,000 sorties and logging over 600,000 hours flying time.

Although all the scenes in the movie were filmed during daylight, 50 percent of Red Flag is comprised of night flying.

The exercises are conducted on the vast bombing and gunnery ranges of Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., as one of a series of advanced training programs administered by the Air Warfare Center and Nellis through the 414th Combat Training Squadron.

The film centers on Captain John "Otter" Stratton, a young American pilot who flies the F-15 Eagle, arguably the most potent and successful fighter plane ever built. He was 8 years old when he decided to become a pilot.

It wasn't a tough decision - his grandfather was awarded three Distinguished Flying Crosses and 11 air medals as a Navy fighter pilot in the Second World War. As far as John was concerned, Granddad had won the war all by himself in his beautiful blue Corsair. He was a hero, and John intended to follow in his footsteps.

At Red Flag, the international training exercise for the air forces of allied countries, hundreds of pilots meet for the most challenging flying of their careers.

Red Flag is the final tune-up for pilots and their crews before being sent into actual combat. The object is to make the exercises as real and challenging as possible - to take pilots, ground crews, mechanics, rescue personnel, etc., to the limits of what they can handle.

We follow our young pilot as he makes his way through this extraordinary event. He is amazed at how complex, confusing and dangerous the exercises are.

He also begins to notice team members who were absent from his childhood vision of heroism. There are people who work all night rebuilding engines and re-installing them into his aircraft so he can keep flying and training. There are people who rise at 4:30 each morning to scour the runways for tiny pebbles and other debris that can get sucked into engines and kill pilots. There are people who practice rushing into a flaming mockup of a crashed aircraft so if there is a real accident they will be ready to save the pilot.

In the flying exercises, "Otter" realized there are other pilots who aren't just out to prove themselves - they are helping him, watching his back, taking personal risks to cover his mistakes. And he is doing the same for them.

As the film ends, Stratton reflects from the cockpit of his F-15, squinting out into the evening light across the vast blue sky, his wingman aboard an F-15 Eagle vanishes for a moment, and in his imagination another aircraft flies beside him. It is a beautiful, blue gull-wing Corsair, a glowing phantom from another age.

How did I feel about the film? It was "Top Gun" without Tom Cruise or the sticky love scenes. Because of the large film format, the flight scenes feel more intense. Recommended for airplane junkies. I'll give it three stars.

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