Making time in a Citabria

I enjoyed “The Aviator.” It was a great aviation adventure. High-end special effects. Great acting. Big names. Big budget. Then I turned around and watched “Time Chasers,” a 1994 film about a Citabria that has been turned into a time machine. “The Aviator,” it was not.

I knew what I was getting into because I saw it via Mystery Science Theater 3000, a program that skewers low-budget movies with barbs and snappy banter. You have to be careful when you watch Mystery Science Theater because you can laugh so hard popcorn goes up your nose.

I related to “Time Chasers” because one of the main characters is a newspaper reporter. If movie producers take liberties with aviation, they positively violate journalism.

The story revolves around Nick Miller, a Vermont pilot and inventor who turns a Citabria into a time machine by wiring a Commodore Amiga 2000 computer into the cockpit. Nick appeals to Gen-Corp, a megabucks corporation, to help him fund his research. He lures a company official to the airport by saying he’s designed a new fuel tank that will allow aircraft to use 30% less fuel. Gen-Corp sends a pudgy guy in a pink suit, sort of a cross between Jon Lovitz and a Mary Kay sales representative, to check it out.

Nick wants publicity, so he calls the local newspaper and tells the editor that his 70-something grandmother plans to celebrate her birthday by jumping out of a perfectly good airplane. The reporter sent to cover the story turns out to be Lisa, a high school classmate of Nick’s. She’s blonde (of course) and shows up at the airport wearing a business suit that combines stripes and plaid, a combination that even Laurie Partridge would avoid.

Judging by the soft rock music that starts to play when they meet, you get the feeling that Nick had a thing for her in high school, but she was the cheerleader/student body president type and he got a lot of swirlies.

Lisa and Mary Kay Man are angry when they learn Nick lied to get them out to the airport. Both are skeptical of his invention. Nick gives them a demonstration by loading all three of them into the Citabria for a flight 50 years into the future.

Actually it looked more like a flight into a TV test pattern — and the Utopian future bears a suspicious resemblance to a food court at a mall.

I was amazed that all three of them fit into the aircraft. The last time I checked, that particular model is a tandem two-seater. I figured that when Nick wired the computer into the cockpit, he also added a seat in the back. He also must have modified the engine because they didn’t wear headsets and you could hear the dialogue fine. This was not necessarily a good thing.

Gen-Corp takes Nick’s design, installs it in a low-wing Piper and somehow turns it into a weapon. Nick and Lisa figure this out when they travel 50 years into the future for a $100,000 hamburger. The future now resembles urban blight. People wear a lot of flannel and carry guns that they use, a lot.

How the time machine caused this isn’t explained, but our heroes really don’t want to hang around to get the details.

The rest of the movie has Nick trying to persuade the evil CEO of Gen-Corp not to misuse the time machine. When that doesn’t work (you didn’t think it would, did you?) Nick goes back in time to warn himself not to do the demonstration for Mary Kay Man.

Highlights of the movie are when the CEO of Gen-Corp, flying the Piper, chases Nick’s Citabria. Neither the Piper nor the Citabria is going very fast,but the music is that techno-pop Miami Vice-like stuff, so you know it is supposed to be a chase scene.

There is one of those obligatory my-fuel-tank-has-been-hit-I’m-going-down-I-can’t-hold-altitude-get-the-stick-back-sputtering-engine-altimeter-winding-down-as-the-aircraft-heads-toward-the-cliff-by-the-river scenes.

Nick jumps from the plane just in time, landing in the water. Fishermen save him. He thanks them by stealing their boat at gunpoint so he can get to the airport and warn himself about the future. The Citabria crashes and burns.

There’s also a sequence when the evil CEO takes them to 1777. I’m not sure what significance that year has unless the director wanted to use some of the local Revolutionary War re-enactors to illustrate that “time travel” element.

The CEO and Nick have a fight onboard the Piper and it crashes in the forest. There is one of those “wreckage incrementally falling” scenes that seems to be required in movies when a plane goes down in the trees.

By the end of the film I wanted assurance that no aircraft were harmed in the making of the movie. I wrote down the N-number of the Citabria and was relieved to learn that the Citabria/time machine is alive, so to speak, in Oregon. It must have been a stunt Citabria that “crashed” into the hillside. I didn’t get the tail number off the Piper, so I don’t know what happened to it.

I don’t think the producers of the film meant for it to be as amusing as it was. Although the movie was shot in the 1990s, the clothes and hairstyles have a decidedly 1980s look to them. Nick sports a mullet hairstyle and rides a 10-speed bicycle to and from the airport but doesn’t wear a helmet. You’d think a guy smart enough to build a time machine would be smart enough to wear a helmet.

Maybe in the sequel.

Meg Godlewski is one of four people who regularly contribute to this column.

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