‘Reel’ pilots

Most people know Gen. Chuck Yeager as the man who first broke the sound barrier, but did you know he was also a movie pilot? Yeager flew one of the F-86 Sabre jets seen in the 1950 epic “Jet Pilot,” staring John Wayne.

Produced by Howard Hughes, the film was shot over three years, from 1949 to 1951. Of note to history buffs is the mix of Air Force uniforms. Some of the men wear the khaki and olive drab leftovers from the Army Air Corps days, others are in Air Force blue similar to what we know today.

While most movie makers of the era had to rely on models for their action scenes, Hughes, because of the contributions he’d made to aviation, got the Air Force to help him out with real aircraft. The “Russian fighter” in the movie was actually Northrop’s XF-89 Scorpion prototype.

The movie was not released until 1957. By then, the military aircraft shown in the film had become obsolete.

Sometimes the military went to Hollywood producers asking for certain airplanes to be put into the movies. Such was the case in 1938 when “Test Pilot,” starring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, was filmed.

The military could not have manufactured a better publicity campaign. Gable was the biggest box office draw of the day and the plot revolved around his character testing the YB-17.

The Army Air Corps was happy to have the producers use the airplanes. At the time, Congress was still not quite convinced the airplane was all that the Air Corps and Boeing claimed it was and there was some reluctance to spend the money on weapons when America was not at war.

In all, 12 of the B-17 prototypes participated in the filming. A few years later these same airplanes saw action in World War II, while Gable became a waist gunner on a B-17 following the death of his wife, Carole Lombard, in an airplane crash.

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