You probably have distinct memories of the first time you saw a World War II aircraft. Perhaps a parent or grandparent took you by the hand and told you about the airplane as you stood beneath it on the ramp. Maybe one flew overhead, bathing you in the roar of its engine. This inspired your tour guide to share stories of his or her experiences with the aircraft, opening a portal into history, creating a path that led you to a hangar full of knowledge about World War II — maybe it was even the genesis of your interest in aviation.
Consider yourself lucky to have received that education. “There are fewer and fewer veterans from that conflict here every year,” remarked Adam White, director of Hemlock Films, as we stood amidst a herd of P-51 Mustangs on the Warbird Ramp at this summer’s AirVenture.
Hemlock Films specializes in documentaries about vintage aviation, in particular World War II. White’s latest work, “Rise Above,” which documents the experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first African-American pilots, premiered at AirVenture. According to White, “Rise Above” is an “experience,” rather than a documentary in the conventional sense because it requires a special theater with a 170° screen and surround sound.
“Rise Above” was shown in a specially designed trailer located on Conoco-Phillips Plaza, “right in the heart of AirVenture,” White said with a grin. “It’s about as close as you can get to being in the backseat of a P-51 Mustang without actually doing it.”
The trailer will travel across the country throughout the year, bringing the Tuskegee Airmen’s story to students and aviation enthusiasts alike, with stops at museums, fly-ins, and air shows.
Another of White’s productions, “The Restorers,” was showing in the EAA Museum Theater. The hour-long program focuses the restoration of vintage aircraft.
“A lot of people go to air shows and see the warbirds and are under the impression that they are pulled out of a barn, oiled up a little bit, and taken into the air. They don’t understand that all the easy airplanes have been found,” he said. “The days of airplanes pulled intact from the bottoms of lakes and quickly being restored are gone.
“People need to understand that when they go to these air shows, they are seeing airplanes that took decades to restore,” he continued. “They took a lot of money, time and effort by someone. Someone sacrificed part of their life for this airplane because they live to fly antiques. That is the genesis of the story, why those people do what they do.”
One of the more famous restorations documented by Hemlock Films is the P-51C Red Tail, named in homage to the Tuskegee Airmen. The Tuskegee Airmen flew P-51s with distinctive red paint on the tails in the European theater escorting bombers.
Released in 2007, “Red Tail Reborn” is particularly poignant, because in 2004 Don Hinz, the pilot and project leader of the Red Tail Project, was killed when the newly restored P-51C suffered engine failure and crashed. The team chose to literally pick up the pieces and re-restore the aircraft, noting that Hinz would have wanted them to continue.
Not everyone shares a passion for planes, said White. “When you get right down to it, an airplane, to most people is just a hunk of aluminum. And these days, if it isn’t on PlayStation, chances are youth aren’t learning about it. The largest exposure most kids have to history is playing ‘Call of Duty.’ World War II is as ancient as the pyramids to them.”
All of White’s movies are designed to entertain, but perhaps more importantly, to educate, by giving the viewer an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at aviation, past the glitz and glamour of a “cool looking airplane.” The documentaries are designed to bridge the information gap that exists between aviation fanatics and the aviation-challenged.
“There is an absolute firewall between airplane people and non-airplane people,” he said, “You tell someone outside aviation that you are going to Oshkosh and they look at you blankly. Yet people who have not gone to the Indianapolis 500 have still heard of it. People who have not gone to Reno for the air races probably have no idea that airplanes race there.”
“It’s a way to strengthen aviation history,” he said, adding, “It’s more than ‘how cool these airplanes are.’ We’re trying to tell the story of these airplanes. The P-51 Mustang went from concept to flight in 10 months during wartime. We want people to know what the pilots did and what the ground crews did, and have them see that there is more to this sexy Corvette of an airplane. There is an unseen weight to it.”
Several of the programs are available on DVD and can be ordered through the company’s website.
For more information: Hemlockfilms.com