the best weapon gave worldwide fame F-14 Tomcat and convinced an entire generation to become fighter pilots. However, it was in another film that Grumman’s fighter got his first big role. We are talking about Last countdown, which premiered in 1980; yes, six years before the Tony Scott classic with Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer and Kelly McGillis hit the big screen.

For many, Last countdown it remains an unknown production, and it has its causes. The most important thing, of course, is that the feature film The premiere was not a big success. and this prevented it from remaining relevant after its initial release. It’s true that over the years it has gained a sort of cult status with its spectacular flight scenes and acknowledgment of collaboration with the US Navy during filming, but it was far from achieving the effect that the best weapon.

Add to this that the film was not a script with a conventional military plot, but was more inclined towards science fiction. After all, in the center of the plot modern time-traveling aircraft carrier after encountering a thunderstorm, he returned on December 6, 1941, the day before the Japanese attack on the US Navy at Pearl Harbor.

The argument wasn’t necessarily bad, because it was out of the ordinary. Also, Last countdown featured a cast led by Kirk Douglas —produced by his son Peter— Martin Sheen (who in 1979 received recognition for his work on Apocalypse Now), Y Katherine Ross, which by that time had already won the Golden Globe twice, but the overall implementation of the idea did not work out well; though he gave a first glimpse of the F-14 Tomcat – and the rest of the USS Nimitz naval arsenal – in all its glory.

The F-14 Tomcat made its first cinematic appearance in Last countdown

F-14 Tomcat |  Last countdown

As mentioned earlier, the premise Last countdown it’s a bit strange. The film focuses on the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier, which after a storm returns to the past and appears in 1941, just a day before the Japanese attack on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Thus, the protagonists are left at a crossroads: to intervene to prevent a massacre, or to let the story run its course to try to interfere with it as little as possible.

One of the most memorable scenes in the director’s film Don Taylor show two Mitsubishi A6M Zerofighter aircraft that served the Imperial Japanese Navy from 1940 to 1945, in close air combat (air battle) with two American F-14 Tomcats. The episode in the air is simply impressive, not only because of the differences in the generations and technical characteristics of the aircraft involved, but also because of the production. The plans are big and give life to one of the highest points of this production. It’s true that the shots next to the Japanese planes don’t match the in-flight maneuvers, but the rest of the action is real and impressive, even when viewed more than 40 years after it was filmed.

But dogfights quickly proved difficult for everyone involved. Not only because there was a huge distance between the capabilities of the aircraft used, but also because of the requirements that the director intended to fulfill during the filming of the scenes.

It is interesting to note that the Mitsubishi A6M Zeros that fought the F-14 Tomcats were actually two North American T-6 Texan. This was not the first time that this technique had been used to depict the Japanese aircraft in question, as had already been done in the film. Torah! Torah! Torah! since 1970 and in the series Baa Baa Black Sheep on NBC which aired from 1976 to 1978.

The main problem faced by both the pilots and the film crew was the speed difference between the planes. Director Don Taylor wanted the T-6 pilots to fly with an open cockpit, which affected their top speed; while he intended to film F-14 Tomcats with their wings fully retracted because he believed that they looked “cooler”.

The problem was that the variable geometry wings of the F-14 Tomcats only automatically retracted when the fighters were flying at very high speeds; otherwise, they remained extended. And although pilots could move the wings manually, retracting them while flying at low speed was risky.

“The first days of filming, we fell from the air. It was a disaster,” he said. Alan “Shoes” Mullenone of the F-14 Tomcat’s pilots Last countdownin an interview with youtuber and former fighter pilot CW Lemoine.

Change of filming strategy

The difference in speed between the fake Mitsubishi A6M Zero and F-14 Tomcats forced a change in the way the film was shot. The aerial scenes were originally filmed from a helicopter; but static tune quickly became difficult to cope various speeds of other aircraft. As Mullen explained, the T-6 could fly at a top speed of about 180 knots, which was far less than the Grumman fighter, whose pilots juggled to keep it in the air at 200 knots with closed wings.

“It was like trying to throw three billiard balls on the table at the same time,” the former pilot explained. The solution was to get rid of the helicopter and replace it with an old bomber. North American B-25 Mitchell modified. The rear was adapted to accommodate cameras, making taxiing easier and allowing close range filming of other aircraft. “So the B-25s and T-6s were going at the same speed and flying in formation, and the F-14 Tomcats were going through it,” Mullen added.

In any case, filming the scene with such different shots was not without its unsettling moments. The most infamous incident occurred when one of the F-14 Tomcats maneuvered behind a slower flying T-6 below. The perspective of the image gives the impression that Grumman’s fighter almost ended up in the water, which, fortunately, did not happen. Pilot Richard “Fox” Farrellthe protagonist, flew the aircraft about 30 meters above the ocean, in a spectacular image that, in fact, appears in the final version of the film. Last countdown.

The scene was so shocking that it has spawned somewhat controversial stories over the years. One of them says that the noise of the aircraft’s engines during the exit maneuver was actually in sample about Farrell’s wife screaming after seeing the F-14 Tomcat “dive”. Actually, this clip includes an anecdote where the pilots remember the scene (in English).

However, over time, its veracity began to be questioned. In the aforementioned CW Lemoine interview, Mullen indicated that, as explained to him by one of the film’s sound engineers, what was added in post-production to make the scene even more impressive was actually derivative of a cat’s roar.

more problems

Shooting aerial scenes Last countdown took place in the Florida Keys using Naval Air Station Key West. But filming close air combat between F-14 Tomcats and T-6s proved challenging, not just because of the stunts themselves, or because of the aforementioned generational differences between the aircraft; but also because at that moment it was impossible to view the quality of the shots achieved in each deployment.

Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

“Those were the days of shooting on film, not digital recording. So we flew to Key West and returned to the hotel with nothing to see. The film was sent to New York where it was developed and brought back. So if we had arrived on Monday, we would have seen it only on Thursday; in the meantime, we kept flying on Tuesday not knowing what we were getting, and on Wednesday the same thing. When Thursday came around and we got what we recorded on Monday, there was only blue sky, a few clouds and sometimes a few dots flashing on the screen. It was terrible,” pilot Alan “Shoes” Mullen explained.

Retrospectively, this adds even more value to the final quality of the film’s aerial scenes..

But not only those in which the F-14 Tomcat was filmed, but also other aircraft involved in production. Actually, Last countdown includes a massive takeoff sequence from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, which is also impressive. You can see it below.

F-14 Tomcat knew how to surprise even before he became a star in Top Gun

It is clear that the popularity Last countdown has no point of comparison with the best weapon. Regardless, director Don Taylor’s work with the aerial scenes is flawless. In some cases even further enhances the wonders of the F-14 Tomcat than Tony Scott’s work in a movie starring Tom Cruise.

“It wasn’t a terrible movie. It wasn’t very good, but it wasn’t terrible either, and the fleet received a lot of publicity. Recruitment Command liked this because they welcomed so many who signed up to be F-14 pilots, and the response from the Navy was generally favorable. […] But I think this film really set the stage for Top Gun, which was a big hit for army recruiting,” Mullen concluded.

Source: Hiper Textual

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