The Lockheed F-104 & The Right Stuff At The Vancouver PlanetariumThursday, August 09, 2012
The Right Stuff on Friday the 10th.
This blog will run on the Thursday where I will write of my experience at the film on the next. I am writing this today which happens to be Sunday August 12. It is curious how a daily blog can go back and forth like a film’s flashbacks.
The films at the Vancouver Planetarium compensate for their not too stellar projection quality with something that I find thrilling, endearing and comforting. This is the realization that I am with my family in a beautiful room that is not a Multiplex and that all of us there are sharing (not the facebook kind) a good film. There are no distracting smells of popcorn, the noise of chip bags or the constant order from the pre-film shorts to “enjoy the show”.
The two previous films at the Planetarium, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Trek 2009 were both enjoyable experiences but somehow they were no match for my third outing. There is a special quality to The Right Stuff, that brings back the excitement to those of us who were alive and young when somebody, on October 4, 1957 ran into our St. Ed’s boarding school dormitory, “Hey guys, the Russians have put something called a satellite up in space. It is called Sputnik.”
|Bergstrom Air Force Base, 1958, Agfa Silette, Kodak Tri-X
Not too long after that I went to an air show at the nearby Bergstrom Air Force Base of the Strategic Air Command which featured the then state of the art B-52 bombers. Bergstrom is now Austin’s airports. When you land you can see a few Quonset huts and some of those long narrow wooden buildings that were ubiquitous in US military bases during WWII and after. In recent trips to Austin I could feel (or perhaps just imagine) the ghost of those airplanes I had photographed back in 1958 with my Agfa Silette loaded with Kodak Tri-X.
The star at Bergstrom Air Force Base that day in 1958 was a Lockheed F-104A Starfighter. I distinctly remember getting close enough to it to pass my hand by the almost razor sharp edge of the plane’s stubby wings.
Many years later this airplane became the mainstay of the German Air Force and it was given the sobriquet of “widow maker”. It was explained to me by my Buchanan Dam friend Howard Houston (who flew KC-135 tankers during Vietnam) that the Germans removed all the back up equipment for these planes. When something went wrong (and this happened with regularity) things happened!
I will return soon to the significance of the Starfighter and The Right Stuff.
My son-in-law Bruce Stewart (who contributed to making the Bell X-1 model for the picture here) my daughter Hilary and my oldest granddaughter Rebecca saw the film ( a longish 193 minutes) which was so exciting that it went by quickly.
|Michael Unger holding Bruce Stewart's Bell X-1
I kept telling Rebecca how gorgeously good looking Sam Shepard was and is and she told me I should be careful about making such statements as people might think me to be gay. Hilary interceded on my behalf, “There is no chance that anybody will ever think that Papi is gay!”
What I particularly liked about this film is that excitement generated had nothing to do with film violence or special effects. It had to do with my boyhood sense of the miracle of dreaming of someday living to see a man in space. While I knew all that was to happen (much like going to a classic Greek Play) in the movie it did not diminish my pleasure and anticipation of what was going to happen.
We left the show satisfied and moved over to the Planetarium observatory to have a look through the telescope. It was pointed at the M11 Wild Duck Cluster in Constellation Scutum. I saw some bright dots. It was boring and I loudly said so. I should have been more polite! At my age I should know better and not fall for the trap of insisting that special effects have made the real thing irrelevant.
The Right Stuff ends with a sequence where Sam Shepard admires an F-104 and then without any kind of clearance (obviously a film ploy not based on the true facts) he flies it, loses control and ejects and survives to see another day. I did learn that he did not test fly and more planes after that. In the film the flying shares back and forth sequences with a beautiful dancing fan dancer, Sally Rand (played by Peggy Davis) entertaining the original Mercury 7 astronauts. This happened in 1963.
I knew that the F-104 first flew in 1964 and I had managed to photograph one in 1958 so I wondered about the significance of the airplane in 1963 and its connection to the film. The 104 in the movie was supposed to be a NF-104A which was especially equipped with a liquid fuel rocket engine in addition to the conventional rocket engine. The aircraft was used to provide space flight training at a fraction of the cost of fully rocket-powered research aircraft. The first one was delivered on October 1, 1963 to the Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards AFB, which was commanded at that time by Colonel Charles E. "Chuck" Yeager. Yeager indeed did crash the plane December 10, 1963 but it was not his fault as an investigation later showed that the cause of the crash was a spin that resulted from excessive angle of attack and lack of aircraft response. The excessive angle of attack was not caused by pilot input but by a gyroscopic condition set up by the J79 engine spooling after shut down for the rocket-powered zoom climb phase.
This F-104 sequence particularly when Sheppard (as Yeager) eyes the plane in its hangar was for me an erotic one (Tom Wolfe got that one right!). It was sort of like a man looking up and down (in slow sequence) at a woman and undressing her with his eyes.
The film brought to mind a world that now seems to have been an uncomplicated one in which airplanes looked like airplanes (and wonderfully so) and we could thrill at the sight of a rocket blasting off into space with a man cramped in a glorified tin can (albeit with a window and a safety hatch equipped with explosive bolts). It was a time when cars looked like rockets and not ugly weapons of war as the current batch of SUVs.
I think I am going to look at the pictures snapped by Curiosity and get excited and shame on me if I am not!
The DVD scan of The Right Stuff is the one I won after I correctly answered a skill testing question at the Vancouver Planetarium. What was the question? Who was the first man in space? My answer, “Shepard,” was enough even though I almost blurted out Sam Shepard.
To this day on one side of my enlarger in my darkroom I have an 8x10 glossy on the wall of the F-104. In 1957 I was a member of an aviation "club" where I could purchase exciting pictures of the latest airplanes.