Al Marsh

Ace and the movies

January 26, 2010 by Alton K. Marsh, Senior Editor, AOPA Pilot

After 11,700 hours, “Ace” Beall deserves the nickname. As chief pilot for NASA he flew the Boeing KC–135 “vomit comet” to give astronauts experience in weightlessness (and for the weightless scenes in the movie Apollo 13), taught astronauts to fly the Northrop T–38, and flew the Space Shuttle from California to Florida atop a Boeing 747. While in the U.S. Air Force he flew Lockheed C–141s.

Last August Beall teamed with movie photographer Dylan Goss to film aerial scenes for Up in the Air, the story of a single man who prefers the freedom of constant airline travel to marriage and family. Beall works for Wolfe Air Aviation and provides movie footage you have undoubtedly seen. He had flown the company’s Learjet 25B to gather scenes for Up in the Air, but after it was completed the producers felt they needed to try again. This time Beall used the red Wolfe Air Cessna 337 Skymaster.

It was a hurry-up trip. Goss, the film’s aerial director of photography, and Beall visited eight cities in a week, gathering footage of cities and scenery in between. The producers were waiting. Goss is used to that and has worked for movie companies and advertising agencies since he was 18. In this year’s Super Bowl commercials, an SUV flashed down a pier on Bridgestone tires to do a 180-degree turn that would fling a whale out the back door. That car was chased by Goss in a helicopter down a pier at Bodega Bay, Calif., north of San Francisco.

Goss rarely shoots from anything but a helicopter, sometimes while flying at top speed two feet off the deck in a crab while leaning out the door on a harness, or standing on a helicopter landing gear shooting down on a Lexus for a commercial. If you saw that one, they didn’t actually drop it, even though it looks like they did.

The Skymaster is more difficult for Goss to use. He crouched in the back, looking through tiny windows to operate an externally slung, gyrostabilized camera while wearing an oxygen mask for shots at 15,000 to 18,000 feet. Goss pumped argon gas into the glass sphere containing the camera to keep it from fogging, a trick learned from underwater camera operators. They were never lower than 7,000 feet and spent an average of 45 minutes above cities listed in the movie script, including Wichita, Dallas, Des Moines, St. Louis, Chicago, Omaha, and Kansas City. They shot scenes enroute when presented with an opportunity.

The movie had been edited and locked before their trip, meaning that if an existing aerial scene had been three seconds, then the new one from the Skymaster had to be the same length. When movie producers saw what Beall and Goss had captured, they unlocked the movie and re-edited, especially when it came to the scene at the end floating just above the clouds. “The aerial scenes became like a character in the movie,” Goss said.

Up in the Air is all but played out at your local cinema, but take a look if you still have a chance. You’ll see Ace’s real first name as the credits roll at the end.

Dylan Goss stands on a helicopter landing gear to film a Lexus commercial.

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