Hollywood comes to the Mojave Air and Space Port

by Cathy Hansen, special to Aerotech News

Mojave Air and Space Port has been the filming site for many popular Hollywood hit movies, TV shows, commercials and other media.

Long before it was known as the Mojave Air and Space Port, the motion picture and television industry repeatedly chose Mojave Airport as a top location for commercials, TV series and feature films. For many decades the long runways, unobstructed views and the airliner storage area have been the sites for special scenes in Hollywood productions.

Hollywood likes the ‘magic hour,’ which is either sunrise or sunset. I remember production crews asking, “Where will the sun set, and what time?” People don’t realize when they go to a movie that the actors were actually working at 2 a.m. when an office building is vacant, or when outside the time is actually daybreak or sunset, for lighting purposes.

All of the extra crew members who build sets, set up meals and arrange catering and do the special effects often have to contend with wind, dust storms or rain. Makeup artists and medical teams arrive before any of the actors. They make it look easy, but it really is demanding work and involves long hours.

In 1970, Mojave Airport tenant Al Hansen flew his Hughes 269 helicopter for the motion picture Zabriskie Point at Mojave Airport. He also participated in some scenes with his Kenworth truck for “Corvette Summer.”

The blockbuster movie MacArthur was filmed at Mojave Airport in 1977 and the original Marine Corps Air Station administration building and tower, constructed in 1942, was used in the film. General Manager Dan Sabovich had his photo taken with the star of the movie, Gregory Peck. The movie covers the story of U.S. Army General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander during World War II and United Nations Commander for the Korean War. MacArthur begins in 1942, following the fall of Philippines, and covers the remarkable career of this military legend up through and including the Korean War.

In 1984, I remember seeing a black Bell 222 sitting on the ramp at Mojave Airport. It was equipped with guns and looked very sinister. In the TV series Airwolf, this helicopter performed feats that were mind-boggling, not to mention absolutely impossible, but with the magic of Hollywood, anything is possible! It attained supersonic speeds, delivered countless varieties of ordnance, and always helped to save the day. Ernest Borgnine played Dominic Santini, owner of a helicopter charter business and Jan Michael Vincent was the Vietnam veteran and loner, Stringfellow Hawke. He was a helicopter pilot who was orphaned at 12 years old. He lived with his dog in the wilderness, liked to fish and played a cello; the rest of the time he was a secret agent for the CIA. Hollywood Screen Actors Guild pilot Rick Shuster flew the Santini Air 206. This series had a cult following of fans, much like Star Trek.

I remember receiving a phone call in 1986 asking to use our F-104 to make a music video for the love song “Take My Breath Away” from the movie Top Gun. I said, “The F-104 is an Air Force aircraft and ‘Top Gun’ is about Navy aircraft.” The person replied, “No one will know.” Well, I would know! They used the 104 and brought wind machines with them. The wind blew 70 mph that night and spun the airplane around. Fortunately, no one was near when that happened! Terri Nunn, lead singer of Berlin, was so graceful on the spine of the 104. I couldn’t believe how she did a backbend and released the scarf she was holding. Even though I was a lot younger then, I would have fallen off and broken my neck! I still love hearing that song. You can find the video on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bx51eegLTY8.

Numerous commercials for products as varied as sunglasses, cigarettes, Laughing Cow Cheese, Toyota cars, Ford trucks, etc. have been produced at Mojave Airport. Al Hansen’s Lockheed F-104 was hired for a Toyota commercial and they wanted the car to be able to drive fast under the wing. Special ramps were devised for the Lockheed jet fighter to raise it up high enough for the car to speed under the wing. We saw the commercial on TV a couple of times. It was always fun to see one of our airplanes in a commercial.

There was a Ford truck commercial made in the early 2000s showing how tough a Ford truck is, while towing a Curtiss C-46 Commando aircraft. Some of our aircraft were lined up on each side of the runway for the commercial. I couldn’t get close enough to take a photo of the truck actually pulling the C-46, but did get a photo of the aircraft coming in for landing. Al Hansen’s C-123 and F-86 Sabre are parked alongside the runway.

In 1991, 20th Century Fox filmed scenes for the movie Hot Shots at Mojave Airport and there was a tragic fatal aircraft accident on runway 30 with one of the Folland Gnat T1 aircraft. These aircraft were built for the Royal Air Force in 1963 as a trainer. In the movie they were supposed to be U.S. Navy aircraft and Charlie Sheen was the ‘hot shot’ pilot.

I remember they gave Airport Manager Dan Sabovich a credit line at the end of the movie.

The highly successful feature film, Speed starring Keanu Reeves, Dennis Hopper and Sandra Bullock — with the speeding bus — is always remembered. The scene where the bus smashes into an empty Boeing 707 being towed across the runway was actually filmed at Mojave Airport. It was supposed to be LAX, but when my son saw the movie in North Carolina, he embarrassed his wife by shouting out, “That’s Mojave!”

Also, in 1991 Neil Armstrong came to Mojave Airport to film some segments for his First Flights TV series. They wanted to use the Gloster Meteor and MiG-15 that Al Hansen owned at the time. While they were there someone noticed that the P-51 race plane “Stiletto” was parked in our back hangar and since Skip Holm had raced that aircraft, they did a segment on the P-51 also.

In 1995, Kevin Costner directed several scenes of Waterworld at the airport. The hulk of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker mockup used to sit on the north side of runways 12-30. Prior to Titanic produced in 1997, Waterworld was the most expensive movie ever produced, at $200 million. The movie was an action-adventure drama set far in the future. The polar icecaps had melted and the Earth was covered in water. There was lots of shooting and posturing by Costner, who also starred in the film. The scenes of the ship catching fire and sinking were filmed here at Mojave Airport.

The movie crew hired a backhoe and other heavy equipment, dug a huge hole, filled it with water, then came in the next morning to shoot the scene and all the water was gone! Guess they didn’t realize they were in the desert and the water just soaked into the dirt. Next time, they lined the hole with plastic.

Stunt Coordinator/Pilot Craig Hosking, one of the foremost aerial stunt coordinators in Hollywood, flew the Pilatus Porter that crashed into the Exxon Valdez. Al and I watched Craig zoom the aircraft up a ramp, become airborne, and then crash into a structure that was supposed to be on the ship. One of the wheels on the amphibious floats knocked out a camera that was mounted by the ramp, and it was pretty tense for a few minutes.

In 2003, there was a production shoot for the television series Alias at Mojave Airport. They needed a Fairchild C-123K for several scenes with Jennifer Garner. It was a particularly gruesome scene where a guy gets kicked into a running engine. Of course, it was really running when they were filming, but again, the magic of Hollywood can make anything look real.

People always enjoy meeting the stars, and my son was no exception. Jennifer Garner is a lovely person and didn’t seem to mind posing for photos.

In 2003, the Val Kilmer film, Spartan, a political thriller with Daavid Mamet as director, was filmed at Mojave Airport. UH-1H helicopters and the Fairchild C-123K Provider seem to be the aircraft wanted in the thriller action movies during those days. Everyone recognizes the Huey by sight and sound, but the C-123K is more unusual. The Spartan movie crew filmed at the airport two separate times, once at our hangar in April 2003 and later during the summer in a hangar owned by BAE Systems. During the latter shoot, they pulled our C-123 and two UH-1H Huey’s into the huge hangar and filmed scenes for a couple of days.

In 2006, Clint Eastwood came to Mojave Airport to film scenes for the movie Flags of our Fathers. Crews brought palm trees in to make the airport appear to be located in the South Pacific. A Douglas DC-3 was flown onto Runway 30, made famous by all of the SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo landings. The movie was based on the 2000 book of the same name, written by James Bradley and Ron Powers, about the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima and the five Marines and one Navy corpsman who were involved in raising the American Flag on Iwo Jima and the aftereffects of that event on their lives.

Today the aircraft boneyard and other locations at Mojave Air and Space Port are still used for Hollywood movies and TV shows, which helps to bring in revenue for the airport.

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