Leonardo Di Caprio may have a nomination for the best actor award at this year’s Academy Awards, but the real stars of “The Aviator,” Martin Scorsese’s biopic of playboy tycoon Howard Hughes, are the model airplanes built especially for the movie.
Joe Bock and his firm Aero Telemetry, a Huntington Beach, Calif., based company that specializes in designing and building unmanned aerial vehicles, constructed 11 model airplanes especially for the movie, including the legendary “Spruce Goose,” Hughes’ mammoth seaplane that was originally made entirely of wood.
“The Spruce Goose that we built, it had a 25-foot wingspan, weighed 375 pounds and it flew with electric motors,” said Bock, who is CEO of Aero Telemetry. “It took off, flew and landed under its own power right out of Long Beach Harbor — the exact location where the real one flew,” he added.
Aero Telemetry built two other Hughes aircraft for the movie: The XF-11, an experimental reconnaissance airplane, and the H-1 racer, in which Hughes set a new speed record. Along with the Spruce Goose replica, the two model planes are among the largest and fastest radio-controlled scale model aircraft ever constructed.
Bock’s company has a successful record of building large, unmanned air vehicles for commercial aerospace and United States military, for which it supplies unmanned “spy” drones. But “The Aviator” was the company’s first big break in Hollywood, and it was daunting one says Bock.
“I think we were fortunate, and at the same time a bit overwhelmed by having the first project [we work on] be something where you’re working for Martin Scorsese on a project as big as The Aviator,” said Bock.
Team of specialists
Bock assembled a team of local aerospace engineers and machinists to design and build the planes for the movie.
The team worked under a lot of pressure, working around the clock to meet the films tight shooting schedule. They also had to make sure the model planes performed correctly on all their flights, and the aircraft had to fly safely through Southern California’s busy air space and over densely-populated areas.
To ensure flawless flights, skilled pilots operated the planes from a virtual cockpit on the ground, monitoring everything from air speed to engine temperature. And military grade equipment was used to safely operate the planes for the distances they flew, which in some cases was between seven and 10 miles.
Bock hopes his company’s work on “The Aviator” will lead to other Hollywood jobs, which he says could balance out the company’s dependence on military contracts. And with the movie nominated for eleven Oscars and box-office takings topping $80 million, he couldn’t ask for a better calling card.
“There’s a tremendous amount of satisfaction with having accomplished the job,” he said. “But to actually have the movie then go forward and do well, and win best picture in the Golden Globes, and then again be nominated for 11 Academy Awards, that’s just stunning.”