Flying on Film

Despite the fact that he's been responsible for countless aircraft crashes, his clients keep coming back - because that's what they pay him for.

From Batman to Easy Company and John McClane to James Bond, Mike Woodley has flown a host of household names all over the world, usually leaving a trail of destruction in his wake but always with a clean safety record.

For over 30 years his company, Aces High Aviation Film Services, has been responsible for some of the most breathtaking aerial stunts on the big screen. Lloyd Horgan – (a photographer who has been close to Get Into Flying since its early days) and I went to Dunsfold aerodrome in Surrey on a wet December day to talk about a career flying for the cameras.

If you’ve ever watched a BBC episode of Top Gear, or the Bond film Casino Royale, you’ll probably be familiar with the unusual shape of the 747-200 (latterly of British Airways) that adorns one of the taxiways next to the control tower, which serves as the Aces High Offices. You might not have recognised the interior from Heathrow Airport’s “Coming home for Christmas” tear-jerking commercial. The aircraft had a makeover for Bond, to make it look like a new aircraft. I’ve wondered about the B-52 style nacelles since I saw the film but it turns out that they are very convincing fakes – all fibre-glass, sheet aluminium and painted illusion courtesy of a prop department.

Mike Woodley – seen here on the left, in case you’re wondering.

Having supplied aviation services for all the Bond movies in the last two decades, Mike is something of a flying version of ‘Q’, more so given that his machines rarely make it through a film in one piece. “We had six Islanders for the SPECTRE movie,” he tells us. “We destroyed four of them.”

“Intentionally of course,” he adds after a pause, I couldn’t tell if it was for dramatic effect or not. “For the crash scene.”

Even given that the aircraft might not have been airworthy to start with, the cost must have been staggering.

The SPECTRE example is an interesting one, and a good example of how Aces High earn their money through experience. Say somebody asks you to get an aircraft for a car chase – they need it to fly at the same speed as a 4×4 during a mountain pursuit. Simple, right? But you’re in the mountains with zero forced landing options, the car can only do about 60mph because of the ice, and you’re at about 10,000′ above sea level.

“The Islander was the only aircraft that could do it,” Mike tells us while we’re wracking our brains to think of something we can fly that slow and still make it out alive if Lycoming had an off day. “It’s the only option, you need to be able to maintain control if an engine gives up and there’s no minimum control speed in an Islander – you can happily stall them on one engine.”

He goes on; “and then there’s fact that you’re formating on a car that’s keeping you right back at the stall point, so a Turbine’s no good. It’s got to be a piston engine to give you instantaneous throttle response.”

Old School – Lloyd photographs a cockpit that certainly harks back to the ‘steam’ era.

All good points – and it turns out that back in the day Mike was a test pilot for Britten-Norman, so he should know. Having started out flying for the airlines, he “got bored of it” so took up helicopter flying and flew offshore and for the Police before turning to warbirds, including a DC-3 Dakota which he now owns. If you’ve seen HBO’s ‘Band of Brothers’ you’ll no doubt recognise it and it also flew for the parachute drops that commemorated the 70th anniversary of the battle of Arnhem. Privately, Mike has owned a variety of esoteric types and has flown even more professionally.

Still holding an FAA ATPL, he now rarely exercises it for the cameras – remarking that flying for the movies is a dangerous game. Anybody who has flown with a camera crew is bound to agree. Leaving the flying in other hands has allowed him to concentrate on the aerial coordination aspect of the business, a job which his experience suits well. This not only involves sourcing the necessary aircraft and pilots, but often taking part in the creative process too. “After we came up with the SPECTRE chase scene we had to figure out how to do it safely.” If that sounds like a challenge, it is. It’s one thing knowing where to get the aircraft, what looks cool and how to destroy them – it’s quite another to be able to do it without putting lives at risk.

First class seating, film crews can do a remarkable job of brining the interior up to date

The last thing that Lloyd and I discuss with him before he leaves us with the keys to the 747 (“have a look around, I’m off for a sandwich”!) is the project that he’s currently working on – a well-kept secret involving the movement of military aircraft half way across the globe and the acquisition of an airworthy(?) Airbus that’s bound for the scrap merchant.

The costs are mind-altering, the scale of the projects breath-taking. The knowledge of the right people, let alone the right places to find the required aircraft, calls on the kind of network and knowledge that only comes with decades of experience. We look forward to seeing Aces High’s work in cinemas for a long time to come.

Our sincere thanks go to Mike and the team at Aces High for accommodating our visit.  You can visit their webpage here, or see what they’re up to on their Facebook and Twitter feeds.

Jon first flew in a glider aged seven, and after that he never wanted to do anything else. He has flown both helicopters and aeroplanes professionally, and in his spare time is a contributor to various aviation publications. He started Get Into Flying as a way to tell people what he's been saying for years. "If I can do it, you can too."

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