With the imminent launch of a new drama TV series based on Pan Am in the 1960s, we take a look at flying on the small screen.
In September a new drama TV series, appropriately called ‘Pan Am’ is set to air in the US, centred on the iconic airline at the begining of the ‘jet age’ in the 1960s. The producers obviously hope that a combination of sharp uniforms, retro cool and glamour (and possibly Boeing 707s) will give this series wings and create an airborne ‘Mad Men’ of style and must-watch TV (UK viewers will be interested to know it is coming to BBC 2 is well).
However, despite the potential of glamour, excitement and sheer drama the depiction of aviation on the small screen has had a chequered past.
The first is cost. The cost of hiring one, let alone several aircraft mean that in many series a lot of the action has had to be ground based – and aerial sequences kept to a minimum. A case in point here was the original Star Trek (itself created by former B-17 and airline pilot Gene Roddenberry) where the instant ‘transporter’ device was invented because the ‘shuttle’ flight to planets every episode would have been too expensive.
Aerial action sequences requiring expensive special effects meant that for a TV series on a limited budget, these were few and far between. However, the advances in computer generated graphics (CGI) now that brought to life ancient Rome in Gladiator and an alien planet in Avatar are now coming down in cost- meaning even Dr Who can boast halfway decent special effects. Given these advances it will be interesting to see Pan Am’s recreation of early 60s airports, terminals and airliners.
The second concerns accuracy. Some series may have permissible goofs (eg Spitfires replacing Hurricanes in Piece of Cake due to lack of flyable Hurricanes at the time) but others may be just sloppy research. The highly technical nature of flying and the demands of TV drama also lead to complex situations or events being dumb-downed for a TV audience – especially when military aviation or emergency procedures are shown. The need for TV drama to wrap-up a story in 30mins or an hour also leads to short-cuts being taken. Overuse of stock footage and silly sound effects (a Stuka siren on anything crashing?) also undermines any worth and causes informed viewers and professionals to cringe.
So can Pan Am break the mould? It remains to be seen – but lets take look at some of the best & worst aviation TV series to appear on the box.
Emergencies, egos and dashing pilots. A drama series set around an airline, if you follow the aviation news should be a no-brainer. EasyJet’s boardroom tussles with Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou has all the makings of a Howards Way with big orange jets. Will Pan Am kickstart a new trend?
This British drama series, broadcast on Yorkshire TV in the 1980s was based around a fledging airline in the immediate aftermath of WW2. Loosely based on Sir Freddie Laker, it featured a demobbed pilot who started his own air cargo business using a DC-3. Sadly this ‘Onedin Line with wings’ only survived nine episodes.
The High Life, (1994)
The next outing was The High Life – a Scottish TV BBC situational comedy based around the pilots and flight attendants of a fictional airline called Air Scotia based at Prestwick. It only lasted on 6 episodes.
Mile High (2003)
Tapping into the new low-cost carrier explosion in Europe was Sky’s Mile High – a drama series focusing on the antics of the cabin crew of fictional budget carrier ‘fresh!’. The airline used 737s and was filmed in Stansted and Palma de Mallorca. Surprisingly it ran for two series over 39 episodes.
Pan Am (2011)
A new ABC drama series set to air on 25 September, Pan Am aims to do for the start of the jet age, what Mad Men did for the advertising industry. Set in 1963, it will focus on the pilots and flight attendants of that iconic airline when the glamour and cool of air travel was arguably at its height.
Perhaps due to their novelty, ability to land anywhere, availability or the fact that they were already in use as camera platforms, TV series featuring helicopters have been fairly popular.
The first TV drama series featuring helicopters was CBS’s Whirlybirds, centred around a US charter operator using the Bell-47G and highlighting the unique capabilities of rotorcraft. It ran for three years and 111 episodes.
Chopper Squad (1978)
In the 1970s another TV drama, Chopper Squad, this time in Australia, attempted to repeat the formuala – based around a helicopter rescue team using a Bell JetRanger in Sydney. 26 episodes were made over two series.
With the Cold War at its height and attack helicopters entering service, the next TV chopper series from CBS was Airwolf – which saw a hi-tech military secret prototype employed in clandestine operations against various bad guys. The helicopter itself was a modified Bell 222 – depicting an armed (and improbably supersonic) attack helicopter. It ran for 79 episodes.
Blue Thunder (1984)
Going head to head with Airwolf in 1984 was ABC’s Blue Thunder – a TV spin-off from the hi-tech police helicopter film of the same name – but with a different cast. The helicopter itself was a modified Gazelle supposedly equipped with minigun and ‘whispermode’ as well as advanced electro optics and listening devices. Unfortunately it was shot down in the ratings battle – only lasting 11 espisodes.
Service aviation in the Second World War should make for riveting drama – as life and death decisions are made in the heat of conflict.
Twelve O’Clock High (1964)
The first WW2 aerial drama series of note was a spin-off of the classic 1949 film of the same name based on a B-17 squadron in the US 8th Air Force. Mostly filmed in black & white it also used archive real footage from combat missions. It ran for three seasons with 78 episodes.
A UK TV drama series from ITV, this was based on the RAF’s elite Pathfinder force from Bomber Command. It ran for 13 episodes.
Baa Baa Black Sheep/Black Sheep Squadron (1976)
This 1970s drama series focused on the exploits of US Marine ace Pappy Boyington’s VMF-214 fighter squadron in the Pacific in WW2. While F4U Corsairs were used in filming a lack of Japanese aircraft meant that Texans/Harvards had to play the role of the ‘enemy’. This NBC series ran for two seasons over 37 episodes.
Piece of Cake (1988)
This LWT six-part mini-series based on Derek Robinson’s classic book was centred around the desperate fight of an RAF fighter squadron in the Battle for France and Battle of Britain. Though it swapped the Hurricanes in the book for Spitfires due to a lack of flyable Hurricanes at the time, it did feature a jaw-dropping bit of flying from the late Ray Hanna where he flew a Spitfire UNDER a stone bridge (clip below).
While WW2 warbirds are rare, WW1 vintage aircraft are even rarer – and thus TV series based on First World War aviation have been extremely – in fact we know of only one. Could the revolution in lower-cost CGI and recent films like Flyboys and The Red Baron spark a revival?
One notable exception was Wings – a 1977 BBC TV series about a working-class pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, and his adventures in the very early days of the First World War.
Blackadder goes Forth (1989)
An honourable mention must be made of the episode Private Plane in the classic BBC comedy series Blackadder goes Forth, in which thinking that the RFC is the soft life, Captain Blackadder and Co join the ‘20 minuters’ – not realising until too late why they are called that.
If getting hold of WW2 and WW1 aircraft is difficult – obtaining access to current military personnel, bases and aircraft for the purposes of shooting a drama series can be even more challenging. That has not stopped some from trying. Given the right access though – the results can be worthwhile.
Les Chevaliers du ciel/The Aeronauts (1967)
A French TV drama, Les Chevaliers du Ciel (shown as The Aeronauts in English speaking world) was a 1960s series based around two French Air Force pilots flying the Mirage III jet fighter. It ran for 35 episodes and in 2005 hit the big screen with Mirage 2000s taking the place of the Mirage IIIs.
Orrginal 1967 intro here recreated in FSX
Squadron was a 1980s BBC TV Series that focussed on a RAF rapid deployment wing using a mix of Harriers, Hercules and Pumas in trouble spots. Perhaps it was too topical – it was hampered by a real-life war in the Falklands breaking out at the time of filming – diverting aircraft down south to the conflict. Interestingly though the fictional rapid deployment force was to become a reality in the Expeditionary Air Wings – now used in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.
An attempt to reboot a similar series called ‘Strike Force’ in 1995 failed after only a pilot programme was aired.
Finally there is the ‘other’ category. Adventurers, doctors, or even a drama series about aircraft manufacturing…
Tales of the Gold Monkey (1982)
A 1980s US TV drama series from ABC – this can be thought of as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ with wings. Set in the 1930s it revolves around an air cargo pilot and adventurer flying a Grumman Goose amphibian in the South Pacific. It ran for 21 episodes and, interestingly, inspired a 1990 Disney childrens cartoon series Tale Spin, which saw the Jungle Book’s Baloo the bear cast as a 1930s seaplane pilot…
The Flying Doctor/The Flying Doctors (1959) (1985)
Doctors and hospitals always make for good TV – so why not combine that with aviation? Australia’s famous iconic Flying Doctor service has thus been given the TV treatment twice – first in The Flying Doctor in 1959 which ran for 39 episodes, and then in the 1980s with the The Flying Doctors. This second incarnation, (featuring a GAF Nomad aircraft) ran for a staggering 221 episodes.
San Francisco International Airport/LAX (1970) (2004)
Can you have an aviation drama series set in an airport? Sadly it seems not. In 1970 a US TV show made by NBC called San Francisco International Airport managed only seven episodes. In the 2000s that didn’t stop NBC retrying it in 2004 with LAX – set at Los Angeles International Airport. Poor ratings, however, meant this was axed after 13 episodes.
The Plane makers (1963)
Finally, high technology research, million (or billion dollar gambles) global politics, corporate espionage – and high-stakes power plays – the world of aircraft manufacturing should be ripe for drama – shouldn’t it? In fact the only example seems to be The Plane Makers, a 1960s British TV drama series about a fictional aircraft company.
What would you like to see?
With aviation having such a rich seam of larger than life characters, stories of triumph and disaster, heartbreak and heroism as well as a chance to educate the public on little-known parts of aviation history – it seems odd that there are not more attempts to hang drama around aviation. What do you think? What period of aviation or famous aviators do you think would make a great TV drama?
Here’s some ideas:
The formation of Imperial Airways? (Flying boats, exotic locations)
A TV series based around Louis Strange (RFC pilot and RAF officer over two World Wars).
European and American airframers battling for billion dollar deals?
Biopic of the Wright Brothers and early pioneers (Riems Air Race, the rivally between Wrights and Langley)?
The post-war hunt for German aviation technology? (Secret bases, sabotage, flight testing the early jets)
Air racing in the 1920s? (The Rocketeer minus jetpack)
RAF in the Western Desert in WW2?
What aviation TV series would you watch?