Saturday, February 14, 2009

Speed & Angels: Great!

I learned about this documentary in a conversation with the van driver who brought me home from the airport last night, and I was surprised and pleased when I found I could watch the whole thing online with good quality and only a few commercials on Speed & Angels is a 2008 documentary that follows two young Navy officers as they take the final steps in becoming F-14 Tomcat pilots.

Meagan and Jay each faced some major challenges in even getting the chance to be Navy fighter pilots, something each of them had dreamed about since childhood. Jay was planning to attend the Naval Academy, but in his senior year in high school, he was accidentally shot in the face by a Marine at a party. The bullet did a lot of damage to his teeth, jaw, and tongue before lodging in his spine. It was amazing that he was not killed or paralyzed, but he was obviously a fighter, and after a number of surgeries and multiple applications for medical waivers, he was pronounced medically fit for Annapolis and later for pilot training. Of course he ended up with the call sign "Faceshot."

Meagan had wanted to be an F-14 pilot since she saw Top Gun when she was 12. She didn't face Jay's medical hurdles, but even though it's been possible since 1993, it's still tough for a woman to make it in military aviation, which is still fundamentally a man's world. But Meagan was determined. She excelled in school and in athletics, majored in aerospace engineering at the Naval Academy, and qualified for jets in pilot training, with the call sign "Slick." She and Jay were in the last class of F-14 pilots to be trained (the Tomcat was retired in 2006, and Jay and Meagan have both since transitioned into the F/A-18 Super Hornet).

I really loved the personal feel of this movie. It seemed that Jay and Meagan were totally open about their hopes and fears, and the comments from their families and friends also gave great insight into the kind of people who make this sort of extreme commitment. I've read a lot of books about fighter pilots, I've seen a lot of interviews, and I've even met a few personally. The nature of the work requires extreme self-confidence, but fighter pilots are also people, and this really comes through in Speed & Angels.

The flying scenes are also great, especially the in-cockpit perspectives in dogfight training and carrier landings. The amount of information that these pilots need to process and the extreme precision required in everything they do in the jet are just incredible. It's amazing that people can learn to do this stuff. It's got to be one of the most demanding jobs that humans can do.

Finally there's a love of flying that permeates this movie. That's what really motivates these pilots to put up with the pressures and the hardships that come with a life devoted to military aviation. I've never flown fast jets (though that's what I wanted to do when I was a kid, and I'd still love to give it a try), but I have flown small planes, including Piper Cubs and a couple of flights in a Stearman biplane like the one that Jay buys and flies "just for fun" in the closing minutes of the film. That joy of flying comes through strongly in this excellent documentary.

P.S. "Speed & Angels" is an expression used in dogfight training. The two jets that will engage in a practice fight start out side-by-side, and each pilot announces "speed & angels" to confirm that they are at the agreed upon airspeed and altitude (angels) and ready for the start of the fight.

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