The need for speed

Film documents rigors of Navy's fighter pilot training program

November 12, 2006|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,Sun reporter

Jay Consalvi's dreams of becoming a fighter pilot were nearly snuffed out when he was shot in the face at age 17.

Meagan Varley's obstacle to admission into training was the constant refrain from counselors, teachers, friends and some family members that women don't fly fighter jets.

Their battles to get through the Naval Academy and the Navy's highly competitive pilot training program are part of a new documentary, Speed and Angels, that combines their human dramas with hair-raising aerial footage.

Screened last week in Washington, San Diego and Los Angeles, the film is available on DVD, and the producers hope it will be shown in theaters by February

Paco Chierici, who produced the film with the Navy's cooperation, conceived of a documentary about Navy fighter pilots, although he originally wanted to focus on the "Saints," the squadron of gifted pilots who teach the newcomers how to dogfight.

The film eventually veered to Consalvi and Varley, 2002 academy graduates, and their narratives.

Chierici, a former Navy pilot on the "adversary" squad, said a documentary about fighter pilots "is something I've always felt very strongly about doing."

"I approached [director] Peyton [Wilson] about doing a documentary about fighter pilots in the Navy, and this grew to be a story about what happens when two people chase a dream they've had since they were 5 years old," he said. "Dreams don't always turn out the way you think they will, but in some ways they do."

Consalvi lost his acceptance to the Naval Academy because of the shooting. He fought for a year to get back in but was told near graduation that his medical condition would make it impossible for him be a pilot. Only after he collected opinions from specialists around the country was he admitted into the Navy's F-14 Tomcat program.

Although the bulk of the film focuses on the period when the two get their final training as F-14 pilots around Virginia Beach, Va., extensive personal interviews give the film its narrative. Varley has an emotional encounter with her sisters, avowed pacifists who are troubled by the course of U.S. military involvement abroad.

Consalvi and Varley could not be reached for comment Friday.

"It's almost two films," Wilson said. "The first is a very personal journey of two people who, if they had listened to others, wouldn't be here. And the second is the almost epic aerial footage."

Wilson said she wanted anyone who saw the film to know what it was like to be in a dogfight, in which the older adversary pilots in a squadron of F-5 jets in Nevada give students their first taste of simulated combat.

At one point in the movie, one of these pilots instructs Varley to "think Mozart," hinting at the combination of artistry and technical skill needed to win in the air.

The footage, some of it available at www.speedandangels.com, is reminiscent of the 1986 movieTop Gun, except that it is real.

Shot in the air and from the cockpit, the scenes are jarring, perhaps to simulate the sensation of tearing through the air at the speed of sound or flying a jet in the same patterns as a mosquito.

People with strong stomachs can watch - and practically feel - carrier takeoffs and landings from various angles on the jet, day and night. In some cases, cameras put viewers at the nose of an F-14 as it nears the edge of the carrier's flight deck.

The three screenings were a hit, Wilson said. She was particularly encouraged by the reaction in Los Angeles, where it was seen by a nonmilitary audience.

Wilson said the film is likely to be self-distributed. This weekend, the first 12 minutes became available on Google's video site.

"We're so happy with how it turned out," she said. "It's such a personal story, about going after your dreams, following your heart. And when someone says no to you, you don't have to accept it."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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