Rachelle Haughn interviews Joe Bok

The Other Side of the Tree Line Article and photos by the author. Featured in the Fall 2011 issue of Park Pilot.

Joe Bok, owner of Aero Telemetry, spoke with Park Pilot’s Rachelle Haughn during the AMA’s 75th anniversary celebration. Joe and his team built the flyable scale airplanes flown in The Aviator, the motion picture released by Warner Brothers. Joe is a member of the AMA and resides in Los Angeles. The AMA commissioned Joe and Aero Telemetry to build a half-scale H-1 Racer, similar to the one built for The Aviator. However, to be AMA legal, it had to weigh less than 125 pounds, posing a tremendous technical challenge to Joe and the Aero Telemetry staff. They redesigned the aircraft, using the latest space-age technology and materials to build it at the same size but at 300 pounds lighter than the H-1 flown in the movie. Joe’s record-setting aircraft made its maiden flight and flew seven times during the AMA’s 75th Anniversary Celebration July 14-17. The H-1 Racer was piloted by AMA Competitions Department Director Greg Hahn. Greg has been in the hobby industry for 20 years, and is known for flying large, heavy and complex models. He has also been a successful Top Gun and U.S. Scale Masters competitor for several years.

The Interview

RH: How did you get involved with the Warner Brothers movie, The Aviator? JB: The visual effects director for The Aviator, Rob Legato, was experimenting with different shooting techniques to see how they were going to film the flying sequences. They were not happy with just using CG effects, and since none of the planes actually flew anymore, they were looking into using model airplanes. I had a quarter-scale model of an H-1 Racer, and Rob Legato wanted to use that for a test on a motion-control rig. They did some forced perspective shots where they would put actors behind the model, then determined the correct distance from the camera lens required for the objects in the foreground to look bigger in relative perspective to the human actors in the camera lens. Rob showed the film test results to Martin Scorsese and convinced him that by using large, flyable model airplanes, they could really get the best, most realistic flying sequences. At the time we were building UAVs (Unmanned Air Vehicles) and electronic systems for UAVs, so they asked us if we could come up with something really special. We started designing and building both the XF-11 and the Spruce Goose. For filming historically significant airplanes, there’s not a lot of options: either shoot a full-scale airplane, the real thing, which is always the best; or you can try it with computer-generated imagery (CGI), which was very expensive and visually unconvincing at the time. Obviously full-scale is always the best. Model airplanes have been used in the past, but the problem with those older models is that they were too small. Because the scientific explanation of it is Reynolds numbers, pressure, distribution on the wing and other technical details, small model airplanes fly like, well they fly like little airplanes, and their flight characteristics appear visually like toy airplanes, especially if you watch them on film. We were not initially contracted to provide the H-1 Racer because they were in negotiations to use Jim Wright’s full-scale replica for the film. Chris Brigham was the executive producer who was able to convince Jim to let the movie people use his plane. Sometime later that month, Jim went out to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and on the way back, the plane crashed and he was killed. Shortly after that, I got a phone call from the production side of The Aviator and they asked us if we could build the H-1 Racer. We had to think about it because I had a full shop of people working on the XF-11; I just didn’t know if we had the resources, time or personnel to do it. They wanted to shoot the H-1 in three weeks. The way it works in the film business is that if it’s in the script and it’s feasible, they’ll do it. Special effects is always second place to the first-unit work, but what they told us specifically was if it couldn’t be done then they’d just write it out of the script and they’d do something else. So they built a full-scale mockup of the H-1 Racer that wouldn’t fly, but it would be used for all the ground shots and taxiing. It had a cockpit that Leonardo DiCaprio could sit in, complete with gauges, a throttle quadrant and control stick. Of course, we had the half-scale airplane for the flying scenes, and they also used some CGI in there, too, mostly for the unique camera angles. For the edited final flight sequences, Rob Legato would switch between the three different types of shots on the film to get that very realistic effect. I thought that was really interesting the way that Rob Legato did his editing work. Just about the time your eye starts to recognize that maybe there’s something not quite realistic about the shot there, he comes back on our flyable model, which your eye perceives as real. The amazing way the plane flew, especially since it was shot from an aerial platform, is indistinguishable from the real airplane. That’s why Rob Legato is the best in the business. RH: Did you fly your models in the movie? JB: I flew the XF-11 and the Spruce Goose, but not the H-1 Racer. I was way too nervous as the designer and builder to fly those planes, especially on the first flights and with so much riding on the outcome of the flights. We were under tremendous pressure to have the planes ready to go on schedule, and there were so many technical details involved. With so many millions of dollars at risk and with so many people on the movie set, I figured that the pilot job is always best left to people who really have a specialized talent for that. Typically, I’ve got so much time invested in the plane that I know every single thing that’s right or wrong about it, and all that information goes through my head during the flight. It’s a tremendous distraction, and it would be hard for me to focus on the actual flying aspect. I fly full-scale airplanes and I love to fly model airplanes, but when it comes to this type of work, it’s more like a business decision. I’m not nearly as good as any of these professional pilots, like Greg Hahn. Those pilots really make the plane look good, so the best thing for me to do is to hire good pilots. So I hired good pilots. RH: How many pilots did you have for the movie? JB: Two. The XF-11, for example, required two pilots, literally. I was the co-pilot. It was just the number of switches and controls for the landing gear and gear doors. I’m sure our pilot could have easily handled that, but actually, it was good for me. It helped me focus all my nervous energy on something during the flight. RH: Before The Aviator, had you done any other films? JB: No. I wish I did because it would have taught me an awful lot about the movie business. I know this sounds trite, but I don’t know how many people actually understand the way a film production runs. Producer, director, first unit director, second unit director, second AD — there’s a whole command structure there, just like the military. You have generals, colonels and captains, but it helps to understand the chain of command before you get involved in it; we actually had to learn that on the fly. RH: Have you done any work for the military? JB: That’s 99% of our business. We’re basically a military sub-contractor and government prime contractor. RH: What does the military do with your products? JB: The equipment and electronic systems we work on support the troops and airborne operations on the front line. We’re directly supporting the effort that’s going on oversees right now in Afghanistan and in Iraq. We also do quite a bit of work with NASA and the Space Shuttle Program. Some of our equipment gets used on the meteorological side. It’s used to support weather satellites and that kind of thing. The aerospace business there is probably most of the business that we do.
AMA Technical Director Greg Hahn flies Joe Bok’s Hughes F-1 Racer at AMA’s 75th Anniversary event.

Greg puts the engine through a run-up check while Joe checks the gives the model and its telemetry system a last-minute going over.

The Hughes H-1 was the center of attention throughout each of its several daily flight demonstrations at AMA’s 75th Anniversary. It’s one-half scale — and huge!

RH: Do you have any advice for modelers who would like to build airplanes for movies? JB: Start off by joining the AMA, coming to events like this, getting involved with the great group of people out here. Everybody’s friendly and everybody wants to show you how to fly. Learn how to fly. RH: How did you decide who would fly the H-1 Racer at the AMA’s 75th Anniversary Event? JB: We actually had a pilot in mind but he couldn’t make it so we contacted the AMA. Here’s the interesting thing, I’ve never met Greg Hahn, but I’ve known about him because I get the AMA magazines and have been reading about his airplanes and the contests he’s won over the years. He’s one of the best scale-model builders and pilots in the world. On a personal level, he’s really humble and easy to deal with. I’m very happy to have made his acquaintance. If we do any more flying with this plane or anything else — if he can get on an airplane and come out to California — he’s the man. RH: What’s your opinion of how Greg Hahn has flown the H-1 Racer? JB: Amazing. He flies our H-1 Racer like it’s a full-scale airplane. Greg’s a team member. He got his hands dirty working on the carburetor and the engine; staying up late with us. We were in here the first two nights I think ’til 2 in the morning at that hangar, and Greg stayed with us helping make changes that made the plane perform so well out here. RH: Any other airplane you’d like to build? JB: I think I’d like to do a Lockheed Constellation. It’s a TWA airplane, but Howard Hughes was involved in the early development of that. It was a really big, beautiful airplane.

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