2020’s summer blockbuster season has been put on hold because of the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate the movies from the past that we flocked out of the sun and into air conditioning for. Welcome to The Ringer’s Return to Summer Blockbuster Season, where we’ll feature different summer classics each week.
So many great literary and historical moments have stemmed from one unlikely hero volunteering to perform a difficult task: The young David answering Goliath’s challenge armed with only a sling; Brandi Chastain stepping up to take the decisive penalty kick in a World Cup final; Theseus navigating the labyrinth to slay the minotaur. The same is true of Independence Day, the 1996 film in which aliens threaten to exterminate humanity only to be turned back by one engineer and a small team of pilots. The plot of Independence Day, like many real-life military conflicts, had several crucial turning points, from the discovery of the alien pilot to the counterattack at Area 51 to Jeff Goldblum’s David Levinson infecting the alien mother ship with a fatal computer virus. But one of those moments is especially poetic.
The night before the film’s climactic July 4 battle, the straightlaced Air Force commander of Area 51, Major Mitchell (Adam Baldwin), stands before a crowd of refugees who’d driven in from the desert and says into his bullhorn, “We’re asking that anyone with any flight experience come forward. Military training is preferable, but anyone who can fly a plane would be useful.”
Into that breach steps Russell Casse (Randy Quaid), a hard-drinking Vietnam veteran turned crop duster, frequently absent single father of three, and survivor of an alien abduction 10 years prior. Wearing an unkempt beard and a Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned to his sternum, he tilts his bottle of brown liquor toward Major Mitchell and utters the immortal line: “I can fly. I’m pilot.”
At dawn the next morning, Russell finds himself in the cockpit of a Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet, flying a mission to determine the fate of humanity. (“Mankind … that word should have new meaning for all of us today …”) Eventually, with the alien ship about to obliterate Area 51 and his last missile unable to fire due to a malfunction, Russ turns his fighter skyward and crashes into the alien vessel’s main weapon, killing himself but taking down the enemy ship in the process. His self-sacrifice saves the day, and indeed, the world.
But could Russell, whose last jet experience was 20 years in the past and who had just one night’s worth of classroom instruction, have even flown an F/A-18 into combat?
Suffice it to say, real-life Hornet pilots get much more thorough training.
“About 70 hours in a prop plane and then, like, 200 hours in a single-engine jet. After that, you get your first flight in an F/A-18,” says Lieutenant Commander Matt Langford, a U.S. Navy aviator who’s spent the past decade flying the F/A-18. And he’s just describing time in the actual cockpit—pilot trainees also receive extensive classroom and simulator instruction before they even get off the ground. “Basically, from my graduation from college to my first combat flight was about five years.
“I could teach you to fly an airplane in about 30 minutes,” Langford says. “It’s really similar to driving a car, just in three dimensions. But the F/A-18 is just monumentally complex.”
Now, Russell would’ve had a lot of that training before he flew combat missions in Vietnam. The film never directly states which branch of the military Russell flew for, let alone what kind of aircraft, but the local news coverage of Russell’s arrest early in the film features a file photo of a young Russell standing in front of an F-4 Phantom, the two-seat jet that served as the primary American fighter in the 1960s and 1970s. It feels safe, therefore, to assume he had substantial experience in a jet-powered combat aircraft.
Which is good, because crop-dusting is poor preparation for flying a supersonic jet.
“I think someone who had flown F-4s, even if they took a moderate time off, would have had some level of what we call air sense, which is the ability to have your body be moved around the sky in weird ways and still think about where the plane is going and what you want to do,” says U.S. Navy Captain Doug Peterson, commanding officer of Naval Air Station Lemoore in California. Peterson’s been flying the F/A-18 since 1999, and has more than 3,000 flying hours and 750 carrier landings on his résumé.
“Having flown the F-4 would have prepared [Russ to fly] at the speeds that another supersonic jet, like an F/A-18, could do,” Peterson says. “I think the crop dusters wouldn’t help very much at all. That’s an entirely different kind of flying and can actually be kind of detrimental had he not had the prior jet time.”
There’s an obvious world of difference between Russell’s Boeing-Stearman Model 75 crop duster and an F/A-18, but even though the F-4 and F/A-18 are both supersonic fighter-bombers built by the same manufacturer, transitioning from one to the other is no small task. The F-4 has a crew of two: a pilot and what used to be called a radar intercept officer (RIO), who operated the weapons and sensors. (This setup should be familiar to anyone who’s seen Top Gun.) While there are two-seat versions of the F/A-18, the one pictured in the film is the single-seat F/A-18 C, and Russell would likely have had a hard time adjusting.
“I’ve actually gone through the opposite,” Peterson says. “Most of my career was single seat, and I hadn’t flown with an NFO [naval flight officer, the current title for the backseat crew member] until very recently, and this is a big adjustment for me. I was used to doing everything myself, so it’s hard for me to give tasks to the other person and still track them. And the opposite would be true. It’s a little harder to take in tasks that you’re not used to, but it is doable.”
And the weapons, avionics, and instrumentation would have changed dramatically from the Vietnam era to the mid-1990s. The first Navy jet Peterson ever flew was a T-2 Buckeye, which was designed around the same time as the F-4. “The joking phrase we would use is ‘a steam gauge cockpit,’ meaning that everything was dials and needles and mechanical, with big knobs and old switches,” Peterson says.
By the time the F/A-18 C was introduced in the 1980s, Navy combat planes had “glass cockpits,” with the old analog instruments replaced by digital ones, and a heads-up display projecting critical telemetry right into the pilot’s line of sight.
To bring someone like Russell up to speed in one night with only classroom training, the instructor would have to strip things down to the bare minimum. Or as the film’s Major Mitchell put it, “You’ll have to forgive the expression, but you’re about to get a crash course in modern avionics.” That would be a massive pedagogical challenge, but Peterson seemed to enjoy thinking up a way to tackle it.
“The very first thing I’d do, before I even got into the room with all these guys, is make a short bulleted checklist that I’d hand to each one of them that they could strap to their knee,” he says. “One page that’s going to cover every step I’m about to teach them so they have it the whole time. I’d teach them how to start the jet, which would be vastly different in the Hornet than it would have been in the F-4.”
With that accomplished, Peterson would move on to some critical instruments to keep an eye on and actions to take in case the plane malfunctioned or took damage. “We call those emergency actions, and there are procedures you do to deal with them,” he says. “I’d probably pick the top two or three that might get them killed right away and say, ‘OK, remember this.’ Then I’d move on to teaching them how to take off and land, because I want them to plan to land.”
While I admire Peterson’s optimism, the pilots’ inexperience and the implacable enemy before them make it unlikely that many of them would get to learn this newfound skill. Finally, the pilots in Independence Day are shown using three distinct weapons systems—guns, heat-seeking missiles, and radar-guided missiles—but Peterson says he’d teach his pilots only one, just for simplicity’s sake. Not a bad idea, considering that Russell’s most effective weapon turns out to be the jet itself.
It’s only through dozens of unlikely plot contrivances that Russell gets his chance to save humanity. Sure, it’s unlikely that genocidal aliens would show up on our doorstep, and Peterson pointed out that even if they did, it’s also unlikely that the U.S. military would have a surfeit of combat-ready planes but no pilots to fly them. But returning to the original question: Could Russell, after 20 years away from military service, hop into the cockpit of an F/A-18 and save the day?
“It’s not outlandish to think that you could put somebody in an F/A-18, especially if they have previous aviation experience,” Langford says. And though the real-life aviator doubts Russell would’ve been able to operate the plane’s complex weapons system, “I think he could take off and land it fine.”
Sending rusty or inexperienced pilots into combat with nothing but a one-page checklist is hardly Plan A for planetary defense, but it’s plausible that a pilot with Russell’s experience could have put himself in a position to save the world. From there, true heroes need only the opportunity.