May 13, 2014

PREVIEW: Disney Planes Franchise to Launch High-Flying Sequel

As a self-professed airline pilot by day, writer by night and kid by choice, when Disney invited me to represent NYCAviation at an advance screening of its new Planes sequel, I knew I could relish all three roles at once.

Furthering the world created by the hit movies Cars, Cars 2 and Planes, Disney’s animated high-flying comedy-adventure Planes: Fire & Rescue continues the story of air racer Dusty Crophopper (voiced by Dane Cook). In the original movie, agricultural plane Dusty (mostly modeled after the AT-502B) shed his crop dusting past to pursue his dream of becoming a world class air racer.

Hal Holbrook (left), voice of firefighter Mayday in a photo with the author (photo courtesy Eric Auxier)

Hal Holbrook (left), voice of firefighter Mayday in a photo with the author (photo courtesy Eric Auxier)

Now, in the sequel, Dusty learns his engine is damaged and he may never race again. Worse, his hometown of Propwash Junction faces disaster when local Fed Ryker (Kevin Richardson) shuts down the airport for unsafe fire code. In order to help his rustic firefighter friend Mayday (voiced by the venerable Hal Holbrook) and save Propwash Junction, Dusty must shed his air racing past and pursue a new career as a SEAT—single engine air tanker (i.e. a forest fire-fighting plane). In so doing, he must learn what it means to be a true hero.

After being treated to a preview screening of “Planes: Fire & Rescue” at Disneytoon Studios, NYCA was taken on a behind-the-scenes tour of the making of the movie itself. We enjoyed meeting several key filmmakers, including Director Roberts “Bobs” Gannaway. Especially enjoyable was meeting several of the on-set aviation experts, including producer Ferrell Barron, a former executive producer of Air Show Buzz TV.

“It’s a classic injured-athlete story,” Ferrell says. “I think we’ve all experienced some kind of loss at some point in our lives; an end of an era, a lost love, a failed career. We’ve all had to recalibrate. Dusty can’t go back to being a crop duster. He has to move forward.”

Living Legend of Aviation and Red Bull helicopter pilot Chuck Aaron (photo courtesy Disney Animation)

Living Legend of Aviation and Red Bull helicopter pilot Chuck Aaron (photo courtesy Disneytoon Studios)

Another aviation celebrity adding his prestigious name to an already impressive movie resume is a literal living legend of aviation, Red Bull helicopter pilot Chuck Aaron, who served as a helicopter flight consultant to the production. (

Aaron says he can relate to the film’s theme of second chances. “I was a lost soul. I had ten different jobs in two years before I was given a ride in a helicopter. The rest is history.”

History, indeed. With over 20,000 hours in 40 years of flying helicopters, Aaron was honored in 2013 with the Living Legend of Aviation award, and in 2009 was the first helicopter pilot to ever receive the Art Scholl Showmanship Award.

The movie itself is amazingly well cast, featuring such voices as Julie Bowen as the delightfully dingy, somewhat eery amphibian slurry bomber Dipper (think “Dori lite”), Ed Harris as no-nonsense helicopter Blade Ranger and Brad Garrett as Windlifter, a Native American heavy lift helicopter, taciturn and one with nature, yet always ready to offer sage (or is that incoherent?) folk stories. Special favorites include the instantly recognizable voices of Hal Holbrook (Mayday), Curtis Armstrong (Maru) and Patrick Warburton (Pulaski, named after a heroic firefighter from the 1910 Great Idaho Fire), who stole the show as the voice of Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove. Rounding out the veteran vocal vamp is real-life married couple Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller as a pair of RV tourists on their 50th anniversary.

One of the most fascinating treats at Disneytoon Studios was a glimpse into the meticulous aviation research that went into the Planes franchise. Executive producer John Lasseter is a staunch advocate of extensive research, and it shows.

Speaking of accuracy, the original Planes was populated with fleets of classic flying machines thanks to Art Hernandez (head of story.) Hernandez diligently researched reams of historical aerial footage. Gracing the screen are such beloved birds as a Chance Vaught F4U Corsair, British Spitfire, P-51 Mustang, Gee Bee R, AeroCanard, de Havilland Dh.88 Comet, a pair of Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornets, a 1954 Taylor Aerocar and even a Boeing 777-inspired jet, all done up in the spiffy new American Airlines livery. The main character of Dusty was inspired by the Air Tractor At-502, Cessna and PZL-Mielec M-18 Dromader.

As a former Twin Otter pilot, my favorite quote from the original Planes comes from mechanic Dottie (Teri Hatcher.) When asked, “Can you fix it?” She gleefully proclaims, “Does a PT-6A have a multi-stage compressor?” The crowd looks blankly at her until she screams, “Yes!” Now that’s accuracy, folks! No wonder my favorite moment in the new film involves a highly detailed flash tour of Dusty’s own PT-6A.

The fleet in Planes: Fire & Rescue (Photo courtesy Disneytoon Studios

The fleet in Planes: Fire & Rescue (Photo courtesy Disneytoon Studios

Planes: Fire & Rescue continues the quest for accuracy into the world of aerial firefighting. Echoing the theme of second chances, most of the aerial firefighting characters (just as in real life) are repurposed aircraft. Here, helicopters are the stars, with equally accurate characters such as command chopper Blade Ranger (mostly a Bell 429) and Windlifter, a heavy lift rig based on a Sikorsky Skycrane, Kamov KA-26 and Mil Ll-10. New planes added to the fleet are ex-military hauler Cabbie (Captain Dale Dye), a C-119, and ditzy Dipper is an amphib based on the Grumman G-21 Goose and CL-415 SuperScooper. A special nod goes to Ethan Hurd (animation supervisor) for bringing these planes and other inanimate objects to life, from rickety 1943 Fordson Tenders to hyperactive Bobcat tractors.

Some of the fun and educational tidbits we learned on set: The N-numbers in the Planes series movies were birth dates and initials of some of the filmmakers; Piston Peak National Park is modeled after a combination of Yosemite and Yellowstone; oh, and one of the more important trivia tidbits dug up by the Disney research team: firefighting retardant (slurry) has the consistency of . . . snot.

Another treat was a first-hand look at how the flight scenes and other special effects were created. Especially fascinating was viewing a script-turned-storyboard film sequence drawn by Lawrence Gong (Story Artist.) As the soundtrack and script audio rolled, we watched in awe as a Gong’s sketches of the action played out, complete with camera angles, zooming and panning, the high tech Disney equivalent of a child’s flip book.

Speaking of script, the movie’s aerial firefighting tactics and radio verbiage (“Come left one wingspan on your next pass”) were strictly modeled after the real-life wilderness firefighting team from the Hemet-Ryan Air Attack Base, Cal Fire.

“We were just amazed by their devotion,” says director Gannaway. “Flying planes in almost combat-like situations, or jumping from planes into tiny targets in the middle of the forest, surrounded by blazing fires. We want them to watch the movie and say, ‘Yeah, they got it right. That’s what it’s like.’”

As for special effects, Doug Little (computer graphics supervisor), John Patton (effects animation lead) and their team had to literally invent virtual fire. And where there’s fire, there’s smoke. Over 80 pallets of fire and smoke templates were designed from scratch and used to produce the chilling effect of an entire forest on fire. One particularly dramatic, incredibly realistic moment is when Blade Ranger blasts through a thick plume of smoke.

Deep in the heart of the Sierra Nevada Mountain range in California south of Yosemite in the John Muir (originally Minaret’s) Wilderness Area lies the single most sacred patch of land on the planet for me. Indeed, my most cherished childhood memories originate from that spot. I spread my father’s ashes there. That’s why, for me, Planes: Fire & Rescue resonates so strongly. Dedicated to the brave men and women firefighters around the world who daily risk their lives to save forest, property and the lives of those they don’t even know, Planes: Fire & Rescue shines a spotlight on those very heroes that we take for granted.

Look for its release July 18.

Eric “Cap’n Aux” Auxier is an airline pilot by day, writer by night and kid by choice. An Airbus A320 Captain for a major U.S. airline, he is also a freelance writer, novelist and blogger. His second novel, The Last Bush Pilots, captured the coveted Amazon TOP 100 Breakthrough Novels in 2013. His new book, There I Wuz! Adventures From 3 Decades in the Sky will be available on Amazon Kindle in June and in print in July.  Auxier makes his home in Phoenix, Arizona.

About the Author

Eric Auxier



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  • Karlene

    Great article Eric! And it was wonderful to see you there and meet Mary Ann too! You two were the most important stars!