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Bailout at 43,000

Bailout at 43,000(1957)

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teaser Bailout at 43,000 (1957)

Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff popularized the test pilots of the forerunner of NASA, the Air Research and Development branch of the Air Force. In the avionics boom of the 1950s, these fliers routinely risked their lives to help develop new jets. Hollywood showed its patriotism with films like Strategic Air Command (1955) and Toward the Unknown (1956), which assured taxpayers that Uncle Sam's defense money was being well spent. Writer Paul Monash adapted 1957's Bailout at 43,000 from his TV drama starring Charlton Heston and directed by John Frankenheimer. Director Francis D. Lyon's crew was given access to Air Force facilities and aerial footage. The show is unusual in its focus on a specific engineering problem. For the new B-47 bomber, the designers wish to make ejection safe by removing 'emotional' pilots from the equation. The test pilots balk at being guinea pigs for the prototype seats, one of which fires downward out of the fuselage. Their wives worry when a test ends in a fatality. Assignments must be changed after one pilot comes down with appendicitis, and another dies in an unrelated crash. Yet another is distrustful of a German-born engineer. In contrast to the unflappable bravado often depicted in '50s aviation films, '40s star John Payne plays the reluctant leading pilot with a neurotic edge. Young Karen Steele projects strength in her third role as an understanding wife of a military man, and favorite Richard Eyer of Friendly Persuasion (1956) is the adoring son. Richard Crane and Constance Ford play another pilot-spouse couple. Veteran actor Paul Kelly is Payne's commanding officer; he died of a heart attack not long after filming finished. Payne's pilot works through his nightmares and proves to have the Right Stuff. The finale reassures audiences that his misgivings about the ejection seats are unfounded, whereas tests of the real prototypes did indeed severely injure more than one airman.

by Glenn Erickson

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