One of the F-14 pilots who flew in The Final Countdown shares his personal notes on the movie that introduced the Tomcat to Hollywood. “Splash the Zeros!”
Six years before “Top Gun” prominently featured the F-14 Tomcat, “The Final Countdown” proved that Grumman’s twin-tailed fighter had star quality. When he was a lieutenant F-14 pilot, Al “Shoes” Mullen flew in The Final Countdown and has generously allowed the author to review his notes regarding the experience.
Shoes joined Fighter Squadron 84 (VF-84, the Jolly Rogers) as a nugget in September 1977 and distinguished himself as a pilot, as indicated by being selected to attend the Topgun class in September 1978 with RIO Jim “Tex” Huston. Just a few months after completing Topgun, Shoes and Tex were part of a group of pilots and RIOs who spent several weeks at NAS Key West to film the science fiction adventure movie, in which the USS Nimitz is transported back in time and encounters parts of the Japanese strike force in the days before the Pearl Harbor attack. If you can get over the idea of time travel, it’s a pretty good movie.
The idea for the movie came from Peter Douglas, son of actor Kirk Douglas. It had languished for several years until Commander Emory Brown heard about it shortly before becoming commanding officer of VF-84 and offered to support the project. That’s how the Jolly Rogers, who flew some of the Navy’s more colorful F-14s, became internationally famous movie stars.
Shoes says filming in Key West “started with a helicopter as a camera platform, two T-6s (and a spare) playing Zeros, and about five F-14s: two painted as ‘202,’ two painted as ‘203,’ and one spare ready to be anything.”
“The strategy was doomed from the start. The movie guys wanted the Tomcats flying with their wings swept back to look cool (so we had to be fast), the T-6s flying with their canopies open to look cool, (which slowed them down) and the helicopter hovering as a stable camera platform, theoretically in a known location.” That is, until the tropical winds blew it around.
Before flying any scenes, the aviators and movie crew planned and briefed every shot, similar to preparing for any flight.
But a helicopter as camera platform complicated their filming. Shoes said, “Every scene was an attempt to get three pool balls to collide on a pool table at exactly the same time. Try it sometime!”
Adding to the difficulties, the crew was shooting film, with no video for quick looks. They shot scenes all day and that film was sent off to be developed. Then they filmed for another day or two before the first film was returned, at which time they found out there wasn’t much useful footage.
“Either the Tomcats and Zeros were awesome, but no helicopter was there to film it. Or the helo was trying to hang on to a formation of Zeros and the Tomcats fell out of the sky trying to slow down to below 200 knots with the wings swept back.” It was an expensive waste of time.
Eventually the movie company obtained a modified B-25 from Tallmantz Aviation, with a camera in the tail gunner position.
“This was a game changer because the bomber was speed compatible with the Zeros and they could comfortably fly in formation with the bomber as one element. We (Tomcats) could fly at 300 knots or more to sweep the wings and finally we only had to get two pool balls to hit on the table at the same time. Infinitely easier!”
The final product included some memorable scenes of not only the F-14, but the air wing and carrier ops. Highlights include the scene when two alert Tomcats are cleared to arm, and accelerate while sweeping their wings back. A moment later, after they have thumped the Zeros and the Zeros split, we see a Zero skimming cloud tops and a Tomcat appears menacingly behind it.
The Final Countdown was released Aug 1, 1980. Intended as a summer blockbuster, it received what can best be described as a lukewarm reception. The website “The Numbers” shows worldwide box office revenue of nearly $57 million – not bad, but most of that was from overseas showings.
Today some movie websites use favorable adjectives to describe The Final Countdown, such as interesting, entertaining, thought-provoking, and fun to watch. It is surely most appreciated by Tomcat fans, who can’t get enough of the big jet in action.
Note: For more behind the scenes information, watch an interview with 6 pilots and RIOs who flew in the movie, which was uploaded to YouTube. It describes the origin of the film and has many additional details about film production and the flying scenes.
Author Dave “Bio” Baranek was a student RIO when The Final Countdown came out in August 1980. He went through the Topgun class in 1982 and LT “Shoes” Mullen was one of his instructors. Bio’s next book, Tomcat RIO, will be published in May 2020.