By Deb Grigsby Smith
If you’ve ever busted a sweat on the edge of your sofa, had the urge to yank and bank the cat, or ever felt under the coffee table for rudder pedals, then the Military Channel’s new series, “Showdown: Air Combat,” is pretty much going to make safety rigging mandatory on the ole Lazy Boy.
The 10-episode series, produced by California-based Traveling Light Inc., premiers this month on the Discovery Channel’s Military Channel and lets armchair pilots of every vintage fly alongside history’s most memorable aircraft and aerial combat encounters.
Hosted by U.S. Air Force F-22A demonstration pilot Maj. Paul “Max” Moga, the show’s creators pit restored aircraft from every era of aerial warfare against each other—actually in the air.
Moga calls the airborne blow-by-blow action from inside a chase plane, and introduces viewers to not only the historical aircraft and the innovative technology each plane employed, but also to the extraordinary pilots who flew these planes on their original missions.
“Max is a character,” jokes the show’s executive producer and director Adam Friedman from his Burbank office. “He’s also a great guy and great communicator, and as an active duty pilot, he truly knows the rules of the game.”
According to Friedman, “Showdown: Air Combat” is a direct target-locked response to the History Channel’s series entitled “Dogfights.”
“It (“Dogfights”) has tons of computer-generated stuff,” he said. “This series is dramatically different because we’re using real planes and real pilots for real dogfights.”
Each episode provides a rare opportunity to see dramatic duels between some of history’s most treasured aircraft, like the World War II-era P-38 Lightning pitted against the only all-original Mitsubishi Zero still flying today.
Viewers will also see the fury of the legendary Red Baron’s Fokker Dr.1 triplane, the cutting-edge, swept-wing Russian MiG-15 jet fighter, the innovative World War 1 French SPAD biplane, and the “savage grace” of the modern Lockheed F-22A Raptor.
So how do you assemble an airworthy inventory of planes to span more than 80 years of documented aerial combat? Even Howard Hughes would have to scratch his head on that one.
But according to Friedman, you simply whip out a phone and hit the Rolodex.
“We just started calling people we knew, independent warbird owners and anyone who had some sort of connection,” he said. “The response was incredible—particularly from the U.S. Air Force, Lockheed and Chino Planes of Fame.”
And while Friedman admits they selected featured aircraft from “pretty much what we could get,” he acknowledges that in order to tell the story accurately, some modeling magic was necessary. In addition to restored aircraft and precise quarter-scale, radio-controlled replicas were used to help recreate the World War I dogfights.
“We want to get our viewers as close to the cockpit action as humanly possible,” said Friedman. “While they can’t actually touch the laminate on the wing, we want them to come as close to feeling the G’s and shortness of breath the pilot experiences—and we also want to build empathy for what the men and women of our armed forces go though to do this sort of thing.”
With great passion, Friedman said he feels very strongly that documentaries such as “Showdown: Air Combat” serve a higher purpose than simply entertainment.
“It combats what I like to call the ‘American Idoling’ factor,” he explained. “I sense that in past years there’s been a sort of ‘dumbing-down’ of America, and that a lot of people think that simply because they sing in the shower, they’re Barbra Streisand—and that’s not the case. This show demonstrates that you have to be smart to build a P-51, and you have to be talented enough to fly an F-22 Raptor. The show really builds in the reality factor in a not-so-realistic world.”
However, Friedman says that the show’s realistic factor will not be a turnoff to non-pilots.
“We display the information about the aircraft and the encounter in ways that have never been seen or heard before,” he said. “We try to show what the pilot encountered, what the aircraft was doing at the time, what happened, why it happened and the resulting effects.”
Lee Fulkerson is executive producer and series writer. For the Military Channel, Brian Kelly is the executive producer and Clark Bunting is the executive-in-charge of production.
The show launches Sunday, June 15, from 10-11 p.m. ET. In addition, the first episode will be sneak previewed starting Friday, June 6, on Military Channel’s video-on-demand services.