It is 1964, and two Drew Associates filmmakers are flying daily combat missions with U.S. helicopter pilots in Vietnam. Theirs is a very early film of what became the living room war. They focus on one pilot: Second Lt. Gary Ramage’s job is to fly low over suspected Viet Cong positions to draw fire so his squadron can pinpoint an attack. The filmmakers, Greg Shuker and Abbot Mills, frequently record under heavy fire. At one point there is a mid-air explosion, which knocks the camera to the helicopter floor as shrapnel sprays.
This is the first sync-sound, sustained helicopter combat footage ever shot. The Drew filmmakers fly more than 50 missions with Ramage. In between flights, they film Ramage’s life on base, where Ramage records letters home to his wife and infant son on audio tapes.
“We decided before we shot the program that we would need some extraordinary new methods if we were to capture the pilot’s ‘moment of truth,’ his expression in the actual attack and the attack itself,” Shuker said in an interview with Jack Gaver of United Press International, published in the Los Angeles Times on Sept. 8, 1964. Shuker explained how they got the combat footage: first, colleague Dan Drasin went to Texas with a helicopter engineer to design two remote-control cameras. One was mounted on the helicopter’s instrument panel to film back into the face of the pilot and the other was mounted on the landing gear to record the action as the pilot sees it. Shuker and Mills rode in the back of the helicopter belly and filmed with a hand-held camera and operated the automatic cameras by a toggle switch. They also plugged a tape recorder into the helicopter’s intercom to hear the pilot talking on the radio during combat.
“Not only in the combat sequences, but throughout this special, I think we’ve managed to come up with something that is a direct experience for the viewer, more than just a report or documentary,” Shuker said.