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Television Review : Cbs' 'Top Flight'

October 27, 1987|BILL STEIGERWALD

After host/narrator William Shatner's giddy introduction, and after all of the silly trumpet-and-drum music dies down, "Top Flight" takes off for a pleasant cruise through the history of the U.S. Air Force (tonight at 8 on Channels 2 and 8).

"Top Flight" isn't so much a documentary as a warm and cuddly birthday present to the Air Force, which is 40 years old this year. A public-relations job from Arnold ("Scared Straight") Shapiro Productions in association with the Air Force, it's a 99%-positive look at the war heroes, daredevils and test pilots of the Air Force and its predecessor, the Army Air Corps.

Despite its boosterism, "Top Flight" has a lot going for it. Genuine World War II hero Jimmy Stewart is seen in his flying togs and acting in movies such as "Strategic Air Command." There's great battle footage from both world wars and interviews with the likes of WWII flier Jimmy Doolittle and Francis Gabreski, the WWII and Korean War ace who downed 26 German fighters and 6 1/2 MIGs.

There are also nice bits on the Berlin Airlift, the WAFs (the 1,000 women pilots who flew warplanes from factories to air bases so that more men could be used for combat) and the Tuskegee Airmen (the WW II squadron of black pilots who flew with distinction).

The most compelling footage is of a helicopter rescue mission in Vietnam. A fat "Green Jolly" ambulance copter hovers dangerously over a thick green sea of jungle, its machine gunners blasting away as a para-jumper is lowered on a hoist to rescue a U.S. Air Force pilot. It's a tense, harrowing three minutes of film intercut with the memories of a former 17-year-old para-rescuer who explains the terrible dangers and the wonderful rewards of being able to save people's lives in a war. By itself, the Vietnam segment makes "Top Flight" worth watching.

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