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TV REVIEW : 'Nova' Zeroes In on the Problems Pilots Have Flying Advanced Jets

January 19, 1988|BILL STEIGERWALD

It doesn't have Hollywood heartthrobs like pretty flyboy Tom Cruise or pretty flygirl Kelly McGillis.

But along with a great deal of information, tonight's "Top Gun and Beyond" on "Nova" delivers nearly as much excitement and horizon-swirling aerial footage as "Top Gun," the recent box-office smash about the Navy's elite combat pilot training school (8 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15, 9 p.m. on Channel 50).

"Top Gun and Beyond" offers a fine mini-history of the unchanging basic tactics and the ever-changing technologies of aerial dogfights, from World War I's Fokker Triplanes to Vietnam's F-4 Phantoms. Its main concern, however, is with the dangerous physical and psychic conditions confronting pilots who fly today's expensive, ultra-complex, high-performance fighters.

Basically, experts and pilots tell "Nova," we're building fighters so powerful and sophisticated that humans can now barely fly them in combat situations. Pilots, no matter how well-trained, can pass out in seconds from excessive G-forces in turns or can suffer information overload in cockpits over-crammed with electronic controls (an F-15 has 300 switches and 75 displays).

Along with showing how the Navy is trying to solve this "biology barrier"--and making the case that no matter how advanced the technology, the human pilot will always be indispensable to combat aircraft--there are several exciting, Hollywoodish tales of real life-and-death drama.

One ex-Vietnam pilot chillingly recalls that he never heard his wingman's repeated radio warnings that a missile-firing enemy plane was on his tail because they were lost in a noisy shower of other less urgent radio information. Another coolly describes his encounter with a North Vietnamese double-ace in what is considered to be one of the longest and most complex dogfights in history.

Writer/producer/director Chris Haws' mix of combat footage, graphics-cluttered training videotapes and interviews is smooth and interest never stalls. "Top Gun and Beyond" is yet another ace in "Nova's" long tradition of excellent documentary making.

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