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TELEVISION REVIEW

Battles for the skies

Military Channel's 'Showdown: Air Combat' examines warplane history.

June 14, 2008|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

The front pages were ablaze last week with news that the secretary of Defense wants to redirect the thinking of the Air Force away from fighters and bombers and toward the homely transport plane.

The apparent belief is that, in the era of counterinsurgency and nation building, the transport should be the new ideal, that the testosterone-fueled days of aerial dogfighting are in the past.

Maybe so, but what a past it was. Nothing grips the public's imagination like tales of high-speed mano a mano in the sky, starting with the Red Baron through the hair-on-fire aces of Vietnam. And now comes a series tailored to those interests: "Showdown: Air Combat," on the Military Channel.

If the first episode, "Jet Ace: F-86 Sabre vs. MIG-15," is any indication, the series will be a buff's delight. On one level the first story is about Air Force Capt. James Jabara, the nation's first jet ace (five or more shoot-downs), but on another level it's the story of U.S. versus Soviet technology during the Korean War.

The narrator, Maj. Paul "Max" Moga, an instructor pilot on active duty, walks the viewer through the details of what makes various aircraft unique and then provides play-by-play of specific fights. Great photography and graphics round out a first-rate presentation of what it was like in MIG Alley.

"This jet wasn't built to be pretty by any means, it was meant to be a killer," Moga says of the MIG-15.

With use of vintage film, the story of Jabara, who shot down 15 enemy planes, is a compelling one. "Jet Ace" does not gloss over whether Jabara showed a reckless lack of discipline at times, endangering himself and other U.S. pilots.

OK, some of the language is a little overheated, references to fighter jets as "chariots of death," for example. But Moga gets you inside the tight fraternity of fighter jocks, where arrogance is a not uncommon trait.

Future episodes will deal with World Wars I and II, including Navy and Marine pilots and aircraft. The Aug. 10 episode, for example, is "Pappy Over Rabaul: F4U Corsair vs. (the Japanese) Zero," the story of the ultimate flying bad boy, Gregory "Pappy" Boyington.

With due respect to the Defense secretary, it's hard to imagine a series about great transport planes.

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tony.perry@latimes.com

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'Showdown: Air Combat'

Where: Military Channel

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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