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CBS series follows real F-15 pilots into wild blue yonder

| Friday, March 29, 2002

LOS ANGELES — Even the stoutest maxims can be turned on their heads.

There are second acts in American lives. And reality television isn't necessarily synonymous with total schlock.

CBS' new "AFP: American Fighter Pilot" could be proof.

Early episodes show it has the potential to open a fascinating window on a high-octane, risky day job: flying F-15 fighter jets for the Air Force.

The young filmmaker behind it, Jesse Negron, seems sincere about creating an honest portrait of three aspiring fliers and their families and not just sucking them dry for entertainment value.

And Negron can't be accused of au courant patriotism. "AFP" was conceived and largely filmed before the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks.

That said, viewers have to look past the program's glitzy graphics and editing that would suit a military recruitment video as produced by MTV — and which, initially at least, threaten to overwhelm the human drama.

This "Top Gun"-style veneer probably was inevitable, though. Tony Scott, the director of the 1986 film starring Tom Cruise as a cocky Navy flyboy, is an executive producer of "AFP."

Negron solicited Scott's involvement as a producer partly because he wanted to use the cachet of "Top Gun" in marketing "AFP." But the real-life pilots are too complex to reduce to swaggering stereotypes, said Scott and Negron.

"You have to have an ego to say 'I'm a little guy but I'm bigger than a $30 million, fire-breathing titanium jet,"' said Negron. "But at home, I see them interacting as husbands and fathers in a very normal way."

He acknowledges the series could trip itself up with an overly stylized approach. But the visual hipness shouldn't lead viewers astray, he said.

"The concept was to hit hard in the beginning with the sex appeal of their job and how cool their job is, and then the reality sets in."

Reality is that at least one of the trainees is now involved in the war effort. CBS was withholding further details, partly to keep viewers watching though the eight episodes and partly because of Pentagon limits on disclosure of individual assignments.

The series does offer a wealth of detail on the planes (maximum speed: 1,875 mph), the pilots and the demands of military life. The series was filmed primarily at Tyndall Air Force Base in the Florida panhandle during a 110-day training program.

The focus is on Todd Giggy, Marcus Gregory and Mike Love: Will they make it or wash out• Will they be accepted in the fraternity of veteran pilots with intimidating call signs like "Shark" and "Heater"?

But there's more to "AFP" than testosterone.

"The biggest surprise to me was how family-oriented these guys are and how the two extremes of their personality live together," Negron said. "They love to go out — they call it 'raging' — into the air space and fight. And at the same time they go home and are totally the guy next door."

An airplane buff who holds a civilian pilot's license (and who was kept from a military aviation career by his eyesight), Negron initially cooked up the idea of a documentary on pilots because he wanted to hang around jets.

"The more research I did on it, the more the real story of these guys became interesting to me," he said. "Very few of us have life and death in our lives every day."

His plan for a film turned into a reality series when he collected a wealth of footage. Scott, who says he had encountered military secrecy before, described himself as "stunned" by the access Negron was granted.

"For whatever reason, the squadron took me in as one of their own and they choose to open this world up to me," Negron said. "What you see in the show is a very candid look at how these warriors are made."

Most restrictions on filming involved cockpit electronics and briefings and debriefings about the plane's performance. Footage was reviewed only for classified material, said Negron, who figures the base commander recognized the show as a public relations opportunity.

That's understandable, since Hollywood has lately jumped on the military bandwagon. Producers of ABC's "Profiles From the Front Line," say they plan a "pro-military, pro-American stance" for the reality show being made with Pentagon cooperation.

But Negron contends he has produced more than sanitized propaganda.

"There are things in there that are going to make people squirm a little. They're very, very blunt about what they do for a living."

Military officials have previewed a few episodes. The reaction• "They love it," said Scott.

'AFP: American Fighter Pilot' airs at 8 p.m. Tonight, CBS

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