Blue Thunder: next project?

Blue Thunder mock-up at Disney-MGM Studios, 1999. Did the 1983 film presage a police state? Or the deliberate fomenting of chaos to make an excuse for one?
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Blue Thunder. Directed by John Badham. With Roy Scheider, Warren Oates, and Malcolm MacDowell. Columbia Pictures, 1983. (For publicly available details, see here.)

Blue Thunder was a rarity in film. In the year of its first release, it drew viewers with the wry humor of its characters, and the white-knuckle action for which everything else was a setup. Once that action began, it did not stop until the final, explosive climax. More than that, it featured a technological marvel with not one but three worthy adversaries.

But it also sounded a theme that then struck many viewers as not only far-fetched but needlessly political. Ronald Reagan was President of the United States then. Those who ran Hollywood hated Reagan, though as head of the Screen Actors’ Guild he had been one of their own. In that context the writers, producers, and Director John Badham made a film accusing the federal government (meaning the Reagan administration) of over-militarizing the police and maybe preparing a Nazi-style military coup d’état. Not all viewers received that message well.

Little did anyone think a leftist would hold office as President, thirty-one years later, and engage in the same over-militarization of civilian police that Badham and company accused the Reagan administration of doing. But in March 2014, Sony Pictures Entertainment revived Blue Thunder briefly for its Sony Movie Channel in HDTV markets nationwide. This reviewer watched it then. Recent events, as RoseAnn Salanitri ably describes them, prove one thing conclusively: John Badham and company knew what they were talking about. They erred only in picking the wing of the political spectrum from which the police militarization would come.

Blue Thunder the helicopter

Blue Thunder mock-up at Disney-MGM Studios, 1999.

Blue Thunder, MGM Studios Back-lot tour. (Left view) Photo: User Cplbeaudoin/Wikimedia Commons, takien in 1999, and released into public domain. Note the directional microphones and the multi-faceted canopy. This mock-up does not show the Gatling gun. The exterior colors are obviously sun-faded.

“Blue Thunder,” as the name implies, refers to the world’s first paramilitary police helicopter gunship. At the time of release, such a thing was illegal. Police helicopters provided observation only, and carried no weapons (other than their rotors, which a skilled pilot can use as one). But Blue Thunder the helicopter (thunder for the noise it makes and the power of its weapons, and blue as in “police”) would break the mold.

As the filmmakers envisioned and developed it, Blue Thunder was an Aérospatiale SA-341G Gazelle helicopter with extensive changes. Instead of its traditional curved canopy, Blue Thunder sported a multifaceted canopy of bulletproof glass. (Bulletproof glass did not lend itself well to curved molding in those days.) It mounted a six-barrel chain gun that would automatically follow the motions of the pilot’s helmet. It carried super-sensitive microphones that could, under the right conditions, listen to a “private” (even intimate!) conversation inside a residence or other building ten yards away/below. (As the illustration at right shows, those microphones looked for all the world like the antennae of a flying insect.) It also mounted visible-light and infrared cameras (that the script writers called “thermographs” to use a term viewers might readily grasp). It also held a computer workstation that, in anticipation of the modern Internet, could access any police or military database automatically, in answer to any query by one having the proper security clearance.

Blue Thunder had one other feature new to police air support: the Whisper Mode. It could run its rotors to dampen their noise almost completely. A reviewer at the IMDb said positively that Whisper Mode works:

I received a powerful demonstration of the stealth technology called “whisper mode” in the film, a couple of years after seeing it. I live near a major U.S. Army firing range, and our local airport hosts a considerable amount of military traffic. At this particular time, I was renting a house about one kilometer from the airport. I went out for a walk late one Sunday night, and, shortly after leaving the house, I heard a noise I could not identify. It was a loud hissing sound, ‘which seemed very close at hand, but I could not locate the source, until I looked up. Passing overhead at about 200 meters was a Chinook helicopter, the type with two rotors, and fuselage that looks kind of like a banana. Normally, the rotor noise on these cargo helicopters will rattle windows, but this baby was tip-toeing out of town very quietly. If I had been indoors, I never would have heard it. This made me completely rethink the sequence where the helicopter was hovering right outside of a building, and the people inside couldn’t hear it! I took it for artistic license at the time, but the demonstration I witnessed of “whisper mode” made it seem entirely feasible.

In short, Blue Thunder the helicopter was the most fearsome piece of equipment anyone ever built and delivered to a police agency anywhere in the Western world.

The Columbia team commissioned two Blue Thunders, and loaded each with all the equipment the scripts mentioned. The two gunships were nose-heavy (as the lead actor would observe), but completely airworthy. Computer-generated imaging did not exist in 1983. All the aerial footage in Blue Thunder the movie features one of these two flying models. (The producers sold both to owners who eventually scrapped them. One model appeared prominently as the typical “United Nations Special Services Unit” helicopter in the ABC television mini-series Amerika.)

A tyrannical plot

As fearsome as Blue Thunder was, its fictional developers intended an even more fearsome use for it. Ostensibly, the federal government offer Blue Thunder to the “Los Angeles Metropolitan Police ASTRO Division” (meaning the LAPD air-support division, since the LAPD did not want the filmmakers to use their institutional name) for added security during the 1984 Olympic Games. The federals do not want a repeat of the kidnapping and “execution” of almost the entire Israeli Olympic Team at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany.

Or so they say. But a Los Angeles City Councilwoman develops evidence that uninvited strangers are deliberately stirring anger in the ghettos and barrios of Los Angeles. Their aim: to foment rioting and thus give the ASTRO Division an opportunity to demonstrate the devastating response a Blue Thunder can make. Three thugs attack her and end up killing her. Police on the ground shoot two of the thugs to death, but the third gets away.

The real trouble starts when ASTRO Division Pilot Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) and his observer Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern) take a Blue Thunder prototype up for a test flight. When they spot the regular test pilot (Col. F. E. Cochrane, US Army, retired, played to the hilt by Malcolm MacDowell) driving toward the Los Angeles Federal building, they follow. They then engage Whisper Mode (see above) and record a chilling conversation. It tells of the death (read assassination) of the councilwoman and the real plans for Blue Thunder. And in that conversation they hear their death sentences.

As the plot goes on, Lymangood runs afoul of the secret federal operatives and dies trying to escape from them. But not before he hides the incriminating tape and leaves Murphy a message telling him where to find it. In the last sequences, Murphy takes Blue Thunder to the skies, sees to the delivery of the tape to two investigative TV reporters (Mario Machado portraying himself, and actor James Murtaugh as reporter Alf Hewitt), then fights three aerial battles with:

  1. His former buddies,
  2. Two Air National Guard pilots flying F-16 Fighting Falcons, and
  3. His old Army nemesis, flying a Hughes 500 Defender.

He wins them all, then destroys the prototype by landing it in front of an oncoming freight train.

Riveting performances

No one captures the utter cynicism of the scheme to turn police air-support divisions into “Air SWAT” better than Malcolm MacDowell. His Colonel Cochrane is villainous almost to insanity. For the final battle, he disobeys orders to stand down, after the Mayor of Los Angeles decides he wants no more casualties on the ground.

Roy Scheider as ASTRO Division Pilot Frank Murphy is another standout. His character has already seen what evil “superior officers” can do or order done, in Vietnam. Scheider knew just how to play it, not over-the-top, but so a viewer could well believe he is an honest cop trying to stop a plot against the liberties of those he swore “to protect and to serve,” to quote the LAPD motto.

Warren Oates provides almost comic relief as Murphy’s long-suffering boss. He has no concept of the evil that Murphy keeps seeing signs of. That is, until he notes the difference between Murphy’s efforts to avoid casualties, even among his attackers, while the Air National Guard make a mess of downtown Los Angeles with heat-seeking missiles that inevitably go astray.

Mario Machado and James Murtaugh (as Alf Hewitt) make you wish more TV stations hired that kind of reporter.

A Blue Thunder in your skies?

Do not think this could not happen! Everything Blue Thunder had, is not only real but even more capable today than it was then. A private (and contemporary) military source confirmed to this reviewer, in 1983, that the Army used directional super-sensitive microphones like those Blue Thunder carried. You can read for yourselves the eyewitness (or earwitness) account of a Chinook helicopter in obvious Whisper Mode. Could an Aérospatiale Gazelle do a full vertical loop, as Murphy must do to defeat Cochrane in the air? This reviewer can neither confirm nor deny that. But the other things Blue Thunder can do make it more than formidable even without this.

Today the Department of Homeland Security, and a new federal Law Enforcement Support Office, pay almost full freight for police departments in even small and mid-sized cities, and ever more sparsely settled county sheriff’s departments, to get Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. This includes the Lenco Bearcat, now deployed (as Salanitri reported) in Nashville, Tennessee, Waukesha County, Wisconsin, and St. Petersburgh, Florida, among other places. Some of these are U.S. Army surplus. Others are the type of trucks these companies usually build for the Army but are now selling, with federal “rebates” available, to these civilian police chiefs and sheriffs.

How soon before the real-life LAPD Air Support Division (or its counterpart in the NYPD) gets a modified Aérospatiale Gazelle like Blue Thunder, or even an Apache helicopter gunship painted police blue? Wouldn’t this be the logical next step beyond Bearcats for small-town cops?

This film is still available for viewing, either in premium subscription services (like ViewNow) or in optical media. Screen it now, while you can be sure it is still fiction. And if you don’t want to risk hearing a hissing sound outside your house, and looking up to see this gigantic flying insect, act! Now! To make sure this vision does not come to pass. In short, don’t be a mere JAFO. (See the film to decipher that acronym.)

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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.

9 Responses to Blue Thunder: next project?

  1. Fergus Mason says:

    “Could an Aérospatiale Gazelle do a full vertical loop”

    No.

    “You can read for yourselves the eyewitness (or earwitness) account of a Chinook helicopter in obvious Whisper Mode”

    I can read it, but I don’t believe it for a moment. The only way for a Chinook to ever be anything less than deafening is for it to be parked on the ground with the engines off.

    “How soon before the real-life LAPD Air Support Division (or its counterpart in the NYPD) gets a modified Aérospatiale Gazelle like Blue Thunder”

    Never. It’s no longer in production.

    *sigh*

    All the equipment attached to the helicopters in Blue Thunder was just lightweight mockups. The Gazelle is a very old single-engine light utility helicopter. It doesn’t have the power and carrying capacity to be modified like that. To fit some fairly modest equipment to one and retain essential capabilities – like being able to take off – we had to remove most of the seats and the rear doors.

    • Terry A. Hurlbut says:

      Much of what you say, does not comport with the direct testimony of some of the persons involved in the production of that film.

  2. Fergus Mason says:

    Terry, I spent 14 years hopping in and out of Gazelles like you’d jump in a cab. They are small helicopters with limited power. The British Army has a considerable number of them and is very, very familiar with the problems of getting them to carry stuff. You can bolt on a couple of missile racks, a single-barrel cannon or a camera pod, but it won’t carry an armoured cabin and if you tried firing a rotary gun from it you’d shake it to pieces. I don’t much care what someone from Hollywood says; I’ve discussed this with AAC technicians and pilots.

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