Come Fly With Me
'JAG' star David James Elliott soars through the wild blue yonder--and this time it's no act.
Reporter Mark Schwed challenges JAG's David James Elliott in a friendly airborne duel.
by Mark Schwed, TV Guide, December, 1995
David James Elliott's wife is freaking. "You mean you're going to fly a plane in a dogfight over the ocean?" Nanci asks. You can imagine her mind racing: You're my husband, you're the father of our beautiful little girl, you're an actor who plays an ex-Navy fighter pilot. You can't fly a real plane. Are you nuts?
After a bit of discussion on that last question, it is decided. Elliott will fly the unfriendly skies in a dogfight with this reporter. But before he goes, Nanci, like any home-front spouse, has one last request: "The second you touch down on the ground, call me and let me know you're alive." Elliott resists the request: "But what if there are people around? I don't want to look like a wuss."
"I don't care," she tells him. "You just make up some excuse and call me!"
As the hunky Lieut. Harmon Rabb Jr. on NBC's JAG, Elliott gets to play war every week. He flies jets, jumps from helicopters, darts in and out of danger, and basically pretends he's a tough Navy guy. In real life, it's quite a different story. Elliott loves poetry, not war. Though the 6-foot-4 Canadian tried, at age 18, to enlist in the U.S. Marines, he abandoned the idea when he found out it could take more than a year to process his application. Most telling of all, he hates to fly. He remembers one especially hairy flight. "We hit an air pocket and fell for what seemed like miles. I thought I was dead. I said about 25 Our Fathers, and I made a pact with God. I said, 'Just get me through this one, and I swear to God, I'm walking everywhere I go from now on. After it was over I talked to God again. I said, 'We have to renegotiate this deal.'"
There must have been major negotiations, because Elliott has shown up today at Air Combat USA, a thriving enterprise outside Los Angeles that's modeled after the Navy's "Top Gun" Fighter Weapons School in San Diego. Want to be Tom Cruise? For an hour, anyone with $695 can turn fighter pilot, yanking and banking in a wild dogfight over the Pacific.
Of course, if you want to be a fighter pilot you have to look like a fighter pilot. Elliott and I don olive-drab jumpsuits, white combat helmets with shaded visors, bright yellow inflatable vests in case we crash into the ocean, and, most important, parachutes in the event that we have to land without the plane.
"At first I thought you meant we were going to fly a simulation dogfight," says Elliott. "Now I find out we're going up in real planes. I'm a little worried."
He is reassured by the fact that real pilots sit next to you in the plane. They handle takeoff and landing and let you do the rest. Want to go left? Simply move the control stick left. Feel like a screaming dive toward the ocean? Push the stick forward. A climb to the heavens? Pull the stick back, and get ready to feel your stomach in your throat. For most of the flight, the throttle is wide open-about 225 mph.
This will be a fight to the finish, sort of. Although the folks at Air Combat strive for authenticity, no one really gets shot out of the skies. The "ammo" is actually a patented tracking system that locks onto the other plane and makes it choke smoke when there's a direct hit.
But before we take to the skies, we have to be briefed. There are three essential rules: Don't fly into each other, don't fly into the ground, and listen to your instructor. Any questions? "Have any of your planes ever crashed?" Elliott asks. The instructor explains that there's been only one incident in 10,000 flights-a landing short of the runway. Nobody got hurt. One more thing: air sickness. "If you need to throw up, don't worry. It happens to one in 10 people." The instructor tells us about the little white bag in the side pocket. "Make sure you aim carefully. If you spill it on yourself, or spill it on me, and I smell it, I'll throw up on you. And then we'll be in trouble."
We head to the fighters, highly maneuverable Siai marchetti SF 260 Italian light attack planes painted gunmetal gray except for the U.S. Air Force stars and bars and the orange propeller spinner. Quickly we're off, flying in tight formation until we get over the ocean. Then we fly s-turns while calibrating our guns.
"OK, now we're gonna try a low yo-yo followed by a high yo-yo," pilot Mike "Rocket" Blackstone commands Elliott. "All we're gonna do is turn inside of your opponent's turn with the nose down, and when we catch him we're gonna go nose up to the outside of his turn to bleed off speed. Put him in the sight and shoot."
"Who's going to be doing this?" asks Elliott.
"You are," says the pilot. "Tighten up your stomach and gently turn left."
Elliott complies, but the look on his face-which I am later able to see thanks to three video cameras in the cockpit-is one of, well, distinct fear. And his left hand has a death grip on a metal handle. His pilot senses this.
"How's your stomach feeling?" the pilot asks him.
"Fine. It's my head that scares me. When I'm looking forward through the sights, then I have no concept that I'm in the air."
"That makes you feel better?" the pilot asks.
"What happens if you look out the side?"
"Then my head takes over. You know, I'm really a ground guy."
But suddenly for this ground guy, it's war--6500 feet above the Pacific.
"Fights on," the pilots scream as we pass each other at a combined speed of 450 mph, then immediately yank and bank to line up a shot. In seconds, I've managed to execute a perfect high yo-yo that zips me right up to the other plane's tail. I unload my cannons. Bang bang. He's dead. Splash one TV star. "Nailed ya," I brag over the intercom. The enemy pilot mocks our victory. "Oh, you guys are cool," he says. "And alive." I add.
We set up for the second encounter, and this time Elliott is ready to put his apprehension aside and get mean. "Should we move on him?" he asks.
The pilot, jazzed about his flying companion's newfound bravado, coaxes, "I think you should try to beat him. The only way to beat him is to keep your eyes on him. That's gonna force you to look out the side. Don't worry. I won't let you run into him or run into the ground."
They quickly maneuver, and Elliott begins...hyperventilating. He's breathing so hard and fast that I don't know how his pilot can hear him speak. But he is determined to kill me.
"You boys can run but you can't hide," Elliott's pilot radios as they maneuver on my tail. Rat-tat-tat. I'm dead.
"The only one that counts is the first one," I remind them. Technically, They're already dead. And if they're dead, they can't kill me. "Yeah, yeah," they radio back.
I take time to check up on the star.
"Hey, David, are you liking this?"
"I'm digging it," he says.
In the final fight we pull 3 1/2 Gs-pilot talk that means your stomach is in your throat again-and Elliott winds up gunning me down for the second time. So he's won two out of three.
After we land, taxi, and park, I decide to go on the offensive. "Tell me about your brush with death up there. I understand you were killed immediately?"
"It was terrifying and exhilarating," Elliott says. "As soon as the pilot told me I was flying the plane, I wanted to go: 'Take me back! Don't let me fly the plane!' I've gained huge respect for people who do this for a living."
Now Elliott must complete his final and most important mission. He's got to call his wife and let her know he's alive. He dials the number and gets an answering machine.
"Oh, yeah. You better call me the minute you hit the ground," Elliott says, affectionately mimicking his wife. "Let me know you're alive. That you're not a pancake. Oh, yeah. She's petrified. She's scared for me."
"What? She's not home? Where is she?" I ask.
"She's out shopping," Elliott says, which sounds pretty down-to-earth. But frankly, after the morning's adventure, down-to-earth is just fine with him.
After the "mission," TV Guide debriefed David James Elliott. Born Sept.21, 1960, in Toronto, the second of three sons, he attended Canada's prestigious Ryerson Polytechnical Institute. Before graduation, he was deemed most promising actor at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. TV appearances include Knots Landing, Seinfeld, and Melrose Place. Other facts:
Best thing about being in uniform: You never have to worry what goes with what.
His character on JAG: He's moralistic, thrives on excitement and speed.
On the set he always eats: Bananas.
First break: "B-Movie: The Play," one of the most successful Canadian plays. I played a male stripper named Dick.
Last 9-to-5 job: A bouncer at Saturdays, a club in New York, and at the Hard Rock Cafe in Toronto.
Good looks are a curse because: People tend to slot you into certain roles. There's lots of stereotyping.
Last book read: Chicken Hawk, a true story about helicopter pilots in Vietnam.
Favorite character on Melrose Place: Michael Mancini.
What he watches on TV to relax: Seinfeld and the whole Thursday-night lineup on NBC.