He modeled 'Phoenix's' flight after his own interests

By Jean-Pierre Trevor
Special to The Times

My father, Elleston Trevor, and I built model planes for years, and the message that came through in his famous novel—the twist to die for in "Flight of the Phoenix"—was that model planes have to be better designed than real ones because they don't have pilots.
     "The Flight of the Phoenix" was made by 20th Century Fox in 1965. Shot in Buttercup Valley south of Phoenix, it was produced and directed by Robert Aldrich, and starred Richard Attenborough, James Stewart, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, Hardy Kruger, Peter Finch and others.
     Stewart played the pilot of a plane that crashed in the Sahara, leaving the survivors' hopes tied to a passenger who said he was an aircraft designer and could repair the damage. The look on Stewart's face when Kruger, the aircraft designer, told him he designed model planes was unforgettable. Stewart's pilot, of course, was expecting a real aircraft designer. His startled expression was a classic piece of drama that dwarfs the relentless explosions the film industry coughs up today for lazy titillation.
     My father loved the silence of the desert, and silence is what he wanted from our model planes—no gas engines, only rubber-powered or electric. More challenging to fly. We had coils of old rubber strands on our workbenches and piles of small tools and diagrams. From this environment came the first spark for "The Flight of the Phoenix," which has its latest incarnation next month in a film of the same title starring Dennis Quaid.
     Before moving to America, we lived in the South of France, and in our house on the hill, my bedroom was also my father's workshop, as well as the office where he built aircraft and wrote "Phoenix." In the evenings, we'd sit outside and watch planes from Nice take off. "One up," he'd say. Only later did I realize that's what the RAF said when a "Spit" took off. My father wanted to be a Spitfire pilot, but he had an eye disease that caused him to fail the medical. Otherwise I probably wouldn't be here. Most pilots never returned from those RAF missions.
     Years later, in Dad's upstairs workshop in Fountain Hills, Ariz., we made small balsa models of his designs. The smell of sandpaper and soldering irons, and the sounds of wings being shaped, filled the room. I'd always know the writing was going well if he was building something. He wrote more than 100 novels. There was only so much time for the planes.
     He always wanted to push the envelope: planes with twin or quadruple motors, some wacky constructions, some elegant. We liked lumbering, rattling homemade contraptions that heaved their way off the ground in a cloud of dust with pieces falling off. We lived in the Arizona desert, and we'd build and test-fly our designs there. And somewhere in the nearby Mojave, people like Dick Rutan were testing their amazing crafts under the same piece of sky where the space shuttles came home from outer space. My father and I shared a love for silent, open spaces, the clear blue and a place where anything is possible.
     For a man who hung on to the tails of full-size Royal Air Force Spitfires as they took off (too front-heavy) and poured Castrol R performance oil into heated tins so he could smell the aroma, a place like Arizona was heaven: the raw drama of the heat, the space to fly.

Ashes in the desert
My parents traveled to the desert for the filming of "Phoenix," and as they were returning to our home in France, a telegram came through from 20th Century Fox. Stunt pilot Paul Manz had died. The stunt plane—the rescue plane "built from the wreckage" that Kruger had redesigned in the movie—had struck a dune on takeoff and flipped over.
     "Phoenix" had lost a wing and left only ashes. I was too young to understand. Now I know ashes. In 1996 I scattered my father's ashes in two places—around the base and on top of a mountain in northern Arizona.
     Planes had always been part of our lives. When my father need PR photos of himself for a book jacket, I asked a commercial pilot to delay his departure on a Eugene, Ore., tarmac for a few minutes so we could take the picture. I told him who my father was, and I think he probably told the passengers to win their patience. I placed my father square on the black nose cone of the 737. He was wearing all white and a concealed grin. We were on home turf—anything to do with flight.
     On his writing desk and on his walls he kept models of planes we were flying or designing. Maybe he still imagined he was piloting them. He craved danger. And he was in every one of those men in the Sahara desert. The carcass of the plane was his skin, and he wanted to find a way to rise up again. So he came up with that famous twist, building a huge model airplane.
     My father knew that, like his famous spy Quiller, who became the title character in a 1966 movie, alone you need survival skills. A man alone in the desert, a pilotless plane alone in the sky, and no inner pilots—it's a life on the edge. My father was always there, and he needed to write. "Phoenix" was designed by a man who knew that such a plane had to have an angel watching. The angel saved all but one man.

A final flight
The last flight my father ever saw was when I sailed a model past the room where he was dying in Cave Creek, Ariz., into a low desert sun. In a Scottsdale hospital during his last weeks, I wound up a rubber-powered glider and made it take off from the foot of his bed and fly into the corridor, narrowly missing a nurse. My father lifted himself onto an elbow watching the eyes of a haunted but delighted child. Later that evening I found him alone in his room shining a flashlight on the glider, silently marveling at the shadow of a wing on the wall.
     In his final days he talked about designing a large solar-powered airplane that would have relay radio-controllers across the Pacific on ships. He wanted to call it the Flying Goose. I haven't built it yet. Not sure about the relay business. It wouldn't be the same without him.

Last modified: Thursday, November 29, 2012

Copyright 2004 by Jean-Pierre Trevor (jptrevor1-at-gmail-dot-com). It is reprinted here with the author's permission. All rights reserved.
This "Backstory" article was originally published in the November 21, 2004 issue of the Los Angeles Times, Calendar section.