If somebody told me the cinema was invented to accommodate a thrilling tradition of aerial photography, I doubt I'd argue. Since the dazzling dogfights and early, airborne action...

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If somebody told me the cinema was invented to accommodate a thrilling tradition of aerial photography, I doubt I’d argue. Since the dazzling dogfights and early, airborne action sequences shot by such pilot-cum-filmmakers as William Wellman (“Wings”), Howard Hawks (“The Dawn Patrol”), and Howard Hughes (“Hell’s Angels”), the movies have often captured the dreamy, dangerous beauty of hurling metal and men through the skies.

In its own way, ace IMAX filmmaker Stephen Low’s “Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag” is a novel re-invention of the form. Shot with IMAX’s wide-angle lens, Low’s vision of the busy blue above Red Flag, an international center for combat training in Nevada, gobbles up vast quantities of space and finds fantastic grace in the movements of high-tech bombers streaking over barren wilderness.

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Patriotic but not jingoistic, “Fighter Pilot” follows a course of hands-on study at Red Flag for John “Otter” Stratton, a real-life Air Force captain whose grandfather was an oft-decorated pilot during World War II. Stratton — who has since gone on to serve three combat tours over Afghanistan and Iraq — becomes our eyes and ears at Red Flag, where U.S. allies train together via war games.

Opening today

“Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag,”
with Capt. John “Otter” Stratton, Major Robert G. Novotny. Directed by Stephen Low, from a screenplay by Low, Denny Kuhr and Joe Stanley. Unrated; suitable for general audiences. 40 minutes. Pacific Science Center IMAX Theater.

Low shows us several earthbound facets of the program, such as flaming mockups of crashed aircraft, rapid repair and re-installation of engines, and the eerie sight of people scouring runways for tiny pebbles at the break of dawn. (Small rocks sucked into engines can kill pilots.)

But the real reason to see this film is its startling, surprisingly moving, footage of F-15 Eagles breaching from clouds, otherworldly Stealth jets floating into view from the edge of Pacific Science Center’s six-story screen, or a cockpit view of parting heavens. It’s difficult to describe the sensation of watching all this, in part because today’s Hollywood films typically simulate such experiences via computerized effects. Low, a 30-year veteran of the IMAX format with several classics (“Beavers,” “Volcanoes of the Deep Sea”) to his credit, proves, definitively, that CGI doesn’t come close to capturing the sensory and emotional impact of whooshing over real terrain at the speed of sound.

Besides Stratton, the other “star” of “Fighter Pilot” is Red Flag’s Air Boss, Major Robert G. Novotny, a compassionate but direct leader who admonishes the male and female trainees each day to watch each other’s backs. In the end, the thorough teamwork displayed by pilots and crews from Europe and North America is humbling to behold.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com