MELBOURNE, Fla. – “Top Gun: Maverick” is loaded with IMAX-worthy high-speed footage of F/A-18 Super Hornets dogfighting, dodging missiles, chasing through canyons and zooming over snow-capped mountaintops.
Turns out much of the movie’s action-packed aerial cinematography was filmed by — of all aircraft — a Melbourne-manufactured Embraer executive jet.
A specially outfitted Phenom 300E “camera ship” offered an airframe platform and technological advances that helped “set the standard for aerial cinematography,” Kevin “K2″ LaRosa II, aerial coordinator and lead camera pilot, told News 6 partner Florida Today.
“The general theme of the movie is a love letter to aviation. The movie is packed with aerials from start to finish — literally, opening sequence to end sequence of the movie,” LaRosa said.
“Joseph Kosinski, one of my favorite directors in the world, does a beautiful job of storytelling and has this natural progression throughout the movie of the aerials. That’s kind of designed to keep people on the edge of their seats,” he said.
“So as we watch this movie, I feel like the aerials just naturally progress in energy (and) become more dynamic. Right up to the final sequence, where the Phenom 300 was used extensively — which is some of the craziest flying in the movie,” he said.
“Top Gun: Maverick” stars Tom Cruise reprising his fighter-pilot role from the original 1986 blockbuster. Released on May 27, the sequel shattered the Memorial Day weekend box-office record and has soared beyond $600 million worldwide, Forbes reported.
A second-generation stunt pilot, LaRosa II has flown, coordinated and directed aerial film sequences on more than 100 productions, including movies like “Iron Man,” “The Avengers” and “Godzilla”; television shows such as “NCIS: Los Angeles”; and commercials for SpaceX, Amazon, Apple, Delta, Honda and Toyota.
LaRosa said “Top Gun: Maverick” was shot primarily along the West Coast, with aerial territory stretching from San Diego northward to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island near Oak Harbor, Washington. That military facility served as a base while filming shots above rugged peaks in the Cascade Mountains, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
The unique Phenom 300E is owned by Jonathan Spano, a Long Beach aviation entrepreneur and stunt pilot.
Spano modified his aircraft to carry two gyro-stabilized camera systems to film “Top Gun: Maverick.” That way, they could use two combinations of lenses to shoot the same flight sequences.
“It took us almost two years to go through the engineering, the design and the (Federal Aviation Administration) certification for the aircraft,” Spano said.
“We’re talking about a 300-pound mass that is about 2-foot round hanging off the front of the aircraft. And it hangs off the nose — and we’re traveling at speeds of 300 knots. So the engineering involved to do this safely, it was pretty extensive,” he said.
“And then, another 300-pound mass hanging off the tail of the aircraft gave us access to more shots. So we could look aft, instead of just forward and to the sides,” he said.
Spano flew alongside LaRosa as a camera pilot. Inside the cabin, camera operators David Nowell and Michael FitzMaurice controlled the cameras using high-tech workstations.
Since LaRosa started flying camera jets 11 years ago, he said he was forced to fly in a certain manner to make the shots look smoother. Not so with the Phenom. LaRosa said he and Spano could fly the jet “kind of like we stole it,” and the on-board operators could aim the cameras in the right spots.
LaRosa said he and Spano shared laughs during “Top Gun: Maverick” filming that they were running the Embraer through aggressive aerobatic rigors “where a Phenom 300 has never been before and will probably never, ever go again.”
But by contrast, he said crew members flying aboard the executive jet sat in plush leather seats near a food-beverage galley adorned with wood-grain trim — a far cry from the typical Hollywood camera platform.
During one film sequence, LaRosa recalled pushing the Phenom’s negative-G stresses to the limit by zooming into a dive behind an F-18.
“We’re literally feet away from this thing. We’re tucked right in behind it, which is a pretty cool view,” LaRosa recalled.
“But what we learned was, our super-cool mini-bar setup up there in the air doesn’t like weightlessness. All of a sudden, Jon and I had this ice and cold water floating around us. We were just like, ‘What’s going on here?’ " he said.
“And our ice chest — which I don’t think Embraer built for F-18 dogfighting and maneuvering — was slowly emptying itself as everything was weightless in the aircraft,” he said.
“So that was one of our funny lessons learned on how to prep our plush, luxurious Phenom 300 camera ship for high-octane filming,” he said.
The jet was manufactured at Embraer Executive Jet’s headquarters at Melbourne Orlando International Airport. The campus opened in 2011, houses assembly lines for the entry-level Phenom 100EV and Phenom 300E, and hosts final assembly of the midsize and super-midsize jets Praetor 500 and Praetor 600, company spokesperson Lauren Cozza said.
Billed by Embraer as “the world’s fastest and longest-range single-pilot aircraft,” the Phenom 300E can fly speeds up to Mach 0.8 and carry up to 10 passengers.
The Phenom 300 series has ranked as the world’s best-selling light jet the past 10 consecutive years, Cozza said. The Brazil-based aircraft manufacturer delivered 56 Phenom 300 jets last year.
Embraer hosted an April hiring fair with hopes of hiring more than 150 employees technicians, painters, inspectors and engineers to its Melbourne workforce of nearly 1,000 people.
Last week, LaRosa posted an Instagram video of him piloting the Phenom 300 on ‘Top Gun: Maverick” on low-altitude passes circling the USS Theodore Roosevelt nuclear-powered aircraft carrier — including passes just above the flight deck.
The video sparked commentary of surprise among aviation buffs, including a story in The Drive headlined “I Bet You’ve Never Seen a Private Jet Fly an Approach to an Aircraft Carrier Before.” The authors labeled LaRosa’s video “wonderfully bizarre footage.”
When “Top Gun: Maverick” principal photography started, LaRosa said Cruise gave a speech that resonated with the cast and crew — “and I think the Phenom plays in this.” Without it, LaRosa said some of the aerial shots would have been rendered impossible.
“What he said was, ‘Guys, we’re at a disadvantage. We’re making a sequel to a very historic and iconic movie. And that puts us at a disadvantage,’ " LaRosa said.
“’We couldn’t make this movie until there was a story worth being told. And we couldn’t tell the story until there was technology available for us to tell this amazing story,’” he said.
In a Skies Magazine interview, LaRosa said his team also shot high-speed sequences using a modified Aero L-39 Albatros with a camera on its nose. The Embraer proved useful for longer-range filming missions and for camera shots that required both wide and tight angles. An Airbus AS350 Star helicopter was also used during production.
Spano credited LaRosa with organizing morning briefings with U.S. Navy aviators and camera operators who reviewed storyboards on the wall — “little hand-drawn cartoon drawings of every shot that we needed to get that day.” Every shot had to be designed so pilots had safe exit paths, in case something went wrong.
“You would go out and you would fly a sortie, and then you would come back and you’d go in the briefing room and go over what went wrong and what needs to go right on the next shot,” Spano said.
“The amount of organizing and communicating and choreography was pretty intense,” he said.
All told, LaRosa said 800 hours of aerial footage were filmed for “Top Gun: Maverick,” including ground-to-air camera work and shots filmed inside and outside F-18s.
“I can assure you that in that 800 hours of footage, we could probably make an entire movie of the epic aerial shots that exist. I mean, there’s so many of them,” LaRosa said.
“You can literally just fill an entire two-hour-long movie of the highlights.”