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Disney’s ‘Planes’ takes off with Dayton’s help

You wouldn’t guess that an animated family movie about airplanes would necessitate true-to-life depiction of the planes, but that turns out not to be the case.

At least when the folks at Disneytoon Studios are involved. Just ask Jeff Duford or Ron Kaplan.

Duford is the curator at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Kaplan, formerly the director of the Aviation Hall of Fame, is founder and director of the Reel Stuff Aviation Film Festivals. When the new Disney film, “Planes” hits theaters on Friday, you’ll see both the Air Force Museum and Kaplan listed in the credits.

The new 3-D comedy, an aviation version of “Cars,” is the story of a single-prop plane named Dusty Crophopper — voiced by Dane Cook — who dreams of being the fastest air racer in the world. He’s afraid of heights but gets help from a seasoned naval aviator.

“The director, Klay Hall, and his creative team of writers and art directors started their rigorous research in Dayton in July of 2009,” says Kaplan who spent time with the Disney group in Dayton, then later at the Reno Air Races of 2009-11. Kaplan also helped provide access to pilots and planes at an air show in Southern California in 2010. He was invited to screen the nearly-completed film at a press event for aviation writers on June 6 at DisneyToon Studios in Glendale, Calif., and is currently in Oshkosh, Wisc., for the advance public screening of “Planes” at the world’s largest air show.

“I think it’s great, pilots will love it,” Kaplan says of the film. “There is so much attention to the authenticity — both in the way the aircraft are designed and the way they fly even though they are cartoons.”

Kaplan says years of research has paid off — as evidenced by details such as the sound effects of engine noises and mechanics.

“The Disney team spent hours at Reno studying all of this and had experts in aviation animation and operations,” Kaplan said. “You don’t think about all of this, but it adds to the flavor. Old pilots will say: ‘Gosh, I remember my airplane sounding like that’ and when you see them fly in the movie, the movements of the animated aircraft are very close to the performance of similar aircraft in real life.”

How It Began

Duford, who curates exhibits and works with the restoration staff at the Air Force Museum, said a team from Disney contacted the Museum’s Public Affairs Department in the summer of 2009 and asked to speak with resident experts.

“They said they were working on a film that involved aircraft but they couldn’t talk about at that time because they were still in the process of development.”

The team of five arrived and spent a full day with Duford and Wes Henry, the museum’s Chief of Research.

“They wanted to see everything they could see,” says Duford, who thought it was “brilliant” for the group to visit the world’s largest military aviation museum rather than just using artistic license to wing it. Duford says the visitors peppered staffers with questions the entire day.

“We took them through the galleries, through our collection building and through restoration,” he says. The Disney team saw the historic Memphis Belle in mid-restoration, John F. Kennedy’s Air Force One, and a MiG-25 Foxbat fighter jet. They also attended the Dayton Air Show where they met surviving members of the Tuskegee Airmen, flew in a 40-year-old Huey helicopter and hung out with the USAF Thunderbirds.

“At one point we got a chance to fly in a B25, which is a WWII bomber, ” said Disney writer Jeff Howard. “Dayton was a really great trip.”

Duford says they spent time explaining how the aircraft had changed over the years and could fly faster and higher.

“They took pictures of the planes and I still remember how excited they were about the museum,” he said. “You could see the creative juices flowing. Since we didn’t know exactly what they were doing, it as interesting to hear their questions and try to figure out what was going on.”

Local connections

It turns out that two members of the Disney team who came to Dayton had local connections. Director Klay Hall said his mother’s first job was at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. His grandfather was a pilot and his father was both a Navy pilot and a commercial pilot.

Paul Gerard, director of creative development on “Planes,” is a graduate of Miami University with a business degree.

Kaplan, who founded an annual competition at the Reno Air Races for restored vintage aircraft and the people who fly them, said the Disney team ended up coming to Reno for three years, desiring to spend time with the planes and the experienced pilots.

“It’s now well known that “Planes” is about an around-the-world air race,” says Kaplan, who says “Planes II” is already in production, for 2014 release.

“It’s not a quick process and to their credit, they are seeking authenticity,” he says. “They told me that John Lasseter, who is the chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, told them to be ‘true to the metal. And that meant no rubbery wings or floppy propellers.’ “

Duford said the Disney visit points out the variety of ways in which the Air Force Museum serves the public.

“It’s an enjoyable day on a weekend for a family from Iowa and it’s a place for Air Force veterans to come and reminisce but there are many other ways the museum interacts and provides benefit to the public and this is a good example,” he adds.

“In this case, because of a Disney group coming here and using what we provide to make the movie better, I can see young children going and seeing this movie and being inspired to eventually go into a career that involves STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) learning. A kid sees this movie and says: “Wow! This is amazing! I want to be involved in that!”

To see the trailer for “Planes” visit

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