MPI Home Video has released Age of Flight: X-Planes, a woefully out-of-date documentary from 1990 that looks at the evolution of American experimental aircraft from their beginnings with the celebrated X-1 up to...whatever was new in 1990. Elementary and middle-school teachers looking for a very basic, generalized history of the military's evolution of such aircraft may find Age of Flight: X-Planes helpful (although I can't imagine too many public school teachers are covering this subject), but anybody with even a modicum of background on the subject will find the documentary too simplified for much use.
Age of Flight: X-Planes starts, of course, with a nod to all the inventors who first tried to get man off the ground for sustained periods of time, correctly noting that geniuses Orville and Wilbur Wright's plane was indeed, an "X-Plane." Shots of bizarre aeronautical vehicles (which you've no doubt seen hundreds of times) are included here, before the doc moves on to discussing the advances that were necessarily made during the First and Second World Wars, when military requirements fueled aviation experimentation and advancement (including a nod to the first jet plane and successful military rocket, both of which came from Nazi Germany).
Age of Flight: X-Planes then moves on to strictly American territory (where most of the giant leaps in X-Plane advancements were made), with the famed X-1 and Chuck Yeager's celebrated attempt to break the sound barrier in 1947. The ME-163 is also looked at, as well. At this point in the doc, young kids may spark to what's depicted here because, with its extremely simplified approach (even the narration turns first person, with the text becoming the thoughts of the test pilots and technicians), the doc does a fairly good job at conveying the dangers of what exactly was being achieved by these brave test pilots and technicians, and, just as importantly, how most of what was being attempted was coming from seat-of-your-pants experimentation and crossed-fingers hopes that months and years of educated, meticulously researched calculations would work.
More celebrated X-Planes from this era are looked at here, including the X-2; the Douglas X-3, with its straight wings; the Northrop X-4, which eliminated the tail section; the Douglas D-558, with its swept wing, supersonic design; the Bell X-5, with its variable swept wings; the X-15, designed to go 50 miles straight up in the air at a speed of Mach 6; the X-15A2, which was designed to go Mach 8. All of these craft are illustrated with archival footage and snippets of vintage training and instructional films.
Where Age of Flight: X-Planes really starts to bore is with the leap to "new" technologies in X-Plane evolution after the 1950s and 1960s. Losing the concrete time frame of the immediate post-WWII and Cold War aviation vehicles, this short documentary's (it's only 60 minutes long) examination of potential X-Plane breakthroughs like the VTOL Osprey and the Grumman X-29 look extremely outdated today, particularly since the doc presents these models (by necessity of the doc's production date) as the very last word in X-Plane technology, when of course we know they're dinosaurs in comparison to today's advanced systems.
Here's where the 1990 production date of Age of Flight: X-Planes also seriously hampers the doc. Obviously taken from a crappy VHS master, the full screen, 1.33:1 transfer for the film is quite atrocious. Not only is the archival footage probably second or third generation to start with (with plenty of deep, ugly scratches and copious dirt), the transfer itself looks compromised, with a soft, blurry image and plenty of background video noise that sometimes looks like one of those old Polaroid blue-and-red 3-D images seen without the glasses.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 mono track has obviously been taken from a compromised VHS master, as well, with the sound (particularly the background musical cues) coming off like those warbly, squelchy 16mm instructional films you used to watch back in school (if you're old like me, that is).
There are no extras for Age of Flight: X-Planes.
Only somebody looking to give young kids a very basic, general history of the evolution of X-Planes should bother with Age of Flight: X-Planes, and I'm not too sure there are many people out there looking to accomplish that feat. And no doubt there are far better documentaries out there that cover the same time period anyway. Anybody else with even a smidgen of background on the subject, however, will want to look elsewhere. Skip Age of Flight: X-Planes.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.