Documenting America’s First Naval Aviation Reserve Unit

Posted on Thu, September 7, 2017
  • by: Guest Contributor: Darroch Greer, Film Director

The Millionaires’ Unit: U.S. Naval Aviators in the First World War
Humanus Documentary Films Foundation, 2015
Directed by Darroch Greer and Ron King
Narrated by Bruce Dern

“The Millionaires’ Unit” was a moniker given by the New York press to a group of wealthy Yale students who formed a private air militia in 1916 to learn to fly in preparation for the United States entering World War I (WWI). Author and historian Marc Wortman wrote a book about them in 2006, and a college friend of mine, Ron King, saw his grandfather’s face on the book’s cover. The archival material seemed rich, and we decided to make a documentary to tell the inspiring story of this small group of volunteers who created America’s first naval aviation reserve unit.  

We were quickly invited to a fly-in of vintage aircraft at a small airport in central California, and it was there that we saw and heard our first WWI airplanes with original engines fly. Here, aircraft designed just a dozen or so years after the Wright brothers flew were sophisticated yet delicate airplanes behaving and sounding like nothing we had seen or heard before. We quickly knew we wanted our audience to understand the characteristics of these airplanes and what it took for our characters to fly them in combat situations. Fine idea, but where were we going to find the aircraft we needed, and how were we going to film them?

As luck would have it, the Glenn Curtiss Museum on Lake Keuka, in Hammondsport, New York, was going to fly their reproduction 1913 Curtiss Model E flying boat one time. It was the type of airplane on which the Yale pilots learned to fly and, as far as we could tell, it was the only one in the world — and we got to film it.

Next, we needed a Sopwith Camel with an original rotary engine. With its distinctive sound, it was our hero airplane, and there were only three flying examples in the world. Our best option turned out to be in New Zealand, and we had finally raised enough money to go there, rent a helicopter, hire pilots and airplanes, and finish our movie. It took seven years, but we like to think our attention to historical detail in this documentary gives you a visceral idea of what it was like for these young pilots to fly 100 years ago.

The Millionaires’ Unit was screened at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, and at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va as a part of the Museum's year-long series, Hollywood Goes to War: World War I on the Big Screen

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