Reaching for the Skies

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Reaching for the Skies
VHS Video cover of Reaching for the Skies Vol 1
Genre Documentary
Narrated by Anthony Quayle, Robert Vaughan
Composer(s) Misc
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of episodes 12
Running time ~55 minutes
Original network BBC
Picture format 4:3
Audio format Stereo
First shown in BBC Two
Original release 12 September 1988 (1988-09-12)

Reaching for the Skies was an aviation documentary TV series made by BBC Pebble Mill (with John Gau Productions) in association with CBS Fox. The first episode was transmitted in the United Kingdom on 12 September 1988 and in the US in 1989.[1]

Narrated by British actor Anthony Quayle, and by Robert Vaughn for its American and International releases, It was divided into 12 programs (each of around 55 minutes' duration). The series producer was Ivan Rendall.[2] Music used was mainly sourced from KPM Musichouse.

Filming techniques[edit]

The series included many aerial sequences specifically filmed for the series, together with archive footage. This was combined with interviews of those involved, the aerial footage was usually accompanied by music sequences.


The series was notable for the large number of famous aviators that were interviewed. Normally interviewed against a black backdrop, a selection of those interviewed include; Chuck Yeager, Scott Crossfield, Jimmy Doolittle, Bob Hoover, Sir Frank Whittle, Hanna Reitsch, Captain Eric "Winkle" Brown to mention but a few.


A large amount of the music featured in the series was sourced from KPM Musichouse composers like Rod Argent and Bob Howes[3] and Graham de Wilde.[4] In selected scenes, this production music was blended with aerial footage shot from mostly unusual angles. As the music is production music, the songs are not available for the general public, however, media personnel may license the music in their productions for a nominal fee.[5]

The title music song, aptly called 'The Moment of Triumph',[3] was actually created by Roger Limb of the BBC Radiophonic workshop and performed by Rod Argent and Bob Howes[6]


12 episodes were filmed, first transmitted in the UK on BBC2 on the 12/9/1988.[7] The episodes are listed below, along with accompanying background text from the VHS Videos:

1. "The Pioneers"[edit]

From the Cover: "From the Wright Brothers' first controlled-powered flight in 1903 to the advent of the space shuttle - come to know the key figures in aviation history - the people and the machines that pushed the limits of daring and technology to find ways to fly faster, higher and farther. Here is a chronicle of the raw determination and pioneer spirit that carries Louis Bleriot across the Channel in 1909, and, more recently, carried Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager around the world in their Rutan Voyager on a single tank of fuel

2. "The Adventures Of Flight"[edit]

This is the account of the master aviators who pushed back the frontiers and found new ways to use aircraft...of test pilots, who displayed that rare combination of qualities: coolness under pressure, courage, flying skill, technological knowledge, and military acrobatics. About pilots who pushed their aircraft to the peak of performance...and of the barnstormers and flying circus performers who demonstrated their daring from country airfields to Hollywood film reels, where all the world could witness their dazzling magic. Notable appearances include former test-pilot Bob Hoover and the first female Boeing 747 flight commander Lynn Rippelmeyer.

3. "The Aeroplane goes to War"[edit]

Over France in World War I, where man and flying machines were first forged into a formidable fighting unit. At the start of the war, the adversaries could muster only a few hundred frail aircraft between them. Yet, in less than 4 years, Britain had commissioned an independent Air Force, had built over 50,000 aircraft and trained 26,000 pilots for observation, strafing, bombing and whatever was necessary to protect its air space. Then, when Anthony Fokker mounted a machine gun on an aeroplane, he changed the face of war forever.

This program is a unique historical document, as it features interviews with many World War I aviators from both sides, these included ; George Vaughn, Ray Brooks, Carl-August von Schoenebeck, Wolfram Eisenlohr, and various others. The programme sheds valuable light on these periods of history. The men's recollections are valuable as many of them were already quite old at the time, and such a set of reminiscences can never be recorded again.

4. "Victory over the Sea"[edit]

Since the Second World War, aircraft have played an important role in naval operations...defending the fleet against attack by making it possible for pilots to spot the enemy beyond the horizon. The advantages of naval air power became indisputable with the advent of the aircraft carrier - and the expanded capability to deploy this tactical asset across the vast stretches of the ocean. Having proven themselves from the sinking of the Bismarck to the Pacific War, from Suez and Vietnam to the Falklands, here is military air technology at its most daring, where precision is crucial, and the interface between man and machines reaches the ultimate intimacy

The greatest exponents of Naval air power are featured in interviews, particularly the masterful Captain Eric Brown, who in his time has flown virtually every Naval aircraft of World War II, and was a regular contributor to Air International at this period. His introduction of carrier-borne jets is also extremely interesting. The film culminates in the review of the modern carrier.

5. "Bombers"[edit]

Dresden...London...Vietnam...Tokyo..their names alone are dramatic testimony to the awesome power of the bomber. These aircraft came to dominate military strategy during World War II, and still played a critical role in the cold war. Even today, one side finds new ways for the bomber to do its jobs, as the other side seeks ways to stop it. From the activity on board to the devastation below, reaching for the skies looks at the bombers, the pilots who fly them, and the struggle between nations to maintain the ultimate combination of weaponry and technology...a chilling reminder of the ability aviation has given to society to annihilate itself.

The film begins with the Boeing B-52, and its effect on the populace of Vietnam. Thereafter, the Heinkel 111, and the bombing of Guernica. This marks the maturity of the Bomber as an instrument of war and of terror. In a similar measure, the Junkers Ju-87 Stuka is reviewed, with interviews of pilots. After this, the next great bomber examined is the Avro Lancaster and its campaign at night over the Third Reich. Then, the Boeing B-17 and daylight bombing over the Reich.

The final bomber examined is the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, and its career over Japan where it gained the name of Bni-Ju, the fire dragon. To complete the film, and thus the maturity of the Bomber as a tool of war, the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the first and so far last use of Nuclear Weapons in international warfare.

6. "Fighters"[edit]

Few aspects of the history of aviation match the vitality, drama and scale of the World War II fighter planes. As the strategists discovered the advantages of these warships of the skies, armies rarely moved across the battlefield without the security of air cover. This episode evokes the life and times of the fighter pilot and his aircraft, from World War II to the present...of individual determination and technological innovation working together in synchronous perfection. From Korea to the Middle East, to Vietnam, here is the testing ground for skill, technology, and, above all, human courage and self-sacrifice.

The film begins with the EAP, and by far the most romantic musical expression of the main theme, played on piano. The first fighter looked at after the credits is the General Dynamics F-16, accompanied by a soft-rock electric guitar solo.

The first fighter looked at in detail is the North American P-51 Mustang. Film of preserved airworthy examples of the Confederate Airforce is used, and among the group formation is the sole airworthy P-51H. P-51 aces discuss their memories of combat over Germany in conjunction with bomber forces, and include Brig. General Robin Olds, and Brig. General Charles Yeager.

The Spitfire is examined in passing, and Heinz Lerche, the test pilot of the Dornier 335 Pfiel talks about his impressions.

The development of Jet fighters is next, and a short amount of time is spent examining the Gloster E38/39 Pioneer, followed by the Messerschmidt 262 Schwalbe. Thereafter the Korean War becomes the subject. MiG Alley, and the contest between Sabre and MiG-15 is again reminisced about by the Aces. General Olds is again a fund of information, with humorous comments about early Sabre strength and reliability, though with praise for more mature variants.

Thereafter, Vietnam, at the time the last significant air engagement the USAF had fought. General Olds again gives much insight into the weakness of the missile-only F-4 Phantom. Randy Cunningham, and other aces talk about their experiences with SAM's, and the experiences gained being instrumental in the development of the Top Gun weapons school as well as the Aggressor Squadron of the USAF for pilot training.

The film ends with an examination of future technologies for fighter aircraft, some of which have long been abandoned, and others which are modern tactical reality.

7. "Giants of the Air"[edit]

The film opens with the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy, truly a giant of the Air.

The effect of air transport on humanitarian efforts in Ethiopia's famines of the 1980s are examined, using the Lockheed C-130 Hercules to demonstrate the lifesaving power of airlifting.

The development of airlift begins with the Junkers Ju 52, in its use in military operations at the beginning of the Second world war. This is followed by the Douglas DC-3 and its role in supporting the Flying Tigers in China, and the Yugoslav Partisans.

During the war, an attempt was made to build a successful giant transport in Europe, by Messerschmidt - the Messerschmitt Me 323 Gigant. Its performance and career are looked at, with its vulnerability to the B-26 bomber given as an example of its unsuitability to military operations.

In the United States, Howard Hughes designs, builds, and ultimately flies the incredible Spruce goose, despite opposition from Owen Brewster in Washington, who pursued Hughes in relation to his intention to rival Pan American World Airways in providing Trans-Atlantic services through his airline Trans World Airlines. It is now known that Brewster did this at the behest of Juan Trippe (see The Aviator (film)). The Hercules flies, and remains even now a true Giant of the Air.

With the end of the war, the role of the DC-3, Douglas DC-4, Avro York and Short Sunderland take part in the survival of Berlin during the Berlin Blockade. Gail Halvorsen talks about his involvement in Operation Little Vittles, which gave chocolate in an act of international charity to the poor children of the city during the blockade. A remarkable tale is also related where a DC-3 pilot managed an incredible feat of flying a 10-tonne Avro York load to Berlin, far above the normal 2 tonne load maximum of his DC-3 !

With the development of the Jet Engine, at long last designers have the power to realize the dreams of aerial transport. Key to this were new generation turbojets and resulting turbofans, beginning with the General Electric J79. The Lockheed C-141 Starlifter and its contribution to the Vietnam War and transporting casualties home is reviewed.

With the advent of the Pratt & Whitney JT9D, true giants such as the Lockheed C-5 Galaxy take to the air - an aircraft with the ability to accomplish the entire Berlin Airlift in only 5 flights.

The film ends with the early detailed footage of the Antonov An-124 Ruslan transport, very similar to the Galaxy, and larger by only a few feet in internal length.

8. "Rivals over the Atlantic"[edit]

The film opens with the launch of the then-new Boeing 747-400 airliner.

The development of the jet engine represented a quantum leap in aviation, and revolutionised commercial aviation. Although first developed for fighter aircraft, this engineering triumph changed the world and led to the development of the jet airliner - especially the one which would set the pace for long distance air travel for the next decade - the Boeing 707. Thereafter America supplied the world with jet transports, creating the international network of air routes upon which the whole world has come to depend. Then Europe responded with the Concorde

The disaster of the Comet, the dead-end development of the Bristol Brabazon begin the film. The development of the Jet Set is reviewed, including a quick humorous look at Ronald Reagan as related by Alistair Cooke in his glory days as a Hollywood star. We then go on to the 747, and the view expressed by experienced captains.

After this, we move on the Concorde, and its development program. We also get to see come film of the vehement opposition by ordinary people in the USA which prevents Concorde from having a market share in the USA, limiting it to the trans-atlantic route. In conclusion, the launch of the Boeing 747-400 is returned to.

9. "Trail Blazers"[edit]


10. "The Quest for Speed"[edit]

This film begins with the SR-71 Blackbird, expressed as the ultimate expression in the quest for speed.

The film, after credits, begins with the 1909 Curtiss biplane, owned and flown by a Dale Kreitz who had been a boy when the aircraft was new.

Thereafter the film moves on the Schneider Cup competition, and features unique footage of the Napier Lion-powered Supermarine S.5 with its blood-curdling scream over the water. Concluding the Schneider Cup is the S.6 and S.6b

Mary Haizlip, sister of Jimmy Haizlip, talks about her experiences flying in the so-called 'Powder Puff' air races for women in the 1930s, and about the development of aviation technology during that period driven by the quest for speed. In addition, she compares the atmosphere of the races to that possessing Roman crowds at the Circus Maximus.

Modern Unlimited Air Racing at Reno, Nevada is then shown, featuring famous racers such as the Rare Bear, Havenought and Critical Mass Hawker Sea Fury racers, as well as leading North American P-51 Mustang racers.

Brig. Gen. Jimmy Doolittle then talks about his experiences flying the Gee Bee R-1 when he won the Thompson Trophy in 1935.

During World War II, speed increased sequentially in military aircraft, but the desperately brilliant developments of Germany for air defence justifiably deserve special mention - Hanna Reitsch describes the volcanic power and acceleration of the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet rocket-fighter.

Brig. General Yeager's flight of the Bell XS-1 through the sound barrier in 1947 is reviewed, along with other X-planes, culminating in the incredible North American X-15 hypersonic research aircraft.

Thereafter the conclusion of the film details the flight performance and pilots of the Lockheed SR-71, concluding with high speed conceptions of future air-travel, particularly the National Aerospace Plane and HOTOL.

11. "Lighter than Air"[edit]


12. "Vertical Flight"[edit]

The film opens with a dazzling display by the Boeing AH-64 Apache gunship helicopter, accompanied by dramatic classical choral music.

Examining the history of vertical flight, the program begins with the early helicopters, and then deals with the pivotal breakthrough of the Cierva Rotor-head, followed by an explanation by the modern master of the Autogyro, Ken Wallis accompanied by the last movement of J.S. Bach's 3rd Brandenburg Concerto.

Thereafter we move forward to Igor Sikorsky's helicopters, with interview with the great designer at the time of its development, culminating in the flight of the Vought-Sikorsky VS-300, and the early lifesaving with the Sikorsky R-4, and Sikorsky H-5.

Thereafter the focus moves then to the two great periods of helicopter military lifesaving, the Korean War and Vietnam, where the helicopter truly went to war and heroes were made, in the Bell 47, Bell Huey family, and Boeing CH-47 Chinook. The calm recollections of several very decorated veterans of the conflict make for compelling viewing, combined with previously unseen film footage of the conflict.

For the 1980s, Frank D. Robinson demonstrates that a helicopter such as his remarkable Robinson R22 represent the pinnacle of point-to-point transport in a small helicopter, and the Bell XV-15 is demonstrated as the true pinnacle of the Helicopter.

Of course helicopters are not the only things that go straight up, and the tailsitters such as the Ryan X-13 Vertijet, and the Convair XFY Pogo is examined with a humorous interview with the test pilot, Skeets Coleman. The European experiments are reviewed, such as the Short SC-1, and the Dassault Balzac, finishing with the Harrier, the early Kestrel and Harrier programs being discussed in detail by Bill Bedford, their test pilot, and Sir John Fozard, their designer.

The film concludes with a demonstration of the capability of the Harrier in the then-contemporary Falklands War.

VHS and book[edit]

The series was available as a 6 volume VHS set.

The book, Reaching for the Skies: The Adventure of Flight by Ivan Rendall (who was also the TV Series Producer) was published in 1990 and made to accompany the series. ISBN 0-563-20913-5, ISBN 978-0-563-20913-3.


External links[edit]