If you’re like me, you watched in disbelief as the lowly Carolina Panthers trounced the Washington Redskins on Sunday, but you were even more bewildered by an Air Force commercial during a gamebreak. In that ad, Air Force C-17 cargo planes do a number of impossible things — like stuff out of a Michael Bay movie — while the onscreen text promises, “It’s not science fiction. It’s what we do every day.”
For the uninitiated, in the ad — which you can view above — the C-17s swoop over a breaking bridge to evacuate some poor souls in the middle of an emergency. So far, so good. But then the C-17 engines rotate into a vertical position. (Nope.) The behemoth of a plane — which is 174 feet long and can weigh up to 585,000 lbs. — lands on the bridge without collapsing it further. (Would never happen.) And when the C-17’s aircrew loads up the wounded and flies off the bridge, the plane physically transforms into a different aircraft. (Um, what?)
I called up the Air Force Recruiting Service to find out how this could possibly not be science fiction. If there’s a squadron out there flying Autobot C-17s, then I must embed with it. Noah Shachtman would fire me if I somehow missed that story.
“This one was definitely more cinematic in the beginning,” concedes Christa D’Andrea, public affairs chief for the Air Force recruitment arm. “It’s a very cinematic, sci-fi sort of campaign.”
To D’Andrea, the point of the commercial isn’t the transforming C-17 that can fit on a bridge. It’s the aerial medevac missions. And yes, the Air Force performs those with frequency. When I last flew home from Afghanistan, I was supposed to fly out of Bagram Air Force Base on one of those flying hospitals, operated by the Air Mobility Command, but it was so (tragically) full that I had to wait for the next bird.
And the Air Force’s disaster relief efforts are extensive, ranging from the Pakistan floods to the Haiti earthquake in barely over a year. But it takes a really exceptional circumstance for such a thing to occur inside the United States — like Hurricane Katrina-style exceptional.
But while C-17s indeed helped out during Katrina, there’s no way one could fit on a bridge. While the scene was filmed on Los Angeles’ 4th Street Bridge, the C-17s were CGI. “The C-17 would need to land on an airstrip,” D’Andrea acknowledges.
Nor is this the first time an Air Force ad campaign has played fast and loose with the facts. In 2008, it spun out a crazy scenario where a missile could disable all U.S. commercial satellites — were Air Force Space Command not patrolling the heavens. That same year, its cybersecurity commercials implied that land forces were irrelevant to the wars of the future.
OK, it’s not exactly a Pulitzer-level scoop that commercials exaggerate the truth. But shouldn’t an ad promising not to be science fiction contain, y’know, less science fiction?
“It was a way in a commercial to transform from a futuristic part to the reality we’re doing today,” D’Andrea says, arguing that the “transformer” shot of the C-17 shifts the storyline from the fantastical bridge scenario to the real-life aerial medevac situation. “We’re trying to disprove that these certain technologies don’t exist. It’s a flying hospital [on a C-17], able to take care of people in a hospital in the air. It’s a unique mission that we do that people don’t hear about.”
OK then. Just keep me posted when a C-17 can change its shape like it’s about to scour the cosmos for Energon cubes.