The '80s air combat yarn Iron Eagle holds a unique place in military themed movie history. It was totally overshadowed by Top Gun, which came out five months after Iron Eagle. At the same time it introduced the world to the F-16, which was still a fresh and innovative face on the fighter scene.
Although filled with some striking aerial footage and set to a pumping rock soundtrack, the movie was about as cliche filled as possible. It followed the popular 'super kids' movie trope of the era and was laughably far fetched. But even above the corny dialogue and cheesy premise, the movie maybe best known for its chaotic editing and representation that the relatively svelte F-16A/B carried seemingly unlimited firepower.
Among defense and aviation enthusiasts, the 'bottomless' Fighting Falcon seems to be the biggest thing that stands out from the movie—that and the fact that Israeli F-16s stood in for USAF models, and the MiGs were Israeli Kfirs.
The backstory there is that the USAF would not support a film that featured a kid stealing an F-16 and using it to bomb another country. As such the IAF was willing to take on the job but on the condition that its involvement remained unpublicized, which in itself was a whole other seemingly pointless saga.
In the end the movie's aerial and ground sequences involving the F-16 were shot in Israel, with Ramat David Air Base being the prime filming location. The majority of the footage of the fictional "Beech AFB" was captured at Camarillo Airport in California. The mix of locations actually worked out surprisingly well.
Back to Iron Eagle's notorious depiction of F-16s with unlimited magazine depth, although this issue seems to have grated many viewers the most, along with a seemingly endless number of easily avoidable editing goofs, some would argue that it's a fictional movie and that none of these issues impact the plot anyway. That may be true, but conversely, making it more believable and accurate would not impact the plot negatively either, so why not just try and make it as accurate as possible? Doing so wouldn't even have cost anything extra.
But then again, does Iron Eagle really deserve its reputation for an outlandish portrayal of the F-16's capabilities? We decided to find out by tallying up all the different weapons used during the various combat sequences depicted in the film.
The movie is filled with all types of conflicting statements and footage regarding the F-16's weapons fit, but here is a basic breakdown of the munitions involved:
Four primary weapons are featured in the film. A 30mm cannon is mentioned and shown on the aircraft's stores management display. This seems to be confused with the jet's actual 20mm M61 Vulcan cannon and the GEpod30 30mm cannon system that was being marketed at the time for the F-16 at the time.
In the movie this pod isn't seen but it is briefly mentioned. During all the firing sequences it shows the jet's internal 20mm firing, but all the displays read 30mm. Regardless, let's assume they just meant the jet's internal cannon.
The AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missile is featured heavily and is portrayed basically in an accurate manner superficially speaking.
When it comes to bombs, things get more confusing. The bombs carried are clearly Mk82 500lb 'slicks,' but they are referred to as 'clusters' and 'Mark 82s' verbally. At the same time, the jet's fictional stores display calls them 'weasils' which seems like a cool name they assigned the bombs in production, but did they did not follow through with using the moniker during filming.
The jet's only air-to-air missile is the AIM-9 Sidewinder, which is used correctly in the movie, aside from in one scene. At the time, the F-16's only air-to-air missile was indeed the Sidewinder, so this is accurate. It wasn't till three years later that the first F-16A/B Block 15 ADF was introduced, which gave the F-16 AIM-7 Sparrow capability.
Finally we have the 'Hades Bomb,' a fictional wide-area fire bomb of sorts used to create a set-piece during the movie's climactic action sequence.
Doug's training mission
During the single training mission Doug flew with Chappy before the veteran colonel decided to commit a whole series of high crimes and potentially start a war with another country in order to execute a laughably poor plan to save Doug's dad from execution, here's what was fired off the F-16B:
Then Chappy says to try again with a "mark 82." The weapons stores display then shows two Sidewinders coming off the jet and impacting the ground—so stupid editing error, but still two more weapons fired.
2X Sidewinders (supposed to be mk82s/Weasils)
Then a defiant Doug—the 18 year old Cessna pilot that has been secretly flying F-16s with his Air Force officer dad—says he is doing it his way. He kicks on his knee-board mounted tape player and makes another run with the tunes blaring.
2X bombs/weasils come off the jet
Many more explosions are shown than weapons we see being fired, at one time two bombs cause five huge explosions on the ground for instance, but we are sticking with what we see physically fired.
So total for the practice run is six weapons, but probably about 10 explosions. Still, nothing here is totally absurd believability wise.
On the mission before Chappy goes down
The jets are shown being launched with three Mk82s, two AGM-65 Mavericks, two AIM-9 Sidewinders, and one jet has the fictional red-cased Hades bomb on its centerline as well.
Now the mission to save Doug's dad, with the help of extended montage sequences showing the "Eagles" club of super kids ripping off the Air Force and stealing all types of classified information from their officer parents, is underway. On their way into enemy country (after flying thousands from the United States?) and after Doug aerial refuels for the first time, this is what his stores management screen looks like:
The numbers on the stores screen don't reflect what we see being carried, and it shows a fuel state of 6,972lbs—the F-16B actually holds 5,700lbs internally—and 500 rounds of ammunition. In reality the F-16 holds 511 rounds, so pretty close there.
Before the first battle begins, Chappy tells Doug he has "four clusters" and to use "foil packs" to confuse "French radar." Then, once the first battle kicks off, here is what is launched off both F-16s:
An estimated 8-10 seconds of cannon fire.
The M61 cannon fires at 6,000 rounds per minute, meaning about 100 rounds per second. So the entire 500 round load would be spent in about five to six seconds (70rpm for first second as gun spools up).
Between two F-16s this engagement is believable stores-wise. Once again, we aren't counting explosions here as weapons dropped.
Doug on his own
Once Chappy gets hit and heads out to the Mediterranean (where there is always an Egyptian Trawler nearby as per '80s military action movie conventions) Doug is left on his own to continue the rescue mission. During which he listens to a tape from Chappy where the colonel tells him to keep an eye on his stores screen—good but unheeded advice for the Iron Eagle production team as well!
The final action sequence includes the following weapons being fired from Doug's jet alone:
2X AGM-65 Mavericks
1X Hades bomb
Roughly 15 seconds of 20mm gun fire.
This is the sequence that most cite as so horribly outlandish, but aside from the gratuitous explosions and unrealistic use of the jet's cannon, it's not as crazy as it seems. We are talking about roughly 6,000lbs of ordnance here, which the F-16 could easily carry into battle, albeit it wouldn't be that nimble doing so until after it was released.
Still, Doug has used basically three times the amount of ammunition his jet carries for its 20mm cannon in this part of the mission alone, but this isn't really an Iron Eagle problem. Virtually every action movie of the era featured seemingly endless magazines for all types of small arms and machine guns. Just take a second and try to remember how the 9mm Uzi alone was portrayed in '80s movies—ridiculously powerful and of unlimited ammunition.
As Masters fights his way towards the Mediterranean with his dad now onboard and his low fuel state and weapons situation becoming a factor, he tells his dad he has 3,015lbs of fuel, two Sidewinders, and 244 rounds of ammo left. Here is his weapons status screen at this point, note that it also shows two bombs/weasils left:
He then goes onto expend the following during air-to-air combat:
Five seconds of gun firing
Then in the nick of time, a flight of USAF F-16s approaches from the north and scares off the remaining two enemy jets. Doug then asks to lead the 'missing man formation' in remembrance of Chappy (who is alive, remember Egyptian trawlers are everywhere in the '80s) as they head to the tanker. It's maybe the cheesiest scene in the whole movie, and that's saying something.
But when you break it all down, Iron Eagle's magically armed F-16s really aren't all that magical at all. Sure their capabilities are embellished a bit, but not much more than any other movie of the era. So Iron Eagle really isn't as deserving of criticism it has received in this unique regard.
What makes the portrayal of the F-16's capabilities feel so much more unbelievable than they actually are are the conflicting claims and editing mistakes that infest the movie. That paired with a laughably stupid plot and super cheesy dialogue, along with a rich helping of popular movie tropes of the decade, makes the viewer want to actively pick apart the film's technical stumbles.
But even with these issues, and after being enormously overshadowed by Top Gun, the Iron Eagle became a cult classic and led to no less than three progressively more outlandish and lower budget sequels.
After watching the movie again, now in HD, it was a lot of fun even though I have seen it probably 30 times before. In fact, the whole 'super kids' element and relatively awesome '80s soundtrack really works better now than it had in past two decades as '80s nostalgia-focused entertainment is very hot right now. See Stranger Things for proof.
In essence, now the whole movie actually plays out like a satire of itself, with its melodrama seemingly totally comedic. And although HD shows even more flaws and low-budget production choices, the aerial sequences look great.
So yeah, the movie is still stupid, but the whole unlimited weapons gripe is actually far less severe than it is has been made out to be. And I for one still love this movie. It, along with Airwolf and Top Gun and so many other shows and films from the period, were a huge influence on me growing up, so it's fun to revisit them and reminisce.
With that all said, thank you for reading probably the stupidest post I have ever written!
Contact the article: Tyler@thedrive.com