Welcome to How’d They Do That? — a monthly column that unpacks moments of movie magic and celebrates the technical wizards who pulled them off. This entry explains how they did the airplane zip-line stunt in 1993’s Cliffhanger.
I hope none of you are lactose intolerant because we’re about to dig into one hell of a cheesy movie.
Directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2), Cliffhanger was co-written by Michael France (GoldenEye) and the film’s star, Sylvester Stallone. On paper, the 1993 action-thriller tells the delightfully improbable tale of a group of Rocky Mountain rescue rangers who are forced to outwit and out-maneuver a gang of terrorists who’ve accidentally dropped their payload amidst the forbidding peaks.
In practice, like the best cheese, Cliffhanger has a variety of delicious qualities well-worth savoring, including, but not limited to DP Alex Thomson’s cinematography, which goes above and beyond to showcase the film’s picturesque use of the Italian Dolomites.
But the film’s practical stunt work cements Cliffhanger’s status in action film history. From its opening title card, Cliffhanger is crystal clear about what it brings to the table … and how sweaty everyone’s palms were while making it.
And yet, even in a film packed to the gills with incredible stunts. One gag, in particular, flies high above the rest …
The Cliffhanger airplane zip-line stunt
While Gabe (Stallone) sulks in his self-imposed exile, consumed with guilt for the part he played in the death of his colleague’s girlfriend, Sarah, a nefarious plot is brewing in the skies. Led by ex-intelligence operative Eric Qualen (John Lithgow), a band of terrorists have set their sights on one hell of a MacGuffin: three military-grade cases of $100 million in uncirculated bills.
Qualen and company must pull off an intricate mid-air robbery to nab their prize. Intercepting the dough is the easy part. In order to transfer the cases between the government’s DC-9 and their Jetstar, the villains’ operation hinges on the cooperation of the duplicitous U.S. Treasury agent Richard Travers (Rex Linn). After dispatching the witnesses, Travers signals to the Jetstar to move into position and disengages the DC-9’s tail cone.
With phase one complete, Travers extends a cable out of the back of the DC-9, which the terrorists dutifully secure to their Jetstar. It’s showtime. Travers clips himself in and zip-lines between the two cruising planes, a preventative measure to ensure his new allies don’t leave him behind when they secure their prize.
While Qualen berates Travers, the plan takes a turn. Despite Travers’ best efforts, one FBI agent survived and both the plane’s pilot and its payload plummet down into the mountain range, setting Cliffhanger’s plot in motion.
But wait, did we all see the same thing? You know? The dude zip-lining between two planes? They didn’t really do that, did they? Surely it’s just miniatures and green screens, right?
How’d they do that?
Long story short:
For a record-breaking paycheque of $1 million, a stuntman actually rode a zip line between two jets flying at an altitude of 15,000 feet. He only performed the stunt once.
Long story long:
Somehow, executing the Cliffhanger zip-line stunt was even more dangerous than it comes across on-screen.
The gag was executed by British stuntman Simon Crane, whose work features in the likes of Edge of Tomorrow, Rogue One, and several James Bond films.
From what I’ve been able to piece together, it appears as though Crane was dangled out of the larger craft from a weighted rope. This gave the impression of a fully secured zip-line without actually having the tether two planes together, which would have presumably been un-insurable. By my estimation, Crane’s objective was to belay down with the hope that the rope’s end would land in the open door of the other aircraft, where the crew could retrieve it.
The stunt was (rightfully) featured in the AMC show Hollywood’s Greatest Stunts. The segment underlines the numerous factors that made the gag especially dangerous to pull off. For instance, both planes had to travel at precisely 150 miles per hour, which was a challenge to coordinate given the size difference between the two crafts. Any slower and the larger craft would stall. Any faster, and Crane’s limbs would become estranged from his torso.
Because of the thinner oxygen levels at the plane’s cruising altitude of 15,000 feet (~4,600 meters), Crane’s physical exertion was far more taxing than usual. To boot, thanks to the windchill, the air temperature hovered around -90 degrees Fahrenheit (around -32 degrees Celsius). And because all of that wasn’t challenging enough, Crane was also wearing a prosthetic mask to combat the cold.
The plan was for the crew aboard the Jetstar to catch and secure the weighted rope and pull Crane inside the open door. However, when Crane reached the end of the line, so to speak, the plane hit a pocket of turbulent air, and Crane was blown off-course onto the roof of the aircraft.
“I actually bounced into the door and bounced out again,” Crane remembers in the Hollywood’s Greatest Stunts segment. “I was probably within around six feet of the engines of the Jetstar, which was very, very dangerous.” The crew were ultimately unable to reach the rope, so once Crane was clear of the aircraft, he disengaged and parachuted down. A safety skydiver followed to make sure all was well, which, luckily, it was.
The footage of Crane being keelhauled over the top of the cruising plane is wild stuff. It’s reminiscent of that incredible shot from Mission: Impossible – Rouge Nation where Tom Cruise is clinging to the side of a plane. Except Crane was hooked onto a different plane. And instead of clinging, Crane was being smashed into the craft like a human paddle ball.
Proving that he’s built different than the rest of us, Crane is on record saying that he would “definitely, 100% do it again” now that he knows what went wrong.
Somewhat infamously, Crane was paid one million dollars to do the stunt. Legend has it the money came right out of Stallone’s paycheque, and in my opinion, it was worth every penny. For those wondering, one million dollars in 1993 comes to just under two million dollars in 2023. The stunt holds the record for the most expensive film stunt performed in the air.
The precedent for Cliffhanger’s airplane zip-line stunt
Both early cinema and early aviation required massive risk-taking. While Cliffhanger’s airplane zip-line gag isn’t precisely the definition of OSHA compliance, comparably, it was a lot less deadly than what maniacs like Dick Kerwood, Al Wilson, and Dick Grace were up to at the turn of the century.
As Gerald A. Schiller writes in his evocatively-named (and very well-researched) article “Flying and Dying for Hollywood in the 1920s,” the aftermath of the First World War saw an excess of planes and young men who knew how to fly them.
Naturally, if you’d already survived the harrowing bullet hell of WWI dogfights, death-courting stunt work wasn’t that far of a leap, adrenaline-wise. High-flying “barnstormers” would swing on rope ladders from one plane to another, perform handstands on wings, or even drop down from the sky onto speed boats. Because WWI had expedited areal engineering, aircrafts could withstand greater demands as far as stunt work was concerned. Pre-war planes were little more than glorified heaps of wood, piano wire, and glue, hardly the kind of thing you’d want to fly, let alone leap between.
As far as identifying a clear precedent for Cliffhanger, the most relevant stunt is the aforementioned mid-air transfer gag. Ormer Locklear is likely the first stunt person to perform a mid-air transfer, albeit not on film, but at a carnival in 1919. Good news: Locklear performs a filmed train-to-plane transfer in The Great Air Robbery (1919) and The Skywayman (1920). Bad news: both films are considered lost, which is a damn shame for those of us who would like to see Locklear’s shenanigans for ourselves.
Mark Carlson notes in his 2012 historical survey Flying on Film that Locklear was paid exuberantly for his talents. Locklear’s career came to a tragic and abrupt end when he perished along with fellow stuntman Milton Elliott during a night shoot in the summer of 1920 while filming The Skywayman.
Before we disembark, I’d like to zip ahead fifty-some-odd years to Airport, which readers might know best as the source material for the 1980 parody Airplane!
The film’s third act depicts an air-to-air rescue in which one (failed) replacement pilot and one (successful) Charlton Heston are lowered from a tether into the cockpit of the troubled commercial jetliner. The stunt was performed by Heston’s Ben-Hur stunt double Joe Canutt, who inherited his massive balls from his dad, rodeo veteran/pioneering stuntman Yakima Canutt.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a zip-line to catch. Wheeeee!