Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation–Tom Cruise Winging on Military Plane

The A-400 Aircraft

Many people thought the film’s opening stunt was so outrageously impossible, it could only be created digitally.  But true to the “Mission: Impossible” spirit, the stunt was pulled off 100% live, giving the audience a wild ride that cannot be imitated.

In the sequence, Ethan Hunt gets on a plane – not in a plane, but quite literally gripping on to the outer skin of an in-flight A-400 military transport plane.   It’s the kind of fantasy – or nightmare – pilots have but would never entertain in real life.  “When I’m in a plane I’m always thinking what would it be like to be out on the wing,” Cruise admits.  Now he would have a chance to find out.

Just getting the clearances to use an authentic A400 was a major coup.  But then rigging it for Cruise’s audacious flight was a whole other massive challenge.  The wind shear alone on him was so great that in order to keep his eyes open he had to have sclera lenses fitted over his eyes.  Engineers worked around the clock to calibrate every element.

Cruise picks up the story of how the shot was accomplished:  “I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was going through it all in my mind.  I knew that once we took off, if something went wrong, no one could do anything. But on the day, I felt very confident with our team, with the pilot, with Wade … and when I got on the side of the plane I was very excited. I was thinking only about the audience, about the shots we were going to get, about the performance.  We started taxiing and I remember we were at the end of the runway and I’m hanging on saying to Chris ‘let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.’ And suddenly, boy, that throttle goes and we are hammering down that runway like ‘holy s**t’ – the force of it!  But then I was thinking ‘Now do I say my line? Is my lighting good? Am I in shadow?’ So all these other things started occupying my mind.”

Though each flight raised the risk and chilled Cruise to the bone, he repeated the gravity-defying stunt 8 times to assure McQuarrie would have all the coverage he needed. Says Eastwood:  “It’s one of my favorite film sequences of all time – but what you don’t see is how much work went into it logistically.  It started with our unit production manager, Tom Hayslip, fighting the battle to make sure we could even make this happen with a real A400.  Then, we had a legendary crew from Airbus who we convinced to do this.  Then, from my side it started with doing a ton of drawings and pre-engineering work to get Airbus to trust that we wouldn’t damage their plane. Yet once we had their trust, it came off absolutely flawlessly.”

Abrams says that the sheer reality of a stunt like that is priceless in movie-making.  “It’s beyond believable because Tom really did fly on the side of this plane,” he points out. “It’s an exciting idea because we live in such a world of artifice. Everything you see these days is hard to believe is real, so there’s something about Tom actually doing these stunts — without the visual effects anyone else would likely use — that makes the movie feel even more like a big event.”

David Ellison explains the feeling generated by capturing such a moment of adventurousness on film: “I think the A400 may be the single most ambitious set-piece that has ever been built,” he offers.  “I’ll never forget watching the dailies of that sequence for the first time: you see the plane take off with Tom hanging on the side of it … and the camera doesn’t cut.  You wait for it to cut but it never does, giving you a feeling deep in the pit of your stomach like nothing else can.”

Simon Pegg had a different perspective on the sequence, playing Benji who’s communicating with Ethan, aghast, from a runway field.  “The A-400 sequence very much cuts to the essence of our relationship in this film:  Tom was strapped to the wing of the airplane, while I was lying in the grass in a furry, green suit,” Pegg quips.  “But really, it was pretty insane to watch what Tom did. For me, it even surpassed the Burj Khalifa sequence in ‘Ghost Protocol,” because in that he was high up but he was still attached in some fashion to the ground.  In this scene, he’s even higher but he was not attached to anything. He was on the outside of a plane!  It was kind of mind-blowing and ridiculous. I don’t know what he’s going to do next to top that.  Maybe he’ll go into outer space …”