You could say a military life was in the Arrington family's blood, but though his father served on nuclear submarines, Randy Arrington found his calling far above sea level as an attack pilot.
The same holds true for Hollywood: Arrington's father worked as an electrician at the old Hollywood General Studios, while Randy Arrington hopes the movie he wrote based on his experiences as a U.S. Customs pilot will one day be released from production limbo.
“Kerosene Cowboys” began as a novel of “fact-tion” Arrington wrote to honor fellow pilots from his U.S. Customs squadron in New Orleans. The pilots' missions often consisted of rescuing drug mules who would dehydrate as they attempted to cross into the United States. Their role was different from that of border-patrol units, which Arrington said would “go up, view the guys, and go down.”
Honoring pilots would become a central theme in Arrington's work.
He started his military career in ROTC at UCLA. On graduation day he was commissioned as an officer and headed to Florida for his first taste of flight training. In November 1978, he earned his wings.
Growing up, Arrington saw the end of the cowboy era replaced by the nation's advancements in jet propulsion and aerial warfare. These “kerosene cowboys” had a job most people could only dream of and few could attain. Spurred by his father, Arrington dedicated his life to military service. After nine years active duty as a tactical pilot, Arrington spent 11 as a reservist, flying 140 to 200 days a year to maintain his skills.
“For attack pilots, you've got to fly a lot to stay current,” he said. “When you're in that jet, you're a weapons system.”
He went on to earn his doctorate and teach political science at the university level, and eventually became Deputy Director of Air Operations for U.S. Customs in San Diego. It was a position he held on Sept. 11, 2001, when 45 minutes after the second plane hit New York's World Trade Center, Arrington was ordered to fly seven Secret Service agents to the president's location. With U.S. airspace closed, he had to answer to two F-16s dispatched by Air Force One to identify him as a bogey or a friendly.
Also during that time he was asked to deliver the eulogy at a pilot friend's funeral, the text of which can be read in “Kerosene Cowboys.” At the funeral was one of the pilot's friends, a producer who wanted to turn Arrington's book into a movie.
Arrington got to work on the script. Mario Van Peebles signed on to direct, and the film was cast. Shooting commenced, and production approached the climactic dogfight sequence.
According to Arrington, one producer wanted to shoot the scene over the Mojave Desert with real planes; another producer wanted to use computerized graphics. The result: A 2 ½-year legal battle that only recently was resolved. The producer who wanted CG won. He's based in Russia, and the movie will be released there under the title “Red Sky” so as to not confuse Russian audiences, who equate the word “kerosene” with booze.
This is how the Burbank pilot with 30+ years experience got his movie made. Granted, it's being produced in Russia and has been in the can for years, but that, as they say, is the biz.
“The Russian producers took my characters to fit a Russian story. So what (the audience) will get is a heroic operation that takes place with Americans and Russians collaborating,” Arrington said.
And who knows — maybe he can sell the rights for an American version and involve his high school basketball rival, Ron Howard.
For now, Arrington has enough on his plate. When he's not writing movie scripts and novels, he trains pilots on flying spy planes overseas, enjoying a two-pronged career that enable him to defend the country he loves and to produce stories of defenders like him, his father, and his son, who is an explosive ordinance disposal officer in the Army.
BRYAN MAHONEY is a recent transplant from the East Coast. When he isn't thanking veterans for their service, he can be reached at 818NewGuy@gmail.com and on Twitter @818NewGuy.