Maj. Jamie Flanders poses in the shirt he wore in “United 93,” which helped him spot himself in the film.

Maj. Jamie Flanders poses in the shirt he wore in “United 93,” which helped him spot himself in the film. (Ben Murray / S&S)

RAF LAKENHEATH — It wasn’t hard to tell when a U.S. Air Force member in the United Kingdom saw himself or herself or a friend on the big screen last Saturday during a special showing of the film “United 93.”

Whispers rippled through the crowd at the appearance of a minor character or a wide shot of an air traffic control room, where handfuls of extras manned bogus controls and radar screens.

Sitting in the audience were about 75 Lakenheath air traffic controllers, command staff and family members, some of whom had bit parts in the studio film, which tells the story of one of the planes hijacked on Sept. 11, 2001.

Filmed mainly in London, the movie used active military members and working air traffic controllers in a number of scenes to make its depiction of events that morning as authentic as possible.

Much of the film is dedicated to the response to the hijackings by various air control centers and military defense commands. The bulk of the Lakenheath extras appeared in those scenes.

Some of those who made it into the movie said they spent a significant part of the film searching the screen for themselves or their friends, with several instances of “There I am!” popping up throughout.

The Saturday screening at the Lakenheath theater was arranged specifically for those involved in making the movie, ahead of several free showings offered to local bases as a “thank you” from the studio for help in making the movie.

“I was just sitting there pretending to talk to planes,” Airman 1st Class Joe Hinton said of his short appearance onscreen. He estimated he was in the film for about six seconds, broken up in a few short cutaways, with at least once in a near close-up.

“It was cool, though. It was really cool,” he said.

Tech. Sgt. Theresa Menard said it was a neat experience being part of the movie, but also slightly unnerving, given the subject matter. The air traffic controller with the 48th Operations Support Squadron appeared in a scene of the Northeast Air Defense Sector center. Menard said she had to tutor some of the extras unfamiliar with air traffic control on what to do when the director yelled “Action!”

Maj. Jamie Flanders, who helped coordinate the appearance of the Lakenheath extras in the film, said he appeared in several shots of a control center, where the distinctive shirt he wore helped him find himself.

“You could see the purple shirt in the background,” he said.

Airmen gave the movie positive reviews, even if much of the film was difficult to watch, they said, especially with director Paul Greengrass’s no-frills treatment.

The film features few special effects and a subdued score, relying mostly on jagged close-ups of the victims to relay the horror of the hijacking. Some who appeared in the film said they would probably buy a copy to see their few seconds of fame again, but it wouldn’t get easier to watch the movie.

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