For Sale: Fighter plane. Speed: extra slow. Weight: very heavy. Armament: minimal. Delivery date: in six years. Price: $25,000. (Service included). Inquiries: Carman, Manitoba.
When I first saw The Defender, I couldn’t decide if Bob Diemert was a genius or simply crazy. Years later, I still don’t know. When director Stephen Low saw an article in the Globe and Mail about Diemert’s plans to build a low-tech fighter plane to sell to the Canadian Armed Forces, he knew it had the makings of a great documentary. Low was concerned that Diemert’s plane would take too long to build. Diemert assured him it would be ready in a few weeks. Six years later, the plane finally had its test flight.
For those of you who know nothing about fighter jets, let me point out that a single Canadian Forces CF-18 fighter jet costs $30 million new. Paint extra. For $25,000 you could probably buy two tires for the front landing gear. Or maybe just one tire.
For the sceptics out there, Diemert did build a fighter plane for $25,000. The proof is in this fascinating documentary. His long journey is told by Low and Producer/cameraman Charles Kenowal with wry humour. Whether it’s testing new wing designs using specially calibrated instruments (two rusty bathroom scales) or taking the design on a journey to the very limits of the aerodynamic envelope (mounting it on the back of a pickup truck), the film shows us a resourceful man who doesn’t know the meaning of the word quit.
Now I know very little about aviation, but it seems to me that if you build an airplane with heavy reinforced armour plating and stubby wings, driven by a weak engine, chances are it’s going to have a hard time getting off the ground. Diemert disagrees. A slow moving tank needs to be followed by a slow-moving airplane.
Now, I know very little about military strategy, but it seems to me…
Diemert is certainly a genius when it comes to restoring vintage warplanes from the Second World War. In the film, he undertakes the difficult restoration of a Japanese Zero found decomposing in the jungles of the South Pacific. This ambitious project was fraught with many setbacks and delays; eventually taking much longer than anticipated (I’ll let you watch the film to see just how long it did take). Even to this day, he continues to restore old warbirds throughout North America.
The film was shot over a six year period starting in 1982. Low told me that Diemert was very cooperative and saw the humour in himself and in his project. He had been working on a design for this fighter, later christened The Defender, since the late 1970s but had to put the project aside on several occasions to restore an old fighter in order to raise some money. Twenty years on, both he and his assistant Chris Ball still keep in contact with Low on a regular basis.
The documentary had its world premiere on May 25th 1989 at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in the presence of Diemert and would later play on the CBC in March 1990. It would also play on television in the USA, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Cyprus and the USSR and on Channel 4 in the UK. Low told me that he still receives e-mails about the film from people who saw it on Channel 4 where it was a huge hit.
The jury is still out on whether Diemert is a genius or simply marching to a different drummer. One thing for sure, he is a fascinating person who I admire for his drive and determination. Now if only someone would buy his fighter plane.
Enjoy the film.