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How IWM Duxford helped get new Masters of the Air TV series off the ground





First there was Band of Brothers, then came The Pacific, and now comes Masters of the Air, the latest Second World War epic from the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg stable – and Imperial War Museum Duxford played a key role in helping to bring this exciting project to fruition.

Dr Hattie Hearn, seen here by the B-17 at Duxford. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Hattie Hearn, seen here by the B-17 at Duxford. Picture: Keith Heppell

Premiering on Apple TV+ last Friday (26 January) with the first two episodes, the nine-part series is based on the Donald L Miller book of the same name and tells the story of the legendary 100th Bomb Group of the United States Army Air Force, nicknamed ‘The Bloody Hundredth’, due to the high concentration of losses of servicemen during the Allied bombing campaign over occupied Europe.

IWM Duxford was involved in a consultancy capacity – particularly when it came to the B-17 Flying Fortress bombers used – for the series, which stars Austin Butler and Barry Keoghan as US airmen serving in the 100th.

One of the IWM Duxford staff members who was integral to getting the production ‘off the ground’ was Dr Hattie Hearn, curator of the American Air Musuem at the site.

Austin Butler in Masters of the Air, now streaming on Apple TV+. Picture: Apple TV+
Austin Butler in Masters of the Air, now streaming on Apple TV+. Picture: Apple TV+
From left, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman attend the premiere of the Masters of the Air in Los Angeles. Picture: Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images for Apple TV+
From left, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Gary Goetzman attend the premiere of the Masters of the Air in Los Angeles. Picture: Eric Charbonneau/Getty Images for Apple TV+

Dr Hearn is responsible for the museum’s substantial collection of aircraft and objects relating to the story of American airpower from the First World War to the present day.

“The American Air Museum was quite heavily involved in the pre-production,” she explains. “When she was curator, my colleague Emily [Charles, an IWM historian and principal historic advisor on Masters of the Air] worked with John Orloff – the main scriptwriter – who came over I think in 2016.

“We gave him a tour of the B-17, and they also came and took some measurements as well, and that fed into the replica B-17s that they built for the production.

“They’ve got two replica B-17s, and they really based those on our B-17 here at Duxford. I know that John Orloff, when he came to visit the B-17, actually got to go inside it, and that really hammered home to him what it would have been like flying one of those things, because they’re a lot smaller when you get in them.

“We provided that consultancy, and we also have a very large collection of images related to the Eighth Air Force, and we were able to provide those to the production team. That helped inform their set design and costume design.”

Hattie holds a BA in war studies and history from King’s College London and a master’s in museum studies from the University of East Anglia, while her PhD explored the material culture of the US Eighth Air Force and its enduring impact on the heritage of the East of England.

She notes that staff at IWM Duxford were also able to answer some of the production team’s “trickier” questions.

“For example, they’ve got an episode that features black Americans in the US Air Force, and obviously that’s quite an under-represented area of history,” she says.

“But we have a fairly large collection of images related to the black experience, so we were able to help them with that as well.”

Ncuti Gatwa in Masters of the Air, now streaming on Apple TV+. Picture: Apple TV+
Ncuti Gatwa in Masters of the Air, now streaming on Apple TV+. Picture: Apple TV+
Edward Ashley, Matt Gavan, Callum Turner and Anthony Boyle in Masters of the Air, now streaming on Apple TV+. Picture: Apple TV+
Edward Ashley, Matt Gavan, Callum Turner and Anthony Boyle in Masters of the Air, now streaming on Apple TV+. Picture: Apple TV+

Hattie enjoyed a screening of the first episode of Masters of the Air.

“I was lucky enough to be invited to the UK premiere in London on Monday (22 January), which was a really special experience,” she says.

“They had all of the main actors there, and they showed the episode on the big screen, which I’m really glad I got to see.

“I would recommend watching it on the biggest TV screen you can, because the air combat scenes are really spectacular – and to see it on the big screen was really immersive.”

When it comes to wartime films and TV series, much is often made of their historical accuracy. But what was Hattie’s verdict as an eminent historian?

“In the back of my mind, I thought ‘I know a bit about the Eighth Air Force and the 100th Bomb Group particularly’, so I was prepared to have a critical mind while watching it,” she admits, “but actually there wasn’t anything that stood out to me as being factually incorrect.

“I’m aware that obviously they can’t portray all of the stories exactly as they were – they do need a little bit of creative licence – but I felt that they really did it justice, and as a historian it was really exciting to be able to see some of those combat scenes brought to life.

“It’s so different when you’re reading it in a book, or hearing veterans talking about it. To actually see it on the big screen being played out, it’s really immersive and brings the history to life. So I think in terms of historical accuracy, so far, so good!”

While Duxford has previously been used as a location for shooting Second World War epics – most notably the 1969 film Battle of Britain – this time no filming was done in Cambridgeshire.

“All the filming took place in Oxfordshire; they built huge, huge sets,” reveals Hattie. “There was one that showed all of the living quarters and the runway and the control tower. I was lucky enough to be invited along to go and see the sets back in 2021, and they were incredible.

“The attention to detail was amazing – if you opened up a filing cabinet, for example, in one of the offices, it had papers in there that were actually hand-typed!

“I think they really went above and beyond in terms of laying down the historical details.”

Dr Hattie Hearn, seen here by the B-17 at Duxford. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Hattie Hearn, seen here by the B-17 at Duxford. Picture: Keith Heppell

The third episode of Masters of the Air is available to watch from today (Friday, 2 February) on Apple TV+. For more information on IWM Duxford, visit iwm.org.uk/visits/iwm-duxford.



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