What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in Masters of the Air

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Masters of the Air, which follows crew members of a U.S. Air Force (then known as the Army Air Force) bomb group tasked with carrying out daylight bombing raids over Nazi-held territory during World War II, was developed by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks—the same duo that that brought us the land-based Band of Brothers (following a company of regular Army soldiers through the European campaign) and the ocean-going The Pacific (following three Marines through that campaign). To say it has been long-awaited by fans of those series is an understatement.

The first two episodes introduce us to three of the characters who provide the series’ main focus: pilot “Buck” Cleven (Austin Butler, playing the kind of keen-eyed, cool-headed aviator Gary Cooper specialized in); pilot “Bucky” Egan (Callum Turner, a risk-taking ace in the Clark Gable mode); and navigator Harry Crosby (Anthony Boyle). There are more, but given the high mortality rate in the unit, there’s no telling how many episodes they’ll be around for.

Hanks is well-known for his love of typewriters, and the series is pervaded with a similar affection for the sheer analog clunkiness of the B-17 bomber. The hatch to the bomb bay won’t open? Find a crowbar and pry it open so you can get the bombardier out before the plane crash-lands. Need to be alerted to where the next threat of enemy fire is coming from? Have the machine gunner in his glass turret spot it using the “Mark I human eye” (i.e., unaided eyesight) and then shout, “Fighter at 2 o’clock.” Problem with pinpointing the target location? Use the navigator to work it out with paper, maps, a compass, and calculating by pencil while rattling along at 35,000 feet under fire. Younger generations may be amazed that the crews couldn’t rely on even the computing power of a Nokia clamshell, much less a smartphone.

The series is based on Donald L. Miller’s book of the same name, which relied heavily on the testimony of veterans, and not many liberties have been taken. Even what seems improbable is usually the unbelievable truth. Nevertheless, we look at what’s fiction and what’s unlikely fact in the premiere episodes of Masters of the Air.

“Bucky” Egan and Callum Turner.
“Bucky” Egan and Callum Turner. Photos by the American Air Museum and Apple TV+

In the show, the USAAF pilots get into a dispute with some Royal Air Force pilots who think the American military is increasing the risk to its crews by staging bombing raids during daylight hours instead of flying at night as the British do. However, the narration explains, the U.S. was relying on new technology, second only to the atom bomb in terms of the amount of money invested and the secrecy around it: a bombsight that allowed attacking specific targets with greater precision than ever-before possible. The drawback was it required visual targeting by a bombardier and so could only be used during daylight hours, putting the planes at greater risk of being shot down.

It is true the USAAF devised its strategy around this new type of bombsight, the Norden. The Norden’s big breakthrough was that it could measure the aircraft’s ground speed and direction directly while older bombsights could only estimate them using complicated manual procedures.

The Norden bombsight was essentially an analog calculator that adjusted for air density, wind drift, airspeed, and groundspeed while incorporating an autopilot that could control the plane during the final run on the target. These features promised unprecedented accuracy during daytime bombing runs from high altitudes, enabling direct attacks on ships, factories, and similar strategic targets.

The USAAF’s whole daylight bombing strategy was built around the Norden, relying on fewer bombs dropped with more precision rather than the wide-area bombing practiced by the British, which was more like throwing a lot of mud in the hope that some of it would stick to a viable target. But the area bombing could be done at night when the likelihood of the planes getting shot down was reduced.

So convinced was the Army of the advantage offered by the Norden—with the acting chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics writing, “The Norden bombsight is considered to be the principal single factor of superiority which the air forces of this country possess over those of potential enemy countries”—that it put $1.1 billion into R&D and production, equal to two-thirds of the budget for the atom bomb and more than a quarter of the production cost of all B-17 bombers. Strict security measures were introduced, such as requiring the Nordens to be kept within a climate-controlled vault within the airbase’s secure store when not on a plane.

Unfortunately, the Army had fallen for a slick marketing campaign by Norden. The device did perform as advertised under test conditions, but in actual combat it was a different story. The cold temperatures at bombing altitude meant the devices’ lubricating oils congealed and optical sights fogged, so that the USAAF ended up buying electric blankets to wrap the bombsights in (its equally frozen operators got no such comforts). Similarly, the autopilot’s guidance system could be thrown off by smokescreens or even ground fog.

Then there was the maintenance. The Norden bombsight is still considered to be one of the most complicated mechanical devices ever manufactured, with more than 2,000 parts including direct-current motors, gears, clutches, levers, mirrors, and gyroscopes, not to mention specialized components with Harry Potter–ish names like gudgeon bearings, cardans, and gimbal rings. All were subject to the aircraft’s vibration, electrical surges, wear, and the DC motors’ brushes, which spread the carbon dust they generated into sensitive bearings.

But the main problem was, as ever, human frailty. The bombardier’s job was to enter various parameters into the bombsight and then make numerous fine-tuning adjustments by reading the fine print on his bombing tables and handheld computers similar to a slide rule to calculate various speeds, angles, and bomb ballistic parameters before the bomb’s final automatic release. After this, he would peer through the device’s telescope at the target to fine-tune the preset values and try to position the target dead center in the crosshairs, despite clouds, haze, smoke, or fire, as the plane approached the release point. And he did all this stationed in the freezing temperatures of the B-17’s plexiglass nose, one of the most vulnerable parts of the aircraft, trying to concentrate over the noise of the plane’s engines, incoming enemy fighter attacks, flak, and his plane’s own defensive machine-gun fire.

Given all this, it is no surprise the Norden failed to deliver on its promises. Indeed, it was remarkable that any of the B-17s’ bombs hit anything. Several later studies confirmed that as few as 5 percent of the Eighth Air Force’s bombs fell to within 1,000 feet of their targets. And, despite the elaborate security, the bombsight wasn’t all that much of a secret—details of the Norden had been passed to Germany even before the war and both the British RAF and the German Luftwaffe had developed bombsights built on similar principles.

Harry Crosby and Anthony Boyle.
Harry Crosby and Anthony Boyle. Photos by the American Air Museum and Apple TV+

Harry Crosby, who serves as the show’s narrator, is an excellent navigator but is very nervous about missions and suffers from terrible airsickness, trying desperately to throw up in a paper bag while keeping any vomit off his navigation maps and calculating positions at speed. He begs his crewmates not to rat him out to bomber command because he wants to keep flying missions. At one point in Episode 2, he throws up into his helmet, puts it on when the plane comes under fire, and then removes it, forgetting what would be left on his head.

This actually happened. As retired Master Sgt. Dewey Christopher told a USAF website, “Harry got air sick every time he went out on a mission, so he carried a sack. On this particular mission he’d forgotten it and when the airplane took off, Harry got sick; he realized he didn’t have a sack and the bombardier said, ‘Harry—use your helmet.’ When they left to drop their bombs, the pilot called out, ‘The [flak’s] getting bad up here—put your helmets on …’ And he did, because he forgot he’d been sick in it.”

Crosby himself, who later worked as a professor of English composition and rhetoric, admitted as much in his memoir, A Wing and a Prayer, recalling, “Although I had … nearly a thousand hours in the air, I still got violently airsick, especially at low altitude, where flying was particularly turbulent. For the millionth time since I had joined the Air Corps, I regretted not having joined the infantry.”

Nor was he the only one. A comic used to train new navigators instructs them to use their compass cover or, as a last resort, a hat as a receptacle. An accompanying caption reads, “Airsickness was common among new navigators, who frequently had to look at the ground through drift sights and make calculations while maneuvering.”

A navigator friend of Crosby’s who is recovering in the hospital gives Crosby his lucky snow globe that he credits with protecting him when so many in his plane were killed. After this, Crosby makes sure he always has the snow globe with him. Even the practical Buck Cleven is shown sticking a photograph of his sweetheart to his dashboard before takeoff, and the airmen in general seem to have as many rituals as baseball players.

In his book Flying Against Fate: Superstition and Allied Aircrews in World War II, S.P. MacKenzie notes that Bibles were thought to have protective properties. But more popular than St. Christopher medals and similar religion-based objects were trinkets, items of clothing, toy figures, and items ranging from a desiccated kangaroo’s foot to fresh four-leaf clovers and a pink glass elephant, while a 100th Bomber Group aircraft even carried “a piece of decomposing baloney” once owned by a man who survived his tour of duty. With allied Bomber Command losses in WWII exceeding 50 percent of aviators (not that the airmen were given this information), it is hardly surprising that crews attempted to gain a sense of agency over a cruel and random fate by means of magical thinking and superstitions.

According an article by veteran Bill Wallrich called “Superstition and the Air Force,” pilots frequently dealt with stress by carrying amulets and talismans like silver dollars. Every unit had at least one bad-luck airplane—a “clinker” whose temperamental behavior was the result of a more profound jinx—and conversely a charmed airplane that improved the odds for its lucky pilot. The entire 100th Bomber Group, the unit Masters of the Air focuses on, was known to the wider Eighth Air Force as a jinxed unit and dubbed the “Bloody 100th” due to its large number of losses in early raids, although statistically the group did not suffer a greater proportion of losses than any other.