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‘Masters of the Air’ Part One: A baptism by fire

In the first episode of the new mini-series "Masters of the Air," we meet the men of the 100th. The show wastes no time getting into the action.
Miguel Ortiz Avatar
(Apple TV+)

The first episode of Masters of the Air introduces us to Majors John “Bucky” Egan and Gale “Buck” Cleven. It’s true that the two men met before the war during their military training and that Bucky gave Buck his nickname because Cleven reminded him of someone he knew in Wisconsin who goes by “Buck.” Where Bucky is a drinking, sports-following, good-time-kind-of-guy, Buck doesn’t even like dancing. However, both men are skilled pilots and respected leaders who complement each others’ swagger. Harry Crosby, who we meet when the group stops in Greenland, later wrote that Bucky and Buck “gave the 100th its personality.”

Perhaps a shock to some viewers, Masters of the Air wastes little time before jumping into the action. After the sendoff at the bar, we join Bucky in a burning B-17 Flying Fortress plummeting towards the earth. Just as the fire is extinguished, a swarm of deadly German fighters pounce on the stricken bomber. Bucky aids a wounded and freezing crew member as the fighters make another pass. Sudden and graphic, this scene after the opening conveys the shock that America’s bomber boys experienced when they first tasted combat at 25,000 feet. Keep in mind that the Wright brothers’ first flight was just 40 years prior.

Masters of the Air, AppleTV+

In Greenland, we’re introduced to other members of the 100th and learn about the different positions on a bomber crew: pilots Everett “Ev” Blakely, Bernard “Benny” DeMarco, and Charles “Crank” Cruikshank; bombardiers James Douglass and Howard “Hambone” Hamilton; and Crosby’s best friend and fellow navigator Joe “Bubbles” Payne. Also in Greenland, Buck learns of Bucky’s wild night there impersonating his favorite “extinct animal,” the unicorn, with a narwhal tusk. Back in England, we see that Bucky made friends with the locals and learn he has a liking for Irving Berlin’s song “Blue Skies,” something absent there “cuz of shitty weather.”

When the 100th catches up to Bucky at RAF Thorpe Abbotts in East Anglia, we meet Meatball, a husky that was picked up in Labrador and became the group’s unofficial mascot. Meanwhile, John Brady’s B-17 finds itself on an accidental solo mission to France after they get separated from the group en route to England. Crosby’s air sickness and German coastal flak worsen the matter, but they manage to make a wheels-up landing at Thorpe Abbotts with no casualties.

Masters of the Air, Crosby. AppleTV+

Under the command of Colonel Harold Huglin, the 100th flies its first combat mission on June 25, 1943. As the Low Low element of the bomber wing, the 100th was the most exposed of the groups. Bristling with machine guns, American bomber doctrine asserted that a combat box formation of heavy bombers could protect each other well enough to conduct daylight raids. This is why Maj. William Veal turns back when his Fort experiences engine trouble, allowing his squadron to catch up to the rest of the group. Moreover, daylight bombing was necessary to perform precision strikes on military targets like factories and railway marshaling yards with the lauded Norden bombsight; in contrast, British RAF bombers used entire cities as targets during their night raids.

This emphasis on precision bombing and avoiding collateral damage causes Col. Huglin to scrub the mission when cloud cover obscures the target. Of course, the lack of bombs dropping does nothing to deter the Germans whose air defense fighters claim three bombers of Veal’s 349th; two squadrons of B-17s tight together is a tough nut to crack but a lone squadron is easy pickings. In the chaos of their first air battle, men would sometimes forget that they were fighting at altitude. Some would take their gloves off which caused their hands to freeze to metal; others wouldn’t realize that they were freezing when their protective clothing was cut up by shrapnel.

After jettisoning their bombs over the English Channel, the surviving crews land at Thorpe Abbotts. Veal is desperate to find out what happened to his squadron, but not before interrogation; until the mission debrief is conducted, he cannot speak with his men. As the wounded and shocked flyers fall out of their battered planes, Col. Huglin vomits much worse than before and collapses. En route to interrogation, Buck’s shock and disbelief at the loss of 30 men sets the tone for the 100th and the rest of the show.