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New Apple TV+ series 'Masters of the Air' follows two young American WWII pilots


"Masters Of The Air," the new Apple TV+ miniseries, opens with two young American World War II pilots. They’re with the 100th Bomb Group of the 8th Air Force, on their way to be stationed in England, and they’re telling each other not to die before they can get there. Then...


CALLUM TURNER: (As Major John "Bucky" Egan) That's it. The fire's out. Pull. Pull up.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, yelling).

TURNER: (As Major John "Bucky" Egan) Murder (ph).

SIMON: ...We see planes engulfed by smoke and blood, clouds and confusion. "Masters Of The Air," based on the history by Donald L. Miller, is a kind of companion to "Band Of Brothers" and "The Pacific," this time telling the story of what was called, for its many casualties, the Bloody Hundredth bomber group. It’s produced by very famous people, and features an all-star cast, including Austin Butler as Major Gale “Buck” Cleven, and as Major John “Bucky” Egan, Callum Turner, the British actor, perhaps best known from "Fantastic Beasts."

Bucky Egan was a real person. All of these people were real, weren't they?

TURNER: They were. And, you know, that just adds to the honor that I feel to represent these men and what they did for our freedoms. You know, they really sacrificed their 20s - and their teens, for some of them. I think some of the youngest guys who flew was 16 years old. And 77% of these men went down. And they did that for us. You know, that's what I love about this show is that you can watch them battle it out in the skies and try and survive and complete the mission. But we also come back home to England, and they have their feet on the ground, and you watch them deal with the loss and the grief that they have to endure and the effects that that has on their mind and their body and their soul.

SIMON: Is it hard in this day and age when we have sophisticated satellite-borne guidance systems that show up on our phones to understand the audacity, the daring of what these young flyers did?

TURNER: I imagine it was probably hard at the time, too. This technology was brand new. You know, in World War I, the only aerial duels that occurred were single fighter planes that would go up. Pilots would shoot at each other with pistols. In 20 or so years, they really expanded that technology. And there was a massive rush for the Americans to build all these planes. And the whole thing was a guessing game. The idea of precision bombing in the daytime was argued about in Congress. We're so lucky that they stuck with it. You know, the experiment worked. But there were many moments where possibly they would have backtracked on this and put more men on the ground. And if they'd had done that, it might have taken longer to win the war. I think when they started, they sent over 13 planes, 13 B-17s. And it's just extraordinary, the idea, you know, of this brand-new concept being played out in real time.

SIMON: The air combat scenes are extraordinary. Can I ask you how they were done? Were you ever actually on board an old B-17?

TURNER: We did have replicas. And we had - I think we had three B-17s. Unfortunately, just before we started filming, one of the B-17s at an air show went down. So, you know, in terms of safety, it wasn't worth the risk. But what we did have was two schools of thinking. We had the old-school Hollywood way of doing things in which we had these B-17s that would roll around. And there in the scenes, you can see them for real. The guys, they built, I think, something like 81 buildings for the officer's mess and the barracks. And that space was so big, they gave us a map. And then on the flip, we had the new-school way of doing things, which is this technology called the Volume. And the Volume consists of a shoehorn effect of LED high-definition screens that show you what's happening around you. And in the middle of that is the B-17.

And we would cut out certain sections. So you'd have the nose and the cockpit and half of the plane. And another time you go up, it would be the back or the tail or the middle. And actually, as an actor, being in those in the cockpit, it just gives you this all for free. You don't have to think that something's happening. It is happening. It's like, you know, if you ever go to a theme park and you end up in one of those rides, it's like that, but with these screens around you. And as an actor, it was a gift.

SIMON: One impression that was very much made on me is that nowadays, understandably, somebody goes through a near-death experience...


SIMON: ...You know, we say, take some time, get some counseling. These young people were told, yeah, good work. You're flying tomorrow, too.

TURNER: Well, I mean, exactly. It's truly extraordinary what these men went on to do. The idea was that you would have your freedom after 25 missions. That was the target. But not many people got to 25. You'd be lucky if you got to 15. And we do - we explore that, you know, the idea of PTSD before it was even a thing.

SIMON: I looked up major John "Bucky" Egan, and I was very saddened to learn how young he was when he died - 45, if I'm not mistaken. Then I went a little deeper. You're in your, I think we can say, early mid-30s. Major Egan was five years younger. Most of the actors playing these flyers are in their 30s, and in real life, they were actually in their 20s and even younger. I just find that very poignant.

TURNER: Yeah. I mean, I think of myself as 20 years old and what I was doing in my life - or 16, 17, 18 - and who I was as a person, and the bravery that these men had and the courage and the determination to fight for our freedoms and to win - it's something that I'm eternally grateful for. I don't take that lightly. I don't take this responsibility lightly. It's with utter disbelief that they were able to get back into those planes, you know? Like you said earlier, sometimes it would be the next day. I think in the most extreme case, Rosie Rosenthal went up three days in a row. Unbelievable what he was able to do and do for a greater cause than himself, a cause he believed in.

SIMON: Callum Turner. He stars in "Masters Of The Air" on Apple+. Thank you so much for being with us.

TURNER: Thank you. It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.