Hamilton planes, places play role in Air Aces WWII documentary

If you catch the History Channel's new WWII documentary series Air Aces, watch closely - besides the Lancaster bomber and Spitfire fighter from Hamilton's Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, if you've got sharp eyes you might recognize some local scenery.
Nick Godwin, who helped produce Air Aces with Toronto-based Cineflix Productions, examines the statue of George 'Buzz' Beurling at the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum in Hamilton. In the background is a Spitfire used in the documentary series. (Ian Johnson/CBC)

If you catch the History Channel’s new WWII documentary series Air Aces, watch closely – besides the Lancaster bomber and Spitfire fighter from Hamilton’s Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, if you’ve got sharp eyes you might recognize some local scenery.

"We filmed the Lancaster last summer and we didn’t have to take it very far from the museum, because this area is actually a pretty amazing match for the British countryside," says Nick Godwin, head of documentaries at Toronto’s Cineflix Productions, which made Air Aces for History Television Canada and The Military Channel.

"And we shot all the ground-based stuff at a little airstrip that we found [in Brantford] that looked a lot like a World War II-style airstrip."

The scenes of the aircraft over water were done above Lake Ontario near the city. And the interior footage of the Lancaster was filmed at the warplane museum.

"We also shot some of the scenes with the guys and the bunks and things at a studio in Hamilton," Godwin said.

True stories

The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum's Al Mickeloff with the Spitfire used in some of the ground scenes in Air Aces. (Ian Johnson/CBC)

Air Aces is a six-part historical documentary series that made its debut on the History Channel earlier this week with the story of George Frederick "Buzz" Beurling.

Born in Verdun, Que., in 1921, Beurling became a pilot with the RAF’s 249 Squadron in Malta. He shot down 27 planes there before he was shot down and wounded himself, returning to the U.K. to recuperate. At the age of 21 he was the most decorated pilot in the history of the Royal Canadian Air Force, and Beurling scored at least 31 kills over the course of his wartime fighter-pilot career.

The Spitfire LF Mark XVIe on display at the museum in Hamilton was used in some of the scenes on the ground in the documentary. The flight sequences were done with a second Spitfire in England.

The second episode in the series, airing Monday Jan. 14 at 9 p.m., is the story of Douglas Bader. Despite having lost both legs in an air crash, Bader became a WWII ace and turned a ragtag group of Canadian pilots into an elite group of fliers.

The third episode on Jan. 21, Wing Walker, where Hamilton's Lancaster features prominently, is about the crew of bomber ME669 of the RAF’s 106 Squadron. Few Lancaster crews made it even to the half-way point of the 30 missions they were expected to fly during the war. ME669’s crew avoided disaster until its 30th mission.

"It’s really an amazing story, and the pilot was Canadian, Fred Mifflin," Godwin says. "During the mission they’re attacked, the plane catches fire, and a man named Norman Jackson does something absolutely insane — he climbs out onto the wing at over 200 miles an hour and he puts the fire out."

The final three episodes are about the African-American Red Tails; the efforts of the U.S. Air Force’s Robin Olds against MiG-21s during the Vietnam War; and the exploits of top WWII flying ace Gabby Gabreski.

"One of the key things we wanted was a strong Canadian element to the series," Godwin says. "Beurling was a Canadian, Bader worked with Canadians, and in Wing Walker the pilot was Canadian. We wanted to show how Canadians played an absolutely crucial part in World War II, whether in the air or elsewhere."

Lancaster Mk X

The Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum's Lancaster is undergoing regular maintenance. It's expected to be flying again in the spring of 2013. Ian Johnson/CBC

Hamilton was the logical place for the documentary’s makers to go for parts of the series, according to  Godwin, because of the museum’s vintage aircraft collection – particularly the Avro Lancaster Mk X bomber.

More than 7,300 Lancasters were built in Britain and at Victory Aircraft in Malton, Ont., but time has been hard on them and Hamilton has one of the last two in the world still flying. The only other Lancaster still airworthy belongs to the Royal Air Force in the U.K.

The city also has the pilots to fly the aging bomber.

"Hamilton has the most experienced Lancaster pilots in the world now, because we’re pretty much the only  place still flying one," Al Mickeloff, marketing manager for the Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum, told CBC News.

The museum’s chief pilot, Leon Evans of Fonthill, Ont., flew the Lancaster for the Air Aces sequences.

"For the Lancaster shoot we had multiple cameras — small cameras and big cameras, and a helicopter. It was quite a complex operation," Godwin says.

Fresh approach

Tracking down planes for the series and getting permission from their owners to film them was tricky at times, Godwin says, because there just aren’t many still flying.

"The museum was great to work with, they’re used to being approached by film companies because they have planes like the Lancaster."

"It is great to be involved in helping to tell the stories," says the warplane museum’s Mickeloff. " This is what we are about, and being involved with a TV series is just another way of getting the story out to people."

Godwin adds that Air Aces aimed for a fresh storytelling approach.

"These kinds of history documentaries are often produced for an older audience, but we wanted to tell these incredible stories to a multi-generational audience. That’s why we recreated these stories with the actual planes and with CGI [computer-generated images] to make it much more cinematic than the traditional approach of just using old film."

The Air Aces documentaries use three main elements – archival footage, modern film of vintage planes that are still flying, and CGI.

"For example, we only had one Spitfire, so when we wanted 20 Spitfires fighting a squadron of ME 109s, that had to be CGI," Godwin says. "But basically wherever you see a single plane, it’s the real thing. I think it’s a tribute to the guys that did the CGI, that it’s so seamless."

The cockpit of a Spitfire is extremely cramped and spartan. (Ian Johnson/CBC)

He says the team also wanted to get to the stories and people behind WWII’s top dogfighters and air heroes.

"These are great narratives. They’re not just about the planes, they’re about extraordinary characters, and we were able to get guys who were actually there," Godwin says. "We had some of the pilots who flew with George Beurling and Douglas Bader, for example, which is very special, because sadly there’s a dwindling number of these people who are still alive. And they wanted to tell the stories of these important, life-changing events."

The Spitfire and Lancaster featured in Air Aces are currently on display at Hamilton’s Canadian Warplane Heritage Museum.

Visitors can get an interesting view of the bomber's engines and other seldom-seen parts of the aircraft as the Lancaster undergoes routine maintenance over the coming weeks. The work should be completed by spring and the Lancaster is expected to take to the air again in time for Hamilton's June air show, according to Mickeloff.