The Making of Masters of the Air, Part 4: Magneto To Go

Warbird expert Taigh Ramey takes us behind one 'Masters of the Air' nailbiting scene

Photo via PR/Apple TV
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By Taigh Ramey.

Once again, thanks to well-known warbird expert Taigh Ramey, we can take you behind the scenes with the current Apple TV+ Masters of the Air series. Here Taigh breaks down a dramatic moment in one of the first episodes, now released, and how that was pulled together. Over to Taigh:

In Masters of the Air,  Apple TV+  released one scene with Master Sgt. Lemmons, the Crew Chief, and the rest of that story element appeared recently in episode four. The ‘story’ was that Lemmons had an engine problem that they were troubleshooting just before the engine started for the mission. It needed Lemmons to actually ride in the gear well of number three, fixing the engine, as the Fortress taxied out on three engines.

Master Sgt. Lemmons at work. [Photo by Taigh Ramey]

Cary, the director for the first four episodes, was asking about what Lemmons could be fixing and wanted to know if various things were plausible. One was changing a carburetor.

Uh, no.

It’s not only a massive job but doesn’t fit with Lemmons riding in the gear well. I suggested working on a magneto, as just about the only things that you can get to, through the access panel in the firewall on a B-17, are the magnetos and the starter.

“Okay” he said, “Can we change the magneto?”

Uh, no, not within the confines of this scene and taxiing out to take off. But, how about setting the magneto points, as it would fit the timeline, look good, and would be plausible. He said to set it up. Okay, off we go!

[Note: I did not have access to Lemmons’s book or John Orloff’s notes at the time this scene was being discussed. Soon after Jessica was kind enough to give me a copy of Lemmons book and it said that he indeed did adjust the magneto points from inside of the gear well!]

I talked to Stewart Heath from BGI, the props supply company. He’s a guy who can, and did, make miracles happen. We talked about the magneto, and I showed him what it and the B-17 accessory section looked like through the firewall opening. He was also going to build a B-17 engine nacelle for this scene!

I said that almost any radial engine magneto would work and that I could source one if he needed it. He said “Go!” so I contacted Carl Scholl at Aerotrader in California and asked if he had a mag for a Curtis Wright R1820. Of course, he did! And he shipped it off to us in the UK. Thanks, Carl.

The R1820 magneto from Carl Scholl at Aerotrader in California. [Photo by Taigh Ramey]

Stewart made the nacelle and a box housing the real mag, a dummy mag, and a starter. It was painted black and looked pretty good on camera.

Raff Law is the actor who portrayed Sgt. Lemmons. He and I sat down with the ‘accessory box’ and I taught him how to look like he was setting up and adjusting the points on a magneto.

I pictured the original WWII radial engine feeler gauge tool, with the bent ends, in my toolbox back home and hoped that the Props Department may have something close. They supplied some nice period tools and Raff learned what he needed to do on the table at our ‘office’. Next, it was time for him to practice in the nacelle that Stewart and BGI built.

Original stenciling on a B-17F oil tank. [Photo by Taigh Ramey]

During the building of the nacelle, the visible oil tank was a topic of discussion. I gave them some photos, including of the stenciling which could be visible – and they, as usual, did a wonderful job.

The nacelle that BGI built for this scene. Note the wood accessory box that housed the real magneto, the dummy one, and the starter. The only things you can see once you remove the stainless steel access panel in the firewall of the B-17. [Photo by Taigh Ramey]

The nacelle was set up for the scene and the video walls were set up underneath the nacelle. (Incidentally, the wheels and tires used on MOTA were actual non-airworthy B-17 wheels and tires from the Collings Foundation. Some of you Collings pilots might recognize the flat spots on the tires! It is cool to see some actual B-17 parts that flew a lot and made it into the series. We will not talk about the tread pattern however, though, will we…)

The engine nacelle that BGI built for the scene. Real B-17 wheel and tire. Some of the only actual B-17 parts that were used for the series. [Photo by Taigh Ramey]

Several camera angles set up in and around the nacelle looked good and helped to convey just how difficult it must have been for Sgt. Lemmons to accomplish what he did. Amazing for sure. I only hope that the Lemmons family is happy with the result.


Raff as Sgt. Lemmons is up in the nacelle for the final rehearsal. [Photo by Taigh Ramey]

So much was put into making this and every scene as rich and authentic as possible that it is a shame that so many of these details didn’t make the final cut. But that’s the way this business is, it’s better to have too much and cut things out than to have too little and the need for more. MOTA was way up on the quality and detail and doing it with all of this specialized aircraft equipment is many times more difficult to do than most other subjects. Well done folks! So many people behind the scenes going above and beyond to make this special.

Once again thank you Tom Hanks and Playtone. Thank you, Stephen Spielberg and Amblin. Without you, this story would not have been told with such authenticity and honor to those of the 8th AF. Thank you, Gary Goetzman, Michael Faley, and Stephen Rosenbaum for bringing me in to do my small part. Thank you to all of the production crew for your wonderful effort. And thank you Sgt. Lemmons!

Vintage Aviation News would like to thank Taigh Ramey for being able to see ‘behind the scenes’ of Masters of the Air. We have more to share from Taigh, but you can also experience his expertise ‘hands-on’ at this year’s Bomber Camp™, details are below:

Would you like to get a LOT closer to experiencing flying your mission in a legendary B-17 Flying Fortress? Young or old, you can live your dream at Bomber Camp™! Bomber Camp™ was devised by this article’s author, Taigh Ramey, the founder of the Stockton Field Aviation Museum and avid WWII collector and history buff. Bomber Camp™ is much more than a “fantasy camp”. It is an immersive WWII living history experience allowing you to step back in time to train for a bombing mission and then to fly it, for real. 
You can shoot the guns, ride in the ball turret, and drop a bomb with the famous Norden bombsight. This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity can be yours. Enlist now!

1 Comment

  1. excellent presentation. I am anticipating watching the video/film with all the items hilighted. I will send a copy of this article to friends and colleagues at the National Museum of WWII Aviation in CO Springs, CO. I know they will salivate over reading and viewing this article. After all, volunteers are just as enthusiastic about authentic WWII aviation as you have described. Thats why we volunteer!! Thank you again.

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