THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
"Battle of Britain - The Movie", by Robert J.
Rudhall, book excerpt #5
All text by the late Robert J. Rudhall, circa 2000
To film the all-colour aerial sequences for the movie it was obvious that a special flying camera platform would be required. It had to be one which would be fast enough to be able to keep up with the fighters, and yet be large enough to ably accommodate the Panavision cameras of the film unit.
The producers turned to John 'Jeff' Hawke, who had previously been associated with a number of aviation films. Hawke was a former Royal Air Force Flight Lieutenant, who at one stage was involved in the abortive restoration to flying condition of Messerschmitt Bf 109G-2Black Six at RAF Wattisham in the 1960s, he was also one of the Mosquito pilots during the filming of 633 Squadron.
During the mid to late 1960s 'Jeff' Hawke was President of an American-based company called Euramericair, which just happened to have recently acquired from Panama, at a reported cost of $11 ,500, a North American B-25 Mitchell twin-engined bomber, 44-31508 (N6578D). Built as a B-25J-30-NJ, the aircraft was delivered to the United States Army Air Force in June 1945. Post-war it was modified by the Hughes Corporation to TB-25K status. Demobbed from the military it passed through several civilian owners until taken on strength by Euramericair. For the purpose of theBattle of Britain's air to air filming work the Mitchell was much modified. In November 1967 the B-25 flew out of Florida bound for the UK. The Atlantic crossing took a total of 22 hours to complete, and after its an'ival in Britain work started on the many modifications to turn the former bomber into a flying film studio.
The two waist gun positions were removed and camera mounts were bolted into place. The bomber's tail gun position was taken out and replaced with an open tail and wind deflector arrangement, which enabled a Panavision camera to be mounted out in the open, aft of the aircraft's fins and rudders. The mid-upper gun turret was taken out and replaced with a large Perspex blister, under which the film's aerial director would sit during shooting of the aerial combat sequences, asHamish Mahaddie remembered: Directing the dogfights like Sir John Barbarolli, conductor of the Halle Orchestra. This was the nerve centre of the aircraft, and the aerial director had a communications system, which enabled him to speak to the pilots of the Mitchell as well as (via the B-25 crew) to the pilots of the aircraft that were to be filmed. He also sat in front of a bank of television monitors, linked to each of the cameras in the Mitchell, so that he could see the images being captured on film.
The monitors were wired up to videotape machines, which gave an instant playback facility. This, in theory, was an ideal situation as it gave the director the ability to re-shoot the scene during the same aerial sortie, without recourse to landing, re-briefing and taking off again. This could save the Aerial Unit considerable amounts of money, a commodity which became increasingly critical as the filming schedule progressed during the summer of 1968. In practise, this system did not work quite how the film-makers had envisaged it!
By far the most recognisable modification to the B-25 was the nose glazing. The standard framed bomb aimer's position had been removed and was replaced with a specially mounted hemispherical Plexiglas bubble, giving a 180 degree coverage for the Panavision camera mounted inside the nose compartment. Final modification to the aircraft involved a retracting double-jointed arm with a remote control camera fitted to the end. This arrangement could be lowered out ofthe bomb bay, with a 360-degree coverage. While this last 'mod' would have undoubtedly captured some spectacular footage, it is not known ifit was actually used during the filming. These extensive modifications to the B-25 took three months to complete, at an estimated cost of $75,000.
Complimenting all of the sophisticated equipment inside the Mitchell was an exterior paint scheme, which earned the aircraft its nickname of 'The Psychedelic Monster'. So that the different formations of Heinkels, Messerschmitts, Hurricanes and Spitfires could easily identify where the aerial director wanted them positioned, the B-25 was painted in a very distinctive set of colours. The forward fuselage and nose was finished in natural metal, with a white section which carried the film logo, plus the legend 'Euramericair associated with Visionair Intnl'. The port side of the bomber's rear fuselage was coloured red; the starboard was painted green. These colours were carried through to the aircraft's twin tail fins. Engine cowlings were white and the remainder of the nacelles were yellow. Most distinctive of all were the wings, which were painted with a series of black and white chord-wise stripes. While the Mitchell's colour scheme was certainly different, the logic behind the markings worked like a dream. The aircraft was highly visible in the sky, which made it easy for the vintage fighters and bombers to home in on the cameras.
Flying the Mitchell, along with Hawke, for the filming sequences was well known American warbird pilot Duane Egli. Manning the cameras were two of the world's best aerial cameramen, Skeets Kelly and John Jordan. Sadly both of these two experts in their field were killed while participating in airborne
filming after the Battle of Britain had been completed. Kelly died in the midair collision of an SE.5A replica and the helicopter cameraship during the filming of the 1971 film Zeppelin. John Jordan had earlier diced with death during the shooting of the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, in which the lower part of one of his legs was severed by a helicopter rotor blade. During the shooting of the war film Catch 22 in 1970 Jordan fell out of the rear turret of the B-25 cameraship (NI203). Battle of Britain stands as a lasting testament to the airborne camera skills of Kelly and Jordan.
The Psychedelic Monster was utilised both in Spain, where it weaved among the mass formations of Messerschmitts and Heinkels, and back in the UK where its cameras captured the bulk of the aerial dogfights. Hawke and Egli managed to put the aircraft exactly where the director wanted it, whether it be slowed right down almost on the point of stall so that large numbers of HeinkeIs could roar over the top of the camera-equipped tail turret, or guiding the Messerschmitts, Spitfires and Hurricanes up through the UK's bad summer weather in search of some sunshine for the cameras.
Certain guidelines were laid down for the Mitchell's use as a flying camera platform. A Spitfire Productions memo from Director Guy Hamilton dated March 25, 1968, states: B-25 On A Parallel Course With The Planes. There are only two scenes in the film when the formations are riding steadily along prior to engagements by the RAF No more time than necessary should be devoted to these three of four cuts, because we are after combat material. In every instance, from the RAF viewpoint, combat material will commence with an eye-line of the enemy - either below us or above us and very distant. The B-25 now comes into its own. What will give the material a sense of speed and movement is the closing rate in between the camera and the formation. Wherever possible the camera plane should veer off-bank or turn so as to bring the tail camera into play.
Jeff Hawke and Duane Egli flew the Mitchell for some 300 hours during the filming schedule in order to capture the 40 minutes-worth of spectacular formation and dogfight sequences seen in the final print of the movie.
In late 1969 the bomber, its work on the film completed, returned to the USA, where it lapsed into dereliction at Caldwell Airport, New Jersey. Subject of several legal arguments as to its ownership, the Mitchell was eventually acquired by Atlas Aircraft, who sold it in March 1975 to Ten Plus One Inc. The B-25 's sojourn with this owner was short, as in 1977 it was sold to Tom Reilly at Orlando in Florida. By then the Mitchell was in need of total restoration, which Reilly undertook to his usual thorough standard.
Rebuilt to stock B-25J configuration, Tom Reilly operated the bomber on the airshow circuit painted as 'Chapter XI', selling the aircraft to the B-25th Bomber Group Inc at Pompano Beach, Florida, in February 1979. Sold again in 1994 to Dan Powell at Boerne in Texas, the aircraft is currently airworthy and is operated as 'Lucky Lady'.
Over the years a handful of B-25 Mitchells have been used as aerial cameraships in the UK. N76l4C, now on static display inside the American Air Museum at Duxford, was utilised for air to air filming in a British Overseas Airways Corporation promotions film involving a Boeing 747 'Jumbo Jet' during 1970. N9089Z was the camera platform for the film 633 Squadron in 1964, actually appearing on screen in pseudo RAF markings as an agent-dropping aircraft. It is currently in storage at North Weald Airfield.
N1042B, a former well known platform with Tallmantz Aviation in the USA, was flown across the Atlantic in 1988 and used by Aces High Ltd as the cameraship during the filming of the controversial television series Piece of Cake. The following year the bomber was used as the main flying camera platform for the cinema production of Memphis Belle. It returned to the USA during 1996.
While all of these Mitchells have played an important part in small and large screen epics, N6578D, the Psychedelic Monster, was the most modified of the whole bunch and was undoubtedly the one with the most outlandish colour scheme!
For photos of the B-25, see the B-25 page in the Photo Gallery
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