'Masters of the Air': Everything We Know About the Highly Anticipated WWII Series

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Austin Butler as Maj. Gale "Buck" Cleven in "Masters of the Air." (Apple TV+)

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There's a lot for World War II history buffs to be excited about in the upcoming nine-episode limited series, "Masters of the Air." Like its Emmy-winning companion series "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific" before it, "Masters of the Air" is based on a thoroughly researched source, honors the courage and sacrifices of real U.S. service members and will likely depict World War II combat with astounding realism. This time, it'll be the Army Air Forces in the spotlight.

When Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks teamed to adapt Stephen E. Ambrose's bestselling book "Band of Brothers" for HBO, it was the most expensive show ever produced, with 10 episodes costing $125 million. When "Masters of the Air'' debuts on Apple TV+ on Jan. 26, 2024, it won't necessarily break any records, but its budget will more than double that of "Band of Brothers." With a budget like that, viewers should expect some incredible air combat sequences. With the WWII-era Army Air Forces, there's plenty to show -- and it's not pretty.

The source for the series is historian Donald L. Miller's book "Masters of the Air: America's Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany," which follows the Eighth Air Force's famed 100th Bombardment Group. The unit was known as the "Bloody Hundredth," for the high number of killed, wounded and missing in action it took during the war. Over the course of 22 months, the 100th lost ​​732 airmen and 923 taken prisoner aboard 177 aircraft shot down on bombing runs.

The historical setting for the series was a dark time for Allied airmen. In January 1943, the Soviet Red Army was still fighting the Nazis near Stalingrad while the British and Americans were deadlocked against the German Army in North Africa. This was when the Eighth Air Force began hitting targets inside Germany. Until the introduction of the P-51 Mustang later that year, the unit's B-17s would have to fly over occupied Europe without fighter escorts, an estimated 40,000 anti-aircraft guns and experienced Luftwaffe fighters waiting for them.

(Apple TV+)

The average age of a U.S. bomber crew was 25 years old. They were expected to fly 25 missions at 25,000 feet before being sent home, with the odds of survival at a mere 25%. The Bloody Hundredth lost an astonishing (even for the Army Air Forces in World War II) 86% of its original 30 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers, a statistic that earned the unit its grim nickname.

This series has been a long time in the making. It actually took longer for "Masters of the Air" to start streaming than it did for the Army Air Forces to bomb Nazi Germany into submission. The series began filming in February 2021, and its last episode is scheduled to air on March 15, 2024.

Like its companion series, "Masters of the Air" was originally slated for production by HBO, in cooperation with Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment and Hanks' Playtone, but HBO dropped the development of the show because of production delays (mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and its expansive budget.

Though the previous two series were filled with star actors, most of the major players were still relatively unknown actors at the time who went on to have big careers. "Masters of the Air" is starting with two actors who have already been nominated for big awards: Austin Butler (Maj. Gale Cleven) was recently nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in "Elvis," while Barry Keoghan was nominated for his role in "The Banshees of Inisherin."

(Apple TV+)

The series is not just a reunion for Hanks and Spielberg, but many of the writers and on-set consultants from "Band of Brothers" and "The Pacific" are returning. Writer Jon Orloff, who adapted the first few episodes of "Masters of the Air" for the screen, also wrote "Band of Brothers" and served as a consultant on "The Pacific." The author of the book, Donald L. Miller, also consulted on "The Pacific."

Directing the first four episodes of the new series is HBO alum Cary Fukunaga, whose work includes the anthology series "True Detective," as well as the James Bond film "No Time to Die." The show's creators have since distanced themselves from Fukunaga amid allegations surrounding his on-set behavior and inappropriate relationships. Since then, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck ("Captain Marvel") were called on to direct two episodes, as was Dee Rees ("Empire"). Director Tim Van Patten, who helmed the series' last episode, also directed "The Pacific."

The first two episodes of "Masters of the Air" will premiere on Apple TV+ starting Jan. 26, 2024, continuing weekly through March 15.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Facebook, X or on LinkedIn.

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