Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Skip-Bombing P-51s in ‘Empire of the Sun’

Buried in one of the first issues of Warbirds Worldwide Journal, is an article by the late Mark Hanna on flying Mustangs for Spielberg's 1987 movie 'Empire of the Sun'. After receiving permission from Sarah Hanna of the Old Flying Machine Company to reproduce the feature this is a straight reproduction of the account; an interesting insight 'above' rather than 'behind' the scenes, and only just above... It is a period piece from Issue No.2, 1987, and things have moved on since and sadly the pilots are no longer with us, nor is Warbirds Worldwide or Editor Paul Coggan. It would be a pity for this to vanish as well. More on Mark here.

The article is reproduced with the text as published, and copyright for images and text rests with the Old Flying Machine Company.

So please read on - over to Mark:

Skip-Bombing P-51s in ‘Empire of the Sun’

The middle of May saw the deployment of three P-51D Mustangs to Southern Spain for the filming of Steven Spielberg's film Empire of the Sun. The Mustangs involved were the Old Flying Machine Company’s G-HAEC/A68-192, The Fighter Collection's N51JJ/44-73149, and G-PSID/44-63788. Pilots for the filming were Ray Hanna (who acted as overall Mustang consultant) ‘Hoof’ Proudfoot and myself. Engineering expertise was provided by Paul Mercer who had been released from The Fighter Collection’s Hurricane project for the duration, ably assisted by Hoof’s son Lee. Aerial coordinator for the film was John 'Jeff’ Hawke.

All Mustangs ready to go.

The film sequences, set in the CBI (China-Burma-India) Theatre in 1944 and '45 called for airfield attacks, strafing and bombing (if deemed feasible). Spielberg is renowned for his attention to the minutest detail in his films. To that end all three Mustangs were painted in the spectacular markings of the 118th Tactical Recce Squadron, 23rd Fighter Group of the 14th Air Force, which operated in the Pacific during the closing stages of World War II.

13th Mav 1987 saw G-HAEC and G-PSID set off for Biarritz and beyond with both Hannas flying, ‘Hoof’ was to bring up the rear in N51JJ as soon as the paint had dried, or at least gone 'tacky'!

The flight southward was uneventful, with excellent weather the whole way. Navigation through Spain became much easier once having rendezvoused with 'Jeff’ Hawke and Paul Mercer flying Stephen Grey's Beech Baron, at Biarritz.

Our initial operating base was Jerez in Spain, which is a joint civil/military airfield about ten minutes flight time from the film set, although the actual film set (which was dressed as a pseudo Japanese airfield) was available as an option. En-route to Jerez we took a look at the filming location and livened the place up a little! It was very interesting to see the airfield; it looked extremely operational with Zeros and light, communications aeroplanes parked along the strip. Flak towers, hangars and an array of military vehicles completed the illusion. Though we initially considered operating out of the film set airstrip (the ex Spanish Air Force T-6s modified to look like Zeros were operating from there) and it was long enough to take a P-51, we decided against it. The strip itself was largely crushed rock and dirt and having inspected it we decided the risk of dinging a propeller blade or damaging a radiator was too great. Our base would continue to be Jerez.

Once established at Jerez the film people added the final touches to the paint-work on the three aeroplanes. All received genuine World War II names, these being; Tugboat for G-PSlD, My Dallas Darlin' for N51JJ when it arrived and Missy Wong from Hong Kong for G-HAEC. Missy Wong also received a painting of a rather unattractive Chinese girl on the rudder.

Line abreast en route Jerez.

Having briefed with Steven Speilberg and 'Jeff’ Hawke it became obvious that the flying involved would be considerably more demanding than the average airshow routine, the main problem being accurate line-ups for camera angles and timing which would have to fit in with the acting, and of course the actors! An initial trial sortie ensured it became clear that our preferred operating speed of 250-300 knots would be too fast for the movie so we ended up opting for 200-250 knots. Flying was ultra low-level and very close to buildings, Zeros etc. After a little practice it was easy to get right in the groove. Formation was standard battle formation on the transit flight to and from the film set, moving into fighting wing or arrow formation over the set itself. All the flying was done at cruise power settings.

An authentic bombed up Mustang (Mark Hanna photos).

The next step was to evaluate the bomb dropping capability of the Mustangs. The film company had provided near perfect replicas of 500lb bombs. These were made up from plastic shells and consequently only weighed about 25 lbs each. Fed up with seeing bombs tumbling crazily in previous films it was decided to increase the weight of the shells by adding plaster, which was duly added along the length of each bomb. This increased the weight to a more realistic 150-200 lbs. Having weighed each individual bomb on scales the next problem was loading them without bomb trolleys - hard work! With the aircraft loaded with their deadly cargo we were presented with the very satisfying and rare sight of two fully bombed-up, authentically painted Mustangs.

The team hard at work loading bombs.

Take-off performance was noticeably less impressive whilst carrying the bombs, and once airborne cruise power gave approximately 10-15 knots less speed. The intent was for Missy Wong to drop the first trial bomb at 3000 to 4000 feet altitude so that I could observe its fall and check the trajectory. We were slightly concerned about the bombs hitting the flaps or tail immediately following release. Speed for the drop was to be 200 knots. Jeff Hawke and his boys set up a 12' x 12' orange target marker a mile or so parallel to the film set. Ray Hanna’s initial bomb drop was superb: the bomb separated cleanly from the aeroplane, wagged its tail slightly and fell perfectly.

Tugboat formating on (the camera ship) Dallas Darlin’.

Next was my turn. G-PSID – Tugboat - has an electric bomb release which pickles both bombs simultaneously. Being an Air Defence pilot with no bomb dropping experience since my 1980 Hunter Weapons Unit course, I thought I had better try what I know and set up an academic 10° dive attack As the target disappeared under the nose I pickled, paused and pulled and got a couple of 100 yard short bombs - considerably better than my aimed averages on the Hunter back in 1980 I might add! The next trial was Ray’s remaining bomb. This, we had decided, would be from a level skip-bomb attack. with the release height being 25 to 30 feet, a-la-Venom Pilot Attack Instructors Course of 1956 I believe. The result was a bomb skipping once, bouncing to about 10 feet and then straight through the target. Having explained to the film people that skip-bombing was an approved World War II tactic they eagerly took up the suggestion that we could place bombs right through the front doors of any target they chose - with the mock Japanese hangars being the preferred targets!

A superb and unusual shot of Ray Hanna in Missy Wong from Hong Kong.

The next day Hoof Proudfoot arrived with his son Lee in N51JJ. Another bomb dropping rehearsal ensued with all aircraft scoring direct hits or brackets from level skip bombing runs.

We were then ready for the first film takes. These consisted of a complicated attack pattern with accurate timings. The plan was for me to attack first, strafing a hangar and a Zero. Five seconds later, and from an angle 40° to that of my attack path, Ray was to skip bomb another hangar, closely followed (3 to 5 seconds later) by Hoof who would strafe straight down the runway, avoiding the debris from our attacks. After four or five 'dry runs’ the actual take was on. Once the bombing and strafing pyrotechnics were set off there was no return of course and the take would have to be perfect!

Line abreast en route Jerez. Note the Kill marks.

As we ran in the flak started! Air bursts were being mortared up into very realistic looking black puffs making one nestle a little lower to the ground and snuggle down behind the engine. Flashing in between buildings and suddenly seeing explosions walking all over a hangar and a Zero, supposedly as a result of my actions. the feeling that all this was real was quite strong. Lumps of phosphorous over the wing, then up and over the hangar. dumping stick to hug the ground on the egress, looking back to see Ray and Hoof emerging from a huge fireball and oil cloud - having scored two direct hits right through the front doors of the hangar - very, very exciting! Once clear of the airfield we all pulled up and checked each other over for coolant leaks and dents. This was SOP and we did not leave the filming site for our base until we were sure temperatures and pressures had stabilised. Transit home was at low-level and in standard battle formation.

Top shows the Mustangs ‘deadly’ cargo – plaster filled bombs.

Subsequently we moved to another airfield at Tablada near Seville. This was also a joint civil/military airfield and a delightful environment to operate from. A great deal of help was provided by the Spanish Air Force in the form of Engineering Officer Major Carlos Saldana and also by the Royal Aero Club of Seville who do some of the best flying club lunches I've ever had. They also have a huge swimming pool, large patio and dance floor. Not at all like the average fly-blown UK flying club. With the Mustangs parked under some trees, 50 yards from the bar the setting was idyllic!

We flew every day, sometimes twice per day. Sorties were all similar in that they were ground attack biased. However, there was a requirement for two other shots. One involved Hoof chasing and shooting down a Zero flown by Tom Donahue, an American gentleman who shot down the last aeroplane of World War II! The other requirement was for one Mustang to fly past the child-star at 150 knots with the hood open and the pilot waving. Having already had some banter with Stephen Grey and my father about them being in the background of any close-up shots, due to their advanced age, I was flabbergasted when Steven Spielberg picked father, personally, for this shot. Something to do with looking paternal I believe!

Father and son formation. Ray tail chases Mark home from the film set.

All too soon the flying was over despite our attempts to write into the script some 2 V 2 air combat sorties. Mustangs V Zeros (to no avail I'm sorry to say). I have to say that Empire of the Sun provided some of the most demanding and satisfying flying I have ever had apart from the odd air combat sortie in the RAF. Over a beer in the hotel bar each evening we would say to each other 'Well, not too many people have dropped bombs from P-51s today!'

The aeroplanes performed superbly during the film despite the very hot weather conditions. The only snags were one flat tyre, one radiator door failing fully open (luckilly) and a coolant leak, fortunately on G-HAEC's last sortie. Three minor problems for over 60 hours total flying.

The Empire of the Sun team. Left to right Mark Hanna, his father Ray Hanna, engineer Paul Mercer, Hoof Proudfoot and son Lee. Ray Hanna acted as the Mustang consultant to the film makers. Paul Mercer is currently rebuilding The Fighter Collection's Hurricane and Hoof is a Director of the same organisation.

I am told that Stephen Spielberg thought the flying sequences wore fantastic. Personally, having seen the rushes I think they are very exciting, and if you like the idea of P-51s blowing up dust and taking washing off clothes lines then this film could be for you. Of course I should point out that the film is not about aeroplanes, they are incidental. Roll on the next ground attack film! As I understand it Stephen Grey is collecting a complete Squadron of Typhoons right now, to participate in the next epic movie about the Falaise gap. I hope he lets me fly one! WW Mark Hanna.


  1. Superb, Great to see the writings of a man many admired and aspired to be like too. I never met either Mark or Ray Hanna but saw both fly a few times and there are now few who could fly like them.

  2. I've shown that clip to students several times as the memorable climax of my "It was the Mustang wot won it" lecture about the Bomber Offensive. It always impresses. Really interesting to get this account of how it was filmed.

    Chris Williams

  3. Nice story ! Thanks for bringing it up !
    I had been in contact with Mark, before he "flew away"...sad loss !

  4. I was always told that Mark flew the 'wave' seen to young Christian Bale. This article states it was Ray.

    1. It was Ray. Mark (there, the 'alternate' subject, and article author) should know!

  5. My father, John Chiu, was a young teen growing up in Shanghai when he personally witnessed the 17 January 1945 raid by the 118th TRS/74th TFS on the Japanese held airfield in Shanghai. He stood atop the roof of his rowhouse home to my grandparents' horror cheering on the sixteen P-51s as they proceeded to destroy 97 Japanese aircraft. A few years ago, I became the attending physician for Mr. Wayne Johnson, Esq. and discovered he was one of the sixteen Americans in the air that day! We were mutually amazed at the coincidence of our meeting. Unfortunately, my father suffers from Alzheimers and has never met Mr. Johnson but the last time I spoke to him when he still had his faculties, he asked if I still had contact with "the Flying Tiger". I just now realized that it was the 118th TRS depicted in The Empire of the Sun! Amazing.

  6. A great article which brought back happy memories of Mark, Ray and Hoof. Many thanks