Black Jack's Last Mission

Filming The B-17 Underwater

As told by Lyn Manly

After eight months of planning, the Black Jack’s Last Mission film crew gathered at Tarakwaruru Village Mission in December 1987, a year after Rodney Pearce found the B-17 off Boga Boga. Nine of us had flown from Australia to Port Moresby then over the mountains to the little airstrip at Cape Vogel. Rod Pearce, Bruce Johnson and two crew had come in Rod’s boat, Barbarian, which was tied up at the mission wharf.
David Pennefather joined us the following day.

The film crew brought 550 pounds of gear including an Arriflex 16SR camera with  an Arrimarin underwater housing, Sea-Tite lights and 18,000 feet of film: ten rolls of a then-new 200 ASA Eastman Hi-Speed stock for the underwater filming and 35 rolls of 64 ASA.

The underwater production team was led by director of photography Russell Galloway with Pat Manly as underwater camera assistant, Lyn Manly (dive co-ordinator and production stills), divemaster Jim Smith and Bradley Strohfeldt (a commercial diver from Lae) as a safety diver and second camera assistant.

Rod Pearce had organized air tanks and compressors to refill them, generators to charge the batteries for the camera and lights and to power the refrigerator, food supplies and fuel. The refrigerator was partly for the food, but mainly for the film. [Russell Galloway later recalled way more beer than food or film but that can’t be right.].

Lyn Manly had organized special dive tables that took into account the depth of the B-17, the water temperature, the current and the equipment.

The dive profile gave a 15-minute bottom time, with decompression stops at the nine, six and three-metre marks. Spare tanks and regulators were placed at the decompression stations. For the first two days the divers operated as one unit, but as things went smoothly and everyone got used to the routine, they split into two teams to increase the amount of daily underwater filming.

Here’s how it worked: The safety divers, Jim Smith and an assistant, tied a guide rope from the 15 metre mark on the “wall” of the reef down to 40 metres on a small coral spur adjacent to the plane. It was along this section that they experienced the strongest currents and the guide rope made it possible for the divers, in particular the person carrying the movie camera, to pull themselves along. On some dives there was no current but on others the current whipped along the wall and soared over the top of the plane. Strong currents meant good visibility, and the film crew prayed for the current to run for shoots involving long shots.

Each dive team consisted of a cameraman, camera assistant, and a safety diver who monitored the cameraman’s air supply, plus some or all of the three who had found the plane. The safety diver or camera assistant carried the camera in its housing down to the gathering point at a depth of forty metres. It would be passed over to the cameraman, lights attached to the top of the housing and then they were ready to shoot. The camera assistant directed the “actors” into position.

The day’s shooting was carefully planned the night before, although there was always a fallback plan if visibility went to one extreme or the other – wide shots of the wreck if it was good, closer shots and interiors if it was low. Everything depended on the weather, cloud cover and sunshine. Visibility at the wreck was such a critical factor that two divers who weren’t involved in the filming that day would dive down to Black Jack and report back on the visibility, current and any other important factors.

This routine was followed for eight days, the first team usually diving about 9:00 in the morning, the second team in mid-afternoon after fresh film had been loaded and batteries changed.

The most people we had at the wreck at one time was eight on December 10, 1987 for one of the most spectacular shots in the film: Rodney Pearce, David Pennefather and Bruce Johnson swimming down and over the B-17 to the battered nose, filmed by Russell Galloway from atop Black Jack’s  tail.

The vast majority of the underwater footage you see in the film was shot by Russell Galloway, and Julia Mair of National Geographic was delighted, commenting in a letter that, “The camerawork was outstanding on Black Jack's Last Mission”.

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