Movie Stunt Pilot: Wilson ‘Connie’ Edwards…

I can well recall the great excitement I felt when, back in 1969, my mother took my brother & I into Winchester’s Theatre Royal during our long summer holidays to watch the new Guy Hamilton-directed movie: ‘The Battle of Britain’.

It was my first real experience of a major World War Two motion picture up on the ‘big screen’… and, oh boy, what an action-packed film it was, (still is in fact), and it really was the talk of my school and amongst all of my other pals that had similarly also seen the movie during their holidays!

Once back at school after the break, as well as talking about the movie we’d all seen and thoroughly enjoyed during the summer, there was then the added excitement of the swaps & trades of the associated chewing gum ‘cigarette cards’ doing the rounds that were issued to co-incide with the movie’s release. Based on the myriad official press stills from the movies,  I remember that my young pals and I soon had our fill of the revolting, bland gum contained within the packs that new school term as we laboured hard to collect all of the fantastic cards in the series..!

At the time I had absolutely no inkling whatsoever that I would, a lifetime later, actually be standing in a huge aircraft hanger over in deepest Texas clambering over & around the actual Messerschmitt Bf-109s and lead Spitfire from the movie and interviewing the chief stunt pilot in charge of all the American ‘crop dusters’ who flew the vintage fighters in the movie!

One of the reasons for my Texan trip all those years later was to interview an ME-109 pilot, however unfortunately the fighter that was due to be at the Confederate Air Force’s annual weekend show at its air-base at Midland-Odessa had been forced to ditch somewhere in the desert en route to the show. Mercifully, though the pilot was OK, the plane wasn’t thus leaving me casting my eyes around for another opportunity, if that were at all possible.

Then somebody asked me if I knew of Connie Edwards…”Connie who?” I asked in dreadful ignorance…to be told that not only had Wilson ‘Connie’ Edwards’ been the lead stunt pilot on The Battle of Britain, but he also owned about a dozen or so of the movie’s Spanish-built ME-109s… and he lived just a 50 mile drive from Midland…

Connie’s number was found and I made a tentative call that was answered by a bluff voice that immediately mellowed when he heard my English voice. Apparently Connie was not in the habit of giving media interviews but as an ‘Anglophile’ said he’d would love to meet me if I would to come out to his ranch. So the following day, hire-car booked, I found myself on the highway driving out to Big Spring looking for his ranch, not realising that it was nearly half the size of Texas..!

I still remember the look on the faces of the construction workers on the side of a very hot & dusty road in the middle of nowhere when I stopped, wound down the car window and politely asked, (in something of an ‘Oxford-English’ accent), if they would kindly point me in the direction of Connie’s ranch..!

Once found, I began the long drive from the highway over hill & dale all through huge cotton fields to a long air-strip with massive hangers and, parking up, I walked over to the nearest and opening a small door, stepped in out of the blistering heat to see a huge Catalina flying boat and the backsides of two men in overalls bending over tinkering with some engine part on the floor.

Mr Edwards?” I called out and up popped Connie, typical farmer’s oily dungarees, a grimy baseball hat to the back of his head and a grin from ear to ear…”Welcome boy…c’mon in and have a beer’..the warm Texan greeting I was beginning to get used to in this wonderful part of America. After our initial chat and introductions he invited me to jump into his old pick-up truck outside and, (accompanied by the most ferocious looking ‘attack dog’ I had ever seen that alarmingly jumped in behind me and stuck its head between the two front seats and slavered alarmingly near my right ear), we shot across the tarmac strip to another equally large hanger.

Here again stepping inside out of the searing noon-day heat, as my eyes slowly accustomed to the gloom I was met by the most incredible sight… a’ multiple plane crash’ with parts of ME-109s all over the shop, wings here, fuselages there, tails hanging from the roof… what on earth had just happened..?

Seeing my confusion, Connie quietly explained that for the movie in ’69, the production company had spent years scouring the world looking for the required ME-109s, few if any remaining in Germany. However the Spanish had been a customer of Messerschmitt during their Civil War and had acquired a number of the latest ME-109s in the late 30s, including a rare 2-seat trainer used, post-war WW-II, by a Spanish Air Force Colonel, and these had continued to fly into the 1950s and early 1960s.

Producer Harry Saltzman had managed to buy all of the ME-109s, (plus several still-flying Heinkel-111s), from the Spanish Government and these, with Rolls Royce replacement engines fitted, were the planes used in the aerial action scenes.

Connie was tasked with gathering together a ‘squadron of bush pilots’ to come over to Europe and fly most of the aircraft, including the Spitfires that we now see on screen… in fact Connie took the lead Spitfire role and so it was even more of a school-boy dream when we wandered into the next hanger to see the actual Spitfire standing there, albeit covered in dust & grime, before my eyes… but as I was still reeling from seeing so many of the movie aircraft from my youth standing here in various states of disrepair, my first questions to Connie had to be: “why and how..?”

Apparently, according to Connie, the finished movie that we now regularly see on TV was not quite the film that was due to be eventually shown as much of the air sequences ended up on the cutting-room floor and indeed as the film company was running short of money, a number of short-cuts were taken. So when it came to being paid off, such was the shortage of money that Connie, (so obviously a fabulously wealthy oil-billionaire), simply said ‘fine, I’ll take the aircraft as IOUs’… and he actually had all of the ME-109s plus the two lead Spitfires subsequently crated up and shipped back home to Texas in lieu of his movie payment!!!

Unbelievably, in a third hanger I saw through the further gloom a pair of sleek, but completely dust-covered, piston-engined fighter aircraft in an unusual gray & green camouflage: and when I looked closer my eyes nearly popped out of my head as I realised I was actually looking at 2 World War Two-era USAAF P.51 Mustangs..!

Again Connie saw my querying expression and answered, “yep, two original Mustangs: I flew them in the Nicaraguan Civil War and they couldn’t pay me either… so I had these two beauties shipped home as well!”

I have to say in all of my working life I have never met such a character as Connie, he was truly a Texan one-off and my time with him and his WW-II aircraft was just out of this world… but the strangest thing was yet to come. I was already being to realise that I was in the company of both a kindly man and a true eccentric and bordering on eccentric myself I certainly recognise the signs. However having taken me on a tour of the ranch and then walked me out, chest-high, into the middle of a cotton field (and when I enquired what the rattling noise near my feet was, told. “Oh that’s just a rattle-snake!” Jeez, I never realised I could move so fast!!), he calmly asked me if I’d like to take a look at the ’house’ he was building?

By now I was ready for anything, or so I thought, and after another drive  we crested a hill and there before me… was a half-built Camelot! Connie had become so enamoured of our history during his time in the UK that on his return to Texas he set about building himself a true English castle – even down to building himself a ‘castle brick-making machine’..!

A guided-tour of this castle, (including a visit to his office to see photos on every wall of him in the cockpit of almost every fighter aircraft you could imagine), eventually led me to a huge oak wooden door through which was Camelot HQ, a huge hall with minstrel galleries & shields & lances on every wall, a massive banqueting table and even an entrance down on the rock floor through which you could swim from his outside pool, dive under the outer wall and come up in the main baronial hall..!

By this time I was beginning to wonder if the heat was getting to me as I continued to wander in stunned fashion after Connie around his castle… seeing all those original WW-II fighter aircraft in his hangar was one thing, but this was another.

However there was one final joke to come from this jovial ‘Anglophile’:.. leading me down an old, dark  passage-way in the stygian gloom, we came up against another a massive old door.. “go on son, open it up…” Connie grinned, as he stepped back to let me through…

Gripping the huge wrought iron handle I opened the door and pushed the heavy weight inwards accompanied by a real ‘Hammer House of Horror’ squeal of rusty hinges… to be faced with a mass of cobwebs, and pushing through the dust & muck I realised I was in an ‘old’ wine cellar. Connie came past me and reached for a bottle and pulling it down off the dusty rack, blew away the cobwebs to proudly show me the bottle label… with last months’ date on!

Connie had only gone and built himself a cobweb-making machine as well… and there I was thinking it was only we Brits that were so wonderfully eccentric..!

Truly an incredible day… truly an incredible man..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2013


Third Reich-era CDs versus the Computer..!

Despite being totally immersed in the production & voice-over work that I undertake for Tomahawk Films, I must admit that there is just the odd occasion when I feel a bit ’left behind’ in terms of my own levels of technical expertise..(which  suppose is why I became a producer: so I could simply hire or bring in the  brightest of the young ‘techies’ to assist with our work!!).. and quite how I managed to ‘self-op’ a top-flight radio studio for so many years of working as a local radio presenter without taking myself off air, I’ll never quite know..must have been more in the way of luck than judgement..!

Nevertheless, I must admit that I have rather been dragged ‘kicking & screaming’ into the technological era and the learning curve of new technologies & systems has been rather steep, what with  Tomahawk’s new website design & operation, the new Blog, our newly created Amazon shop-window, the world of PayPal & Sage-Pay secure on-line banking and even finding my way around my own personal i-Tunes account, (to which I now enjoy down-loading rock music, having been a fairly successful rock drummer myself in the days before I entered the ‘heady’ media world!), it’s all been a bit frenetic… though I still draw the line at Facebook and having an can have too much of a good thing…not!

I suppose had I a young family of my own with a small brood of  ‘techie wunderkind’ then I would be far more advanced, and perhaps more relaxed, in my actual hands-on usage, though with the myriad audio & computer-based technology available on tap these days a certain ‘knowledge of’ has to be there at our professional level of Music & TV production, so thankfully I must be picking up a lot of the new skills than I realise by Osmosis, but I thank the gods I am surrounded by a team of young technical wizards who are blessed with a frightening level of expertise..!

Though only in my mid 50’s, in my defence I have to say that in the 30-plus years I have been in involved in television & radio production and thence producing Third Reich/Nazi-era music recordings for Tomahawk Films, I have witnessed technological advances in audio & picture editing on an incredible scale….indeed when I entered the television industry at the beginning of the 1980s TV documentaries were transmitted either from tele-cine (film), or on 2” video-tape and the ‘humble’ home VCR machine had not yet hit our high street shops.. so that’ll give you some idea of just how fast & far things have progressed during my career!

However as a Film, Television & Musik production company, Tomahawk Films has tried to keep abreast of the times, (where possible and certainly where pertinent to our work), even though we are a company dealing with archival material that is anywhere from 60 to almost 100 years old, it sometimes seems almost incongruous to me to talk about  that old material being played both in a modern era and on technologically advanced formats..and to be honest sometimes I feel as if there is a real clash of cultures that I am not always comfortable with…

I realise the day of the wind-up gramophone is long past, so in truth it is all about finding a happy balance and not asking your archival material to do in the New Millennium what its original German producers some 70-odd years ago either could not, or had no intention of doing…nor were they even possibily possessed of any credible vision of just what future technologies might bring in terms of editing & playing formats and so forth.

Indeed some years ago this was clearly illustrated to me when a fantastic young American customer called up Tomahawk Films to complain that though he dearly loved one of our CDs when played on his top-of-the-range hi-fi in his home, he was somewhat disappointed that he could not replicate  the same sound when playing it on his enormous ‘Boom Box’ in the boot (trunk) of his car… I must admit I laughed my head off and said ‘I’m not surprised, mate..!

The German music producers of the 1930s had only just progressed from recording live bands playing into a single microphone, with very little in the way of edit or enhancement facilities.. and so any talk of a ‘Boom Box’ (whatever that may be m’Lud!) would have been complete Double-Dutch back then!

I suggested to our young American friend that for those producers of the 30s, (as talented as they so obviously were when we now look back to their superb work), to somehow imagine his sort of technological future, let-alone produce an audio recording that, in 70-odd years time would sound superb when played through his massive ‘Boom Box’ would be akin to putting 1940s Spitfire or P.51 Mustang aviation-fuel into the tanks of a modern carrier-borne F-18 Super Hornet naval jet fighter… and then wondering why, when launched, it simply fut-futted to the end of the deck and merely fell over the edge instead of rising majestically into the air…you are simply asking too much performance from a 70 year-old historical item in a modern digital age..!

Our friendly American pal kindly grasped my point and went off quite happily to keep playing our Tomahawk CD on his ‘normal domestic hi-fi’ whilst, (I assume) keeping his Boom Box for his selection of Gangster Rap! But this ‘old re-mastered into the new’  does call into question the myriad modern methods of playing music, as from time-to-time our customers tell us they want play our High Street-produced CDs on their home computers..!

I must admit this is a spectre that, as a producer, always makes my heart sink as we are a production company not a computer company and I always feel somehow that is just wrong to play music CDs on a computer, especially when we hear on the very odd occasion that, because of the many vagaries of modern computer technology, the track listings sometimes don’t always match-up in their correct running order and so gives the impression to the uninitiated that the CD may be at fault.

Happily, 99 times out of a 100, the music CD not only plays pitch-perfectly though a computer, as originally & lovingly produced in the studio, but all of the track-listings load perfectly as well…  but very occasionally they do go awry and whilst that is a bit of a disappointment for the collector & enthusiast, it is not the fault of the CD. From my varying conversations with CD-manufacturing experts & replication houses, music CDs are still designed with the domestic & professional music hi-fi usage in mind…the fact that they also mostly play & correctly track-list in home computers is something of a bonus, but should certainly ‘not be taken as Gospel..!

During one of my many & varied chats to ‘those in the know’ a young computer wallah obviously fought his particular corner and said: “you should put a sticker on music CDs saying, ‘may possibly not play in a computer’ “ to which I, as the music producer, countered: ‘quite the opposite matey, any sticker were it produced should read “might play happily in a computer.. if you are lucky!’ “..and so in the words of the old UK Football Pool results: we left it as a score-draw..!

But on a serious note, Tomahawk Films is well known as being something of a very sensitive, if slightly old-fashioned, company in that we deal with very old archival material from what was obviously a troubled era and produce it primarily with the committed hi-fi archival music enthusiast, collector & historian in our minds and not really, (if we are honest) for the much younger modern generation of computer buffs!

However we are delighted when the younger, (and not so younger), ‘techie audience’ do buy our wares as they often find their own manual ways of ensuring track listings are exactly as they were produced and laid down in the studios, (if they do list slightly out of sync),  if they must insist on using a computer as their ‘hi-fi of choice’… I just have no idea what they do, (must call in the chief ‘wunderkind’ again), but it obviously works, from the happy feed-back we receive!!.

But this does focus the mind on what a modern CD or DVD will or will not do… indeed the ‘umble Compact Disc’ when first launched to a massive fanfare was hailed as ‘the answer to a maiden’s prayer’… but you only have to see & hear how many times a CD fails to perform properly to realise this ain’t necessarily so…

Quite often when you listen in to your local radio station, or you’re playing your favourite rock CD at home it will jump as a result of something as simple as a thumb-print marking the playing surface.. or in a worst case scenario you come back to a CD some 2 or 3 years after its last play and the damned thing has become a complete blank…Ouch!

But this was never meant to happen… according to the original inventors of this incredible advance in audio technology, you could happily drive a 60-ton Battle Tank over a CD ..and it would still play..yeah right! (though quite how it would still play when the area containing all of the digitally stored information is damaged beyond belief has always been an interesting question to muse on.. and one I shall leave to far brighter minds than mine to resolve!!)

However the fact that the CD still does as much as it does all these years on, is a  terrific endorsement of this means of music storage & play-back, particularly for digitally re-mastered German historical recordings that are the staple of Tomahawk Films’ daily working life..but the medium is far from infallible.. despite the desperately offered ‘60 ton Battle Tank scenario’… (and here the boffins at Kodak have some very interesting thoughts & observations which I’ll keep for a future Blog!)

Happily Tomahawk’s ‘failure rate’ in CD production/play back since we moved over from the much loved audio cassette, (see? I told you we were old-fashioned!),  back in 1999 is so small as to be ‘statistically zero’… less than a handful of CD failures in fact from the many hundreds of thousands we’ve sold around the world…and those particular faults were actually traced back to the odd duff blank as supplied from the manufacturing plant to the duplicating house: i.e. the ‘good stuff’ was unknowingly recorded straight onto the ‘duff stuff’… still mighty frustrating though as we always aim for a 100% record in everything we put our minds too..!

Which also reminds me of the gentleman who called Tomahawk  Films up to complain that one CD he’d had for some very long while did not play any longer, which was upsetting so we immediately offered to replace it free-of-charge as a goodwill gesture… only to have ‘this thing’ arrive in the post at our production offices that I think I ‘might’ just have recognised as once being one of our lovely Third Reich Music CDs..!

Somewhat hard to tell when 75% of the silver face coating had completely disappeared and all I could see was clear plastic and my hand showing through from the underside….I was absolutely dumbfounded and assumed the customer had been using it as a Frisbee for his pet Rottweiler..yet in that totally wrecked state he honestly expected it to still play: ‘good luck with that one fellah’.. but we replaced it anyway for his cheek, but pleaded with him not to feed any more of our cherished recordings to his faithful mutt..!

But I make no apology for Tomahawk Films taking a certain pride in  being ‘old fashioned’ in our professional approach to our archival  work, (and I have to say also in our approach to our many thousands of valued customers, even those who feed our stirring music to their household pets), and this is one of the main reasons that we professionally stay well clear of the whole download  issue… because we feel it is just not a part of what we do…

From long experience dating back to when Tomahawk Films was a WW-II film & video distributor we always found that the real collectors, enthusiasts & historians, (much like us), always wanted to buy an actual WW-II video in its box with a designed cover, so they could have something sitting smartly on their selves at home, rather than merely tape something straight from TV..advert breaks and all..!.

True collectors always did, (and I think always will),  like to own something tangible, be it a book, a DVD or CD with a slip case & printed cover bearing supporting information, and so too with our German WW-II archival products. Tomahawk’s brilliant band of loyal customers tell us they love to have an actual factory-produced & packaged item in their hand, especially with some of our CDs offering my accompanying voice-over offering a brief introduction to what they are about to hear… plus our ever-present free descriptive catalogue that comes with every Tomahawk Films CD or DVD purchase!

What our customers don’t seem to want, however, is a somewhat disembodied, single digital download for an i-Pod or computer that tells them nothing and is a part of er, well nothing in fact..and on this point I can’t say we blame ‘em!

As both a producer/historian & fellow collector myself I personally wouldn’t want to down-load an archival track as I feel my little i-Pod is purely for ‘modern music’  for me to listen to when out hiking or sitting on a ‘plane or at an airport… and when quite often there is only actually one decent track I want to down-load from my chosen rock album anyway.

Personally for me, with such beautiful & stirring Third Reich/Nazi-era recordings, I want the whole works: the CD album complete with exciting artwork cover and a contents detail that I can handle, play, read about and collect as a part of my ‘proper’ World War Two German collection…

Hopefully not being quite the Luddite I seem, (by slipping in the fact I do actually own an i-Pod and know how to download rock tracks to it), I fully appreciate that the younger, (and indeed now some of the older,) generations are growing up to think of downloads as the ‘only way to go’…and that is great for them and good luck with it..!

But having said that, and understanding how future technology is going, for the present this is simply not what The Tomahawk Films WW-II German Archive is, or will be all about..!

So for as long as our valued customer around the globe (and there are many!), feel there is still a place for an unashamedly old-fashioned archival Film, TV & Music Production company like us that continues to produce this rare archival material onto the ‘good old CD’  that you can lovingly hold and proudly display in your collection, then that is what Tomahawk Films will keep doing..!

Copyright @ Brian Matthews 2012