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Imagine flying a plane over the foreboding North Atlantic back in the '40s. Thousands of miles in the air with only roiling ocean below, and usually in a stripped-down aircraft with crude controls and navigational devices. If a pilot managed to avoid freezing to death or running out of fuel, there was always the very real danger of getting lost. Nerves of steel were a necessity.

But heroes made their own luck in those days -- and there was a war going on. As depicted in the miniseries Above and Beyond, there were many Canadian pilots willing to risk flying the mission time and again to deliver needed planes to Britain's embattled Royal Air Force. The foolhardy young group became known as the Atlantic Ferry Service, which was later elevated to the higher rank of RAF Ferry Command. They were among the first heroes of the Second World War. Airing over two nights, the film opens in the summer of 1940, with the Battle of Britain raging and the Royal Air Force running desperately low on functional aircraft. Canadian press magnate Lord Beaverbrook (Kenneth Welsh) suggests to British prime minister Winston Churchill (Joss Ackland) the notion of flying reserve planes from Newfoundland to Europe -- the trip was regarded a suicide mission.

A few months later, however, seven Hudson bombers, flown by civilian pilots, successfully completed the treacherous flight plan, which started in Gander and ended at an airbase in Ireland. Before the war ended, more than 10,000 aircraft made the same trip.

The history lesson is merged with romantic drama in Above and Beyond. The central character in the story is a winsome young Newfoundlander named Shelagh Emberly (Liane Balaban) torn between her relationship with the Gander airport manager (Allan Hawco) and her infatuation with a rakish American pilot (Jonathan Scarfe). Also in the mix is Richard E. Grant, who plays a brash Australian flying ace dispatched to Montreal to recruit and train civilian pilots.

There were setbacks, naturally. In 1941, famed Canadian Sir Frederick Banting (Jason Priestley), the discoverer of insulin, was flying to England on a clandestine mission for the Ferry Command when his plane crashed shortly after takeoff from Gander.

In the months to follow, the British and American forces decided to convert the Ferry Command from a civilian to military operation. After the war, many of the same pilots went on to work for the new airlines starting up. In its own way, the Ferry Command was the foundation of commercial aviation history in Canada.

Filmed in Gander and other locations, and using several authentic planes from the era, the miniseries employed numerous East Coast actors to fill the roles. The project was particularly satisfying for the Newfoundland-born Hawco. "In a very large way, Gander had a huge influence," says Hawco. "It must have been terrifying for the pilots," he says, "but how exciting at the same time. To be the first to fly across the Atlantic, delivering these planes that you knew were going to stop the war."

Above and Beyond

Sunday and Monday

8 p.m., CBC


Globe Television | October 28-November 3, 2006