At Jetcopters, Good Business Is No Illusion

Article by Haakon Kjole 37 / Published 22 Jan 2002, 04:50
Even though its stock trade is an "Airwolf" world of fantasy, this Southern California firm has applied down-to-earth opportunism and management savvy in building a diverse, successful business in the land of make-believe.
AIRWOLF: Airwolf in combat-mode. Photo:
THE SLEEK HELICOPTER with a rocketpod on its belly and three cannons on each jet-intake winglet skimmed down the sandstone canyon, slicing through a column of smoke from a burning vehicle and ignoring the curtain of ground fire from uniformed men scattered along its path. Then, as the rocky walls suddenly narrowed, it climbed sharply, banking left, and disappearing swiftly over the rim of the canyon.

"Cut!" the TV director shouted. "Let´s break for lunch."

Moments later the modified Bell 222, with Peter McKernan Sr., president of Jetcopters, Inc., Van Nuys, Calif., at the controls, reappeared over the canyon 35 miles (56 km) north of Los Angeles and made a leisurely pass over the location where scenes for an episode of Airwolf were being filmed. Satisfied the landing site was clear, he brought in his helicopter, which portrays the aircraft in the weekly CBS adventure program.

Piloting the Airwolf helicopter or flying the U.S. attorney general around Los Angeles are all in a day´s work for McKernan and Jetcopters, which in just a half-dozen years has become one of the biggest operations of its type, possible second only to Island Helicopter Corp. of New York City.

But unlike the fictionalized films and TV shows on which it works, there has been no make-believe involved in Jetcopters´ growth. The firm´s success has been achived by an amalgam of marketing, staff, and maintenance.

Winning combination
Jetcopters´ success is also attributable, McKernan said, to his opportunist attitude, his concentration on specific fields (charters, films) and his efforts to assure customer satisfaction.

Film and TV work account for a large and highly visible part of Jetcopters´ business. Even larger is the company´s corporate and private charter work. Flight training also represents a small but significant portion, and bank runs are a recent addition to the revenue picture.

It was time, not revenue, however that first interested McKernan in helicopters and ultimately led to the founding of Jetcopters. The former Marine Corps fighter pilot´s real-estate management activities required a lot of time-consuming driving. So, he began to explore transportation alternatives.

Ironically, while in the Marines, the lieutenant colonel deliberately shunned helicopters, "because once you flew them in the Corps, you never saw a jet again," he relayed.

But, bowing to his civilian transportation needs, he ordered a Bell 206B JetRanger III in May 1979, picked up a commercial add-on license, and began flying to work. A few months later, a flood southeast of Los Angeles triggered a chain of events that sparked Jetcopters.

McKernan explained that when an ABC (television) flood-filming crew was unable to charter a helicopter from its usual source, they were referred to him. "For three days work, I earned $5000," he said. "They paid for something I enjoyed doing, and I thought that was a pretty good way to make a living."

A star is born
As a result, Jetcopters was formed in November 1979 as an air-taxi operation at Van Nuys Airport. McKernan targeted his initial marketing efforts at the large number of Fortune 500-type companies in Southern California, and also pursued business with the major networks and local TV stations.

"I visited with each of the news chiefs and we got NBC," McKernan said. "It´s just on an on-call basis. But, based on jobs I started picking up that November, I purchased my second 206B in December.

Jetcopters added a third helicopter (a McDonnell Douglas 500D) in the spring of 1980 for use in films and TV work, and in September it purchased a fourth, a Bell Longranger II. Today, Jetcopters´ fleet has grown to 23 helicopters and its main base in Van Nuys now includes 4,000 square feet (360 m2) of office space and five hangars. In addition, the firm has satellite operations in Orange County, south of Los Angeles; Honolulu; and in the San Francisco Bay area. McKernan is also considering a Phoenix, Ariz. operation.

Jetcopters´ fleet includes three Hughes/Schweizer 300Cs, two McDonnell Douglas 500Ds, one Sikorsky S-76, seven Bell 206L LongRaners, seven 206B JetRangers, one 222, one 205A, and one Aerospatiale TwinStar. Jetcopters employs 13 fulltime and eight parttime pilots.

"Most of the parttimers are Hollywood pilots who have many years of experience in flying for different studios and production companies," McKernan explained. "They also have their contacts," he added wisely.

No lost time
"We average about 400 to 500 hours per year per helicopter," McKernan said, adding that between 8,000 and 9,000 hours were flown in 1984. Breaking down the hours, he said the most-recent 1985 figures show charter flights, excluding movie and TV jobs, accounted for 58%, while training and miscellaneous represented another 6%.

The remainder of the work, movies or TV, is an outgrowth of a brief job on the old "Hart to Hart" series. In January 1980, less than three months after Jetcopters´ founding, a script called for a "nondescript helicopter," one that hadn´t been seen in prior episodes. McKernan supplied a Bell 206B that wound up portraying a Mexican police helicopter.

"We sent our helicopter out and shot for a couple of days," McKernan said. "So I figured, I´m going to be on the series a lot."

He was wrong - but quickly learned that Hollywood is a tough place to penetrate, whether as an actor, cameraman, or helicopter operator. A recommendation by someone in the industry proved helpful.

The Hollywood connection
"In May of 1980, about three weeks before I bought the 500D, I met with David Jones, probably the premier Hollywood helicopter pilot," McKernan said. "He is a [former] Marine Corps helicopter pilot and was probably responsible for 50% or 60% of all the helicopter flying being done in Hollywood."

McKernan met Jones´ stiff requirements for good pilots and good maintenance, and a deal was struck. "David is an independent operator," McKernan explained, outlining some of the Hollywood intricacies. "He goes to the studio and the studio hires him as a pilot. Then his responsibility is to go out and find a helicopter to fly in the show that he´s been contracted for."

Based on his talks with Jones, McKernan purchased the 500D subsequently used in The Escape of D.B. Cooper and UFO, opening the Hollywood door for Jetcopters.

"Once you get on a show and demonstrate your ability to the director and/or producer, then you´re like an old friend," McKernan said. "The word spreads".

"If I hear of a job in a movie, I will call a director I´ve worked for and say, Do you know Joe Smith who´s directing this other show?. And if he says ´Oh yeah, he´s a good friend of mine´, I´ll ask if he would call and tell him I´d like a shot at it."

McKernan said he also advertises in the Yellow pages and in the news media, and he also uses an outside public-relations agency, which works to keep Jetcopters highly visible to both the entertainment industry and the public. Weekly appearances on both Airwolf and Magnum, P.I., help too.

Magnum served as a showcase and provided credentials that have led to more work. McKernan said the Magnum connection, and now Airwolf, have proved very advantageous in generating the necessary Hollywood exposure.

Jetcopters´ Magnum job initially came about when Universal Studios asked Jones to go to Honolulu as second unit director responsible for Magnum´s aerial sequences. He was to bring another helicopter wuth him to replace the one that had been previously used. The executive producer was Don Bellisario.

Putting on the Ritz
After the success of Columbia Pictures´ movie Blue Thunder, Universal asked Bellisario to develop a helicopter-related TV series, which ultimately became Airwolf. Having worked with Jetcopters on Magnum Bellisario asked McKernan to find a high-tech looking helicopter for the show.

"So we came up with the 222," McKernan said. "We stripped out the interior, all the soundproofing, and made it look like a Marine-type helicopter. It´s all metal inside."

"We put lightweight seats up front. Then we added fiberglass pieces on each side for the fake jet engines, covering each rear door and wrapping around the winglets."

The modifications also included detachable fake weapons: one 40-mm and two 30-mm cannons on each winglet and a rocket launcher beneath the belly. The FAA does not permit the helicopter to fly over Los Angeles with the fake armament attached, so it has to be mounted on location. The electronics filled cockpit seen on the program is a mockup filmed on soundstage at Universal.

Bell Helicopter Textron Inc. assisted in the engineering equations required by the FAA for the modifications, and three months and $300,000 later on Sept. 29 1983, the FAA certified the modified helicopter in the restricted category.

Illusion´s intent
Through the magic of Hollywood, Airwolf´s great speed is achieved by slowing down the camera to 12 frames per second. Then when the film is projected at the normal 24 frames per second, the helicopter´s speed appears in the supersonic range.

The firing of the cannons and rockets is also an illusion. The muzzle-flash effects are added optically after the film has been shot. Another illusion is that Airwolf stars Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine actually fly any of the helicopters on the show. Instead, McKernan or one of his pilots dons a Vincent look-alike helmet and gray tunic when flying the Airwolf 222.

One other Hollywood requirement is that pilots appearing on camera - even though not reckognizable - must be paid-up members of the Screen Actors Guild.

The fact that only those with excellent piloting skills are considered comes through clearly when McKernan explains the working environment. A pilot must "know the full aearodynamic capabilities of the helicopter. You must know at all times where you are," he told R&WI.

"In film and TV, you´re operating a lot right at the edge of the envelope, down in the dirt. Many times we´re operating below 100 feet in close proximity to obstacles - trees, bridges, cliffs. You´ve also got to worry about the people on the ground. I call it a very high adrenaline job."

At the same time, McKernan continued, an actor-pilot must always be aware of where the camera is so that the doesn´t block the line of sight between the helicopter and the camera.

"You find yourself directing your own shot many times, because you´re the [helicopter] expert out there," McKernan noted. "The director on the ground may want you to fly upside down through a tunnel, so you give him an alternative."

An equally demanding job is flying the camera ship, McKernan said. That requires both piloting skills and a knowledge of filmmaking. "When you´re the camera helicopter, you´re not flying the helicopter, you´re flying the camera. At times, the camera is pointing out the side, so the helicopter has to fly sideways.

"We were doing some stuff on an A Team show in which we were operating about eight inches to a foot off the water. We were in a 20-knot sideward flight in the camera ship, following a girl on a jet water ski being picked up by another helicopter with a guy leaning out to make the grab."

Expertise and safety
All of this is done with careful preperation and support. The FAA requires a special film operations manual be filed covering the unusual and specialized demands of the work. In addition, Jetcopters always brings along a ground coordinator, mechanic, and fuel truck with auxiliary power unit on location.

"We operate very light on fuel," McKernan said. "It gives us more versatility and power, and, if we have a problem and have to make an emergency landing, we don´t have much fuel to worry about."

Jetcopters requires that a pilot/ground coordinator share responsibility for the safety of both the film personnel on the ground an the helicopter crew in the air.

"If he [the coordinator] sees anything he doesn´t like, he can talk to the pilot by radio," McKernan said. "He can also help the pilot land in confined or restricted areas. He can be the tail- and the main-rotor clearance person."

Still, despite the precautions and attention to detail, Jetcopters has had one accident (with a Bell 205), in which a film stuntman was killed.

But, McKernan emphasized, Jetcopters´ reputation for safety, is such that the company has worked for most of the major studios. It has flown and/or supplied helicopters for such recent films as Blue Thunder, Starman and Commando, and worked on such TV series as The Fall Guy, Remington Steele, and the Love Boat.

Which should count for a few ratings points.

First published by Rotor & Wing International/February 1986

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