Commercial, Products, Services

Flying Above the Stars

By Douglas W. Nelms | August 1, 2005
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IT MAY BE THAT FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA'S EPIC DRAMA "Apocalypse Now" is to Vietnam what today's "Reality TV" shows are to...well, reality--but who can forget the opening scene of Army Huey's passing across the screen, their blades dramatically cutting in slow motion through the air? Equally memorable is the image of the Korean War OH-13 landing on the hillside helipad as Hawkeye Pierce, Radar O'Reilly and the other medical personnel of MASH 4077 rushed up to greet it. Helicopters have, indeed, become major actors in the movies.

They have also become the filming platform for far more movies, TV shows, commercials and documentaries than the public can even imagine. Which means here is a niche that not only can be highly profitable, but also excitingly glamorous and fun. Who wouldn't want to be highly involved in making a movie, meeting the stars and watching the miracle of Hollywood in action while earning a good living doing it? The answer is--pretty much anyone would . The real question, though, is "How?"

There are essentially three types of helicopter operators who fly for the film industry. The biggest would be a company such as Helinet Aviation Services, operating some 50 helicopters and based at Van Nuys Airport, Van Nuys, Calif. Helinet's helicopters are actually used for a wide range of operations, from movie making to electronic news gathering to law enforcement. Most of the aircraft are dedicated to the specific role they play and operation they support--painted in the livery of the TV station or law enforcement organization they serve. But they are also readily available on an ad hoc basis for whatever type helicopter may be called for in a new film production. The company is owned and run by CEO Alan Purwin, who is also an actor and member of the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG), and can be seen in roles such as the pilot of the MD500 in The Italian Job."


The second type are small operators such as Cliff Fleming, who owns and runs South Coast Helicopters in Costa Mesa, Calif. Fleming owns three AStar AS350B2s which are used on an ad hoc basis as `helicopter for hire' operations such as fire fighting. Fleming works as a free-lance movie pilot and aerial coordinator, using his helicopters if needed or leasing others as required.

The third is the independent operator such as Peter McKernan of McKernan Motion Picture Aviation who owns a single AS350B2, leases whatever type helicopter is needed for his next filming contract and only works in the film industry.

Like Purwin, both McKernan and Fleming are members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) who have served both as actors on screen and as aerial coordinators off screen. Pilots who fly for the film industry and want to actually be in the movie or commercial being filmed must be a member of SAG. They do not, however, have to be members to fly a helicopter that is serving as the camera platform.

Getting into SAG is not an easy thing, since it is a union and, like any union, there has to be a really good reason "because it dilutes the pool, and the union wants to protect its own," Purwin said. However, if there is a requirement that can not otherwise be met, pilots will be let in. "For `The Island,' (the producers) wanted two EC120s, and there were none around here," Purwin said. "So I hired a guy from Australia named David Calvert-Jones, who brought his EC120 with him. I made a deal with CJ that we would lease his helicopter and I would do everything I could to get him into SAG. Since he has the helicopter and has to fly it because of insurance reasons, that's going to cause the producer to pitch SAG to get a waiver so we can get him into the movie so he can fly the helicopter."

SAG is very much an "old boys club," where nepotism is rampant and knowing the right person is critical. "I've gotten a few good friends of mine in because some producers and directors are friends of mine. It's a great way to reward a line pilot," Purwin said.

The entire industry, in fact, is an "old boys club," with directors and producers having their favorite pilots and aerial coordinators whom they will go to whenever they need helicopters either involved in the action or as a camera platform. This means an operator such as McKernan may be hired by a producer who knows his work and likes him, then McKernan will hire a direct competitor such as Purwin or Fleming because he needs additional pilots and/or they have the helicopters that are required for the movie.

While the film industry tends to be a fairly close-knit community, there are actually a lot of pilots who are hired as needed for a particular project. However, the number of individuals who get the contracts to manage the aerial activities--hiring pilots, arranging for aircraft, working directly with a film's director to get the right shots--is limited.

"There are probably half a dozen of us who do about 95 percent of the movies that are generated out of Hollywood," Purwin said, to include both on screen and camera platform work. Purwin was aerial coordinator and a pilot in "Pearl Harbor," and needed 20 pilots. "There are not really 20 SAG pilots, particularly when you start flying old airplanes such as P-40s and Zeros that are 60-plus years old. You just get the guys that you know can do the job safely. I brought in guys that I don't normally work with, such as Craig Hopkins who works with Cliff (Fleming) quite a bit, and Kevin LaRosa who has been my competitor across the field. But we're friendly competitors. At the end of the day, we make decisions that are appropriate to the job at hand, rather than just giving the job to a friend because he deserves it and I haven't given him one in a while. You try to match up the right talent with the right aircraft."

The best way to break into the industry is to go to Los Angeles and try to get hired by a company such as Helinet or South Coast Helicopters, but don't expect to start staring in a movie the next day, Purwin said. When hiring a pilot, he looks for talent and skill, with personalities being "pretty well secondary."

However, the attitude of new pilots can be critical to their success, McKernan said. "We get guys who come out here and immediately want to be the pilot in command. They may be good pilots, but they just don't have the (movie) experience. The way to do it is be willing to start at the bottom, being a line pilot or even driving fuel trucks. It's very important that guys understand that they just can't come out here and say they are movie pilots. That's how accidents happen."

One of the problems now is that the core of the highly experienced pilots in the film industry, pilots who were mentored by famed Hollywood pilots such as Peter McKernan, Sr., Jim Gavin, Frank Holgate (director of photography), David Butler, Rex Metz and the late David Jones, are getting into their 50's, without enough young pilots coming up through the ranks to gain the experience they need, McKernan said. "There aren't enough guys in their 20's and 30's getting into the pipeline. We would love to see a group of 25-year-old pilots with the patience to break into the industry. The problem is that guys don't want to work the really long hours or spend their time going all over the world (on location) for the filming."

Fleming noted that it very much depends on the pilot's qualifications in the helicopter type and what type of flying will be done. He was aerial coordinator for "We Were Soldiers" with Mel Gibson, the story of the lst Cavalry in the battle of the Ia Drang Valley, the first large scale battle in which helicopters played a major role. Fleming also flew the helicopter with Greg Kennear, who portrayed Maj. Bruce `Snake' Crandall, a key pilot in the actual battle.

For military movies, "You need ex-military pilots who are used to formation flying. Civilians are not," Fleming said. "For `Soldiers,' I looked for pilot who can fly formation. A lot of pilots who come up through general aviation can not fly formation. The military pilots who can fly formation are getting less and less."

However, one of the problems for military pilots who know how to fly formation "is that they don't understand how the flight will look in the camera." Fleming said. "We have to explain that all the helicopters have to be in the frame, so landing in a standard formation may not work. We may stagger the formation that doesn't look like any formation in the military, but the way we stagger them they are all being seen by the camera and framed. Whereas a standard formation would have the helicopters stepped up, we might have the ones in the back stepped down so the camera can see them.

"There's also a problem when you get a military helicopter (for a film), finding pilots to fly them. What civilian pilot can fly a UH-60 unless he's been a military UH-60 pilot? With a little training, I might be able to fly a UH-60, but you'd want somebody else in there that knows what he's doing. Beware of the pilot who says `If you can start it, I can fly it.' If he can't start it, he can't fly it."

Pilots also need to get into the Motion Picture Pilots Association, which is not easy. There are currently only 24 members, and a candidate for membership must have proven himself or herself (there is one female MPPA member) in order to nominated for membership.

"Getting into this industry is a tough nut to crack," McKernan said, "but it's a great career."

First and foremost in the use of helicopters in the film industry is safety. Despite the best efforts, accidents do happen and people do get killed. The most noted incident was the death of actor Vic Morrow and two small children when a helicopter directly in front of them crashed, sending pieces of rotor blade right at them. While that was a great tragedy, "it was one of the best things that ever happened to the (helicopter) filming industry as far as safety was concerned," Fleming said. "It forced safety regulations."

The FAA came out with the requirement for a "Motion Picture and Production" manual that requires anyone wanting to operate as an aerial director, or coordinator, for the film industry to submit a manual outlining how they will meet the requirements of FAA Handbook 8700, Chapter 52, Change 26, covering the industry. This "Movie Manual" is good for 24 calendar months and is basically a compliance statement for how an aerial director is going to conduct his operations. Essentially, the manual ensures that the aerial director/helicopter operator "has developed safe operating procedure guidelines and criteria if necessary to operate below altitudes required in FAR Part 91 and 119, and in the case of aerobatic flight, Part 91.79," according to Dale House, aviation safety inspector in the FAA's Van Nuys office.

Once approved, the manual is then used to allow a waiver "at less than the dimensions of the FARs within acceptable safety standards," he said.

The aerial director must then submit a Plan of Activity for each specific filming event, House said. "They are asked to provide as much lead time as possible for any particular event so that we can look at it in its entirety," he said. "Some filming events are much more complicated than others. Some may involve air-worthiness issues as well as operational issues. Or geographic issues." While the Movie Manual authorizes them to perform the operation, the plan provides the waivers for specific events such as flying under a bridge, or in the case of "The Italian Job," flying into and out of an underground loading dock tunnel.

"Motion picture filming generally is a stunt type of flying that involves flying closer to the public than the FARs allow. So within an appropriate level of safety, we can allow that if they have taken the appropriate steps," House said.

Once a plans is submitted, an inspector will look at it and either approve or disapprove it. If disapproved, "we can give them guidance on how they can get it accomplished," he said.

Depending on how complex the inspector feels a shoot may be, he also has the prerogative to survey the actual filming, "to ensure that they are conducting their activity" in accordance with their plan, House said.

Each operator submits his own Movie Manual to the FAA for approval. That manual will then be reviewed by an FAA inspector for compliance with Chapter 52 of the FAA handbook. If the inspector feels that it does not meet the requirements, he will return it, listing specifically what needs to be done to get it right, House said.

While it is up to the operator to develop his own Movie Manual, the FAA has some specific pilot requirements. A movie pilot must hold a U.S. commercial pilot certificate with the appropriate ratings and have at least 500 hr. as pilot in command and 20 hr. as PIC in type, a minimum of 100 hr. in category and class, and a minimum of 5 hr. in specific make and model of the aircraft being used. For aerobatic work, the pilot must hold an aerobatic competency card. He must also be specifically approved to perform operations like external loads, such as someone repelling out of an aircraft or crawling up a rope, House said. "They must meet similar requirements to Part 133, which is another regulation that governs external loads."

However, those are the minimum requirements, House said. Some operators submit manuals with higher minimums. "They don't want someone using their manual that has only the FAA's minimal amount of experience. Generally what will happen is that the manual holder will hire someone for a specific job because they need a particular helicopter in a particular area, and the guy with the helicopter won't let anyone fly the helicopter except himself. So if that person only has to meet minimum requirements, he may be compromising the comfort level of the manual holder. So the manual holder will put in a higher minimum requirement so they are sure of getting the right person for the job."

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