Nostalgia corner: Airwolf (1984-87), Blue Thunder (1984)

Airwolf

The 1970s was a time of great change for the US. It had fought and lost a war in Vietnam; it had seen one of its presidents forced to resign to avoid impeachment; and its decade-long detente with the Soviet Union was perceived in the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to have failed and to have been a ‘long con’ by the opposing superpower.

The election of Ronald Reagan as president in 1980 was a turning moment for the US. Backed by the newly emboldened Christian right, Reagan seemed to bring back the US’s self-esteem. Casting the Soviet Union as ‘the evil empire’, he redefined the US as the ‘leader of the free world’, a beacon of liberty and human rights founded on rugged individualism rather than big government, and backed by a technology-enhanced and financially boosted military. On top of that, the arrival of the microchip in the 1970s began to revolutionise technology and, in particular, computers, touching on more or less every industry, from manufacturing all the way through to music, and it was this ‘white heat of technology’ that helped Reagan to cement this philosophy in practice and demonstrate American superiority.

How the entertainment industry reacted to the new official American outlook varied. Movies, still full of an independent spirit but sensing the shift in perspective, began to embrace technology and the new sentiments. TV shows, however, under attack for the perceived effect of violence on children, retreated more into fantasy rather than face up to the new Cold War and American military might straight on.

But there was one TV show that embraced all these trends whole heartedly, becoming perhaps the epitome of the Reaganite philosophy. It was also one of the best US TV shows of the early 1980s.

Created by a former US marine and Christian Republican, with a central, rugged, individualist Vietnam veteran as hero, full of religious symbolism and military technology, and with the oppressors of the Soviet Union and its allies firmly cast as the enemy, Airwolf was coming.

Before Airwolf
 Airwolf
was not without antecedents and indeed was part of the ‘supervehicle’ trend exhibited by early 80s US TV that gave us super-powered cars and motorbikes in Knight Rider and Street Hawk before eventually giving us a superpowered HGV in The Highwayman. Its two closest progenitors were, however, movies.

Blue ThunderBlue Thunder, which itself became an ABC TV show in 1984, was a tonally groundbreaking movie that starred Roy Scheider as a former Vietnam pilot turned Los Angeles police officer, Frank Murphy. He’s asked to pilot a new prototype police helicopter, nicknamed Blue Thunder, with high-tech surveillance capabilities and weaponry, but soon discovers that those behind the helicopter are actually stirring up civil unrest in an effort to get Blue Thunder deployed.

From its opening notification that all the technology used in the movie then existed, through to its conclusion with Scheider destroying the helicopter because he doesn’t believe it should be deployed, the movie has a relationship with the helicopter that’s ambivalent, owing more to the 70s and conspiracy theory movies such as The Conversation and Three Days of the Condor than to the new Reaganite ethos. Frequent parallels are made between Blue Thunder and the attempts to control crowds from the air in Vietnam and the government thinking behind such measures, with the PTSD-stricken Murphy flashing back to frequently to the war and the horrors he saw.

While the end half of the movie clearly relishes Blue Thunder’s capabilities, the idea of the police having a helicopter equipped with a 30mm chain cannon and the ability to noiselessly hover above your house, eavesdropping on your conversations and looking through your walls with infra-red cameras, is clearly seen as massive overreach and an invasion of civil liberties.

However, the TV series adaptation of the same name was less worried about the police having that much power in their hands. Here, the heroes are the government in the form of the police force and they only use Blue Thunder to fight bad guys, usually criminals but sometimes spies.

With a smaller budget than the movie, the series wasn’t immune from borrowing footage from its source material, which enables a comparison of the movie and series’ tones. Notably, in the movie, the ‘weapons trial’ that introduces Blue Thunder’s military capabilities is clear that its weaponry isn’t fully accurate and that the government doesn’t care – a 1:10 ratio between civilian and terrorist casualties is deemed acceptable; however, the TV series edits out any civilian casualties from the footage to make Blue Thunder apparently benign… at least in the right hands.

The TV series largely followed the blueprint of the movie, giving us a pilot called Frank – Chaney this time, played by James Farentino – and an engineer, played by a young Dana Carvey (Wayne’s World), who flies with him to record surveillance and hack computers (although in contrast to the movie, his nickname, JAFO, stands for Just Another Frustrated Observer, the F standing for something quite different in the movie). Additional ground support is provided by Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus, two former American footballers turned actors, who drive a van called Rolling Thunder.

The show, however, was largely pitched at a younger audience, with Blue Thunder catching criminals while evading missiles in generally unpolitical situations, while Smith and Butkus goof around with one another, and Carvey makes wise-cracks. No civil liberties worries here to tax the younger mind.

But with Blue Thunder airing in the same time slot as Dallas and with the new threat of Airwolf on CBS, the show only lasted 11 episodes before it was cancelled. If you want it, though, you can buy all the episodes that aired on DVD.

Firefox
As its name partially suggests, much closer in tone to Airwolf than Blue Thunder was the 1982 movie Firefox directed by and starring Clint Eastwood. Based on the book by Craig Thomas, this sees another traumatised Vietnam vet with PTSD, Mitchell Gant, sneaking into the Soviet Union to steal a prototype Soviet aeroplane that far exceeds anything the US has, being capable of Mach 6, invisible to radar and armed with a thought-controlled weapons system.

Airwolf‘s pilot episode was to have many plot points in common with Firefox and the show itself even went as far as to use in its title sequence the same visual motif of blueprints that Firefox used in its trailer. However, Thomas was a Welsh teacher rather than an American patriot, and although his books are clear that the USSR is indeed the Evil Empire and that the US has fallen behind the USSR thanks to years of false detente, tonally this wasn’t the message of American exceptionalism that Reagan wanted to project. No, only a home-grown piece of technology would suffice…

Airwolf is coming…
 Airwolf
was the creation of producer Donald P Bellisario, who went on to create the massive hits Quantum Leap, JAG and NCIS. Bellisario had worked with famed TV producer Glen A Larson on the original Battlestar Galactica, before going on to create period fun Tales of the Gold Monkey for ABC. But it was with CBS that Bellisario first hit the big time with his Hawaii-based Magnum PI, starring Tom Selleck. Running from 1982-1988, that show made a star of Selleck and gave Bellisario the chance to do other, even more expensive projects with CBS.

And Airwolf, which went through various permutations of title including the considerably more obvious Lone Wolf, cost an absolute fortune, thanks in part to the expensive stunt work and the need to buy, customise and fly several Bell 222b helicopters. Despite this, surprisingly, it was a mid-season replacement, its pilot first airing in January 1984 as a CBS Saturday movie.

Thematically, it was pure Reaganism – following the failure of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1962, a sub-branch of the agency decides it needs an offensive and stealth reconnaissance and weapons capability that will prevent any such disaster happening again. Flash forward 20 years and ‘the Firm’ is ready to deploy ‘Airwolf’, a Mach 1+ capable, radar- and infra-red-invisible helicopter with firepower options ranging from 30mm chain cannons through to nuclear-tipped Shrike missiles. Like Firefox, it’s a first strike weapon capable of flying into a country and vaporising anything from a small army to an entire city without anyone ever even knowing who was responsible, let alone stopping it.

Unfortunately, the lead pilot and designer of Airwolf, Dr Charles Moffet (David Hemmings), isn’t the kind of man you should give free reign to – he steals Airwolf. And in contrast to contemporary shows such as The A-Team that allowed thousands of bullets to be fired without anyone even getting wounded, right from the outset, Airwolf was clear: there will be blood, and in copious amounts.

Following in Firefox’s footsteps, former Airwolf test pilot and absurdly named Stringfellow Hawke (Jan Michael Vincent) heads to Libya at the behest of the Firm’s white-clad Airwolf project boss ‘Archangel’ (Alex Cord). There Moffet and his fellow conspirators are now holed up, ready to bring the world to the brink of war in exchange for money and hedonism. Hawke is to steal back Airwolf, which Hawke does with the help of long-time family friend, fellow helicopter pilot and Second World War veteran Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine).

Hawke is the very epitome of the individualistic Reagan ideal, an extreme loner with a very fixed moral code, who’s more to be trusted with a weapon of mass destruction than the government itself. In common with the Vietnam vets of Blue Thunder and Firefox, he’s also traumatised, except his trauma isn’t PTSD – instead, he believes he’s cursed by God and that everyone he loves will be killed. His parents were killed in a boating accident, his brother is still MIA in Vietnam, his fiancée was killed in a car accident and, by the end of the pilot, his new girlfriend, Gabrielle (Belinda Bauer), is dead. 

Yes, in case you haven’t spotted it – St John, Santini/Saint, Gabriel(le), Archangel – as with the Book of Mormon-derived Battlestar Galactica, religious imagery was strong in Airwolf. Moffet? A traitorous former employee of Archangel and therefore a fallen angel? Certainly. The one most beloved of God, entrusted with God’s own power? Perhaps Moffet was even the Devil himself.

Airwolf - The Devil's Anvil

In contrast, while Hawke later denies in the season that he’s ‘keen on biblical justice’, he is very much an American Jesus – the morally white, right hand of God, dealing out fiery vengeance to evil doers, usually with Hellfire (missiles). Indeed, pretty much everyone’s reaction to the helicopter’s death-dealing capabilities was ‘God in Heaven’, to which Hawke’s response is a typically laconic ‘Yeah.’

The show does become polytheistic at points: Airwolf is hidden away in a mesa in the ‘Valley of the Gods’ (actually Monument Valley in California); Moffet worked for ‘Project Proteus’ in the 70s; Hawke and Airwolf face a sophisticated missile system called Thor in Fight Like A Dove; and, from the second season, Archangel’s boss is revealed to be ‘Zeus’. However, Jesus-Hawke is always superior: Thor is defeated, Zeus is always in the wrong, and Christianity remains top faith in Airwolf, albeit a very staunch, right-wing Christianity in which Jesus is happy to empty an arsenal of missiles into a sand dune to kill the fallen angel who raped and murdered his girlfriend. 

Although it often risks ridicule thanks to Hawke’s name and his habit of serenading eagles with a cello, the pilot movie (aka Shadow of the Hawke) is tonally very adult for the time. As with the rest of the series, it was novel for early 80s TV in having foreign languages spoken by people who actually could speak them, stunt men who really did know martial arts and for going for a proper spy storyline, in the style of Firefox rather than The Scarecrow and Mrs King, say. Gabrielle goes undercover in Libya as ‘an exotic dancer’ while Moffet is a sociopathic pervert who uses young naked boys for target practice, seriously considers blowing up the Pyramids to relieve his boredom, and is willing to destroy an entire battleship of American sailors in exchange for the chance to torture and rape women provided for him by the Libyans, something the episode is happy to show with as much latitude as early 80s network TV standards would allow. Countless people die thanks to both Moffet and Hawke, depending on who’s in charge of God’s instrument of power.

With some additional bad language and re-editing, Shadow of the Hawke even achieved an 18 certificate as Airwolf: The Movie in the UK.

The first season
At the end of the pilot, Hawke refuses to return Airwolf to big government, instead agreeing to fly it for the Firm in exchange for their continued quest for his brother. This forms the foundation for the following 12 episodes of the first season, which are easily the show’s strongest and some of the best and certainly the most action-packed and blood-drenched of any US show of the time. Carrying on the themes of the pilot episode, most feature Hawke and Santini flying spying missions for the Firm, venturing into Russia (Proof Through the Night, Daddy’s Gone A Hunt’n), or touching on the still fresh trauma of Vietnam and what became of those who fought there (Daddy’s Gone a Hunt’n, And They Are Us). Perhaps the most emotionally interesting, Echoes From the Past emphasises Hawke’s own trauma, asking what it would take to make him give up Airwolf, the apparent return of St John and the deaths of his friends Santini and Archangel being the answer, while And They Are Us hints that along with several others, Hawke entered ‘the life’ post-Vietnam – that is became a mercenary.

Echoes From The Past, along with Mind of the Machine, Bite of the Jackal and To Snare A Wolf, also focuses on attempts by both the US and foreign governments to recover Airwolf from Hawke, while Fight Like A Dove and Mad Over Miami pit the stark, absolute, black and white morality of Hawke against the flexible greys of both the Firm and Archangel. In a clever touch, the show’s first season had a short introduction to the basics of the series, allegedly from top secret file ‘A56-7W’, in which the voice of actor Lance LeGault emphasises that recapture of Airwolf was a priority; the final episode of the season then features LeGault as the main agent in charge of the hunt.

Boldly for a series of the time, there were serial aspects to the show. The first season frequently has Hawke, who was after all a test pilot, attempting to push Airwolf to its limits and beyond. Episodes such as Daddy’s Gone A Hunt’n and Fight Like A Dove see Hawke training Santini and trying to push the envelope of what Airwolf is capable of doing – for no other reason than simple curiosity and that’s what test pilots do. And while Shadow of the Hawke was allowed to show off Airwolf’s capabilities largely by putting it in the hands of evil when good men would have had to restrain themselves, the first season also reinforced the fact that Airwolf was intended to be flown by three people, not two, limiting its capabilites. To Snare A Wolf points out that Airwolf was a prototype, so certain of its features were ‘in flux’ – Hawke’s hating the design of the helmets is neutralised by their instant protection of his vision from flash blindness when the bombs start to fall. 

Santini, of course, is an older man, for whom Mach 1 would be a severe test of reflexes, and One Way Express sees a rift between Hawke and Santini emerge as the younger man highlights this fact – it’s not until this episode that Santini is even allowed to pilot the aircraft.

Mind of the Machine is perhaps the culmination of the theme of the uniqueness of both Airwolf and its crew, the plot revolving around the fact that there’s only one Airwolf and only two people capable of flying her: Hawke and Santini. Asked by the Firm to help create a simulator to train up the next generation of pilots in case either he or Santini is incapacitated or killed, Hawke is forced to assist the simulator’s creator (Kung Fu‘s David Carradine), who also happens to be one of the few other Airwolf test pilots. Here, the question of what it takes to be a good test pilot is explored in detail, as is the very nature of Airwolf itself.

As might be expected, a lot of the action in the first season relied on military combat, and starting from the pilot episode, Airwolf pits its helicopter’s capabilities against others through a combination of the then still new (and basic) computer graphics, stock footage and some truly dazzling aerial stuntwork and photography that probably has never been bettered in a TV series.

At this point, there was still considerable innovation in the show’s action and episodes such as Echoes Of The Past were imaginative in their use of aerial combat and flight, and the show’s music by composer Sylvester Levay – a combination of the electronic and full orchestral – was tailored to the scenes. The season’s final episode, To Snare A Wolf was not only able to use the most explosives in TV history to simulate a B-52 bombing run, it also showed that the writers were doing their best to surprise the audience in terms of their expectations of aerial action.

Unfortunately, all good things have to end sooner or later.

Season two
Season one of Airwolf had been expensive and ratings hadn’t been as good as CBS would have liked. So although the series was renewed, the order came down that it had to be both cheaper more ‘family oriented’. How then to make a show about spies and a stealth combat helicopter into something cheap and suitable for everyone.

The most obvious initial change was the introduction of a new female pilot for Airwolf, Caitlin O’Shannessy (Jean Bruce Scott) – not a terrible idea, given the male dominance of the first season, bar Archangel’s helper Marella (Bellisario’s future wife and Quantum Leap producer Deborah Pratt). While Bellisario had toyed with the idea of introducing a female pilot played by Kathleen Lloyd at the end of the first season, Bellisario had met the younger Scott while working on Magnum and hired her instead.

However, rather than simply introduce her in the first episode (Sweet Britches) and have her become a member of the tight-knit Airwolf crew immediately, as many other shows would have done, Airwolf plays out O’Shannessy’s introduction over several episodes, as she first encounters Hawke in Texas in Sweet Britches, before tracking him down to LA in the fourth episode, The Truth About Holly. It’s not until the seventh episode, Fallen Angel, that she’s allowed to join the crew, although it’s even longer before they accept her full-time, and even later before she’s allowed to sub for Santini or Hawke.

The other aspect of family friendly programming was the rejection of the spy themes of the show in favour of the domestic. While the first season’s One Way Express and Mad Over Miami had come close to this, it wasn’t until the second season that huge legions of Hawke’s former Vietnam buddies and Santini’s relatives began to emerge and be in need of help from a missile-equipped helicopter; and while the producers of the show played with a romance between Hawke and O’Shannessy, most of the Caitlin episodes were oriented around her wacky Texan ways, her mother, and her latest boyfriend, who inevitably would turn out to be a wrong ‘un, potentially one with some form of missile-equipped aircraft.

Airwolf itself became more fantastical. While the first season’s Bite of the Jackal and others had realistically shown Airwolf as still capable of being felled by missiles and well targeted RPGs, increasingly it became more indestructible and more powerful, able even to fly higher than fighter jets, a trend that continued into the ultimate fourth season with Airwolf eventually able to shrug off direct missile strikes; additional facilities such as the ability to make cell phone calls made the viewer query exactly what missions the Firm had designed it for.

Vietnam continued to play an influence, but this was often the likes of The American Dream, in which Hawke and Airwolf help a Vietnamese family protect their crops from a rival landowner. And then there were episodes like Out of the Sky, in which Airwolf has to protect a country and western singer and help her get to a concert appearance.

Oh dear.

Bellisario achieved CBS’s aim and certainly compared to the first season, the second was considerably less adult, stupider, more family oriented and cheaper. Even the music lacked the pizzazz of the first season thanks to the departure of Levay, his music being used without tailoring now, which meant every fight scene had the exact same backing score, leading to viewers knowing exactly when Airwolf would deliver its coup de grace as the music reached a crescendo.

Nevertheless, the series wasn’t devoid of decent episodes. Moffett’s Ghost saw the then-innovative storyline of a logic bomb left behind in Airwolf’s computers by its creator (Hemmings returns to direct the episode, but only appears on a TV screen, being dead ‘n all) that takes it out of Hawke and Santini’s control and almost provokes World War III. Moffett being the show’s Devil, of course, even at the end of the episode, his presence isn’t entirely removed and he continues to ‘possess’ Airwolf.

Fallen Angel is a proper spy thriller that fleshes out Archangel’s field agent past. HX-1 was the first and best of several ‘aerial weapon almost as deadly as Airwolf that gets stolen by the bad guys’ episodes (the Firm’s security getting progressively worse, not better, over the years), while Condemned follows up on the first season’s Proof Through The Night to give us the Reaganite idea that maybe the Russians themselves aren’t all bad and were desperate for freedom, even if their leaders were pure evil itself, with the Soviets helping Hawke and Caitlin deal with a weaponised virus on a remote Alaskan island.

The season also highlighted a corollary point from the first season: that Hawke and Santini can’t really trust the Firm and so have to do all of Airwolf’s maintenance themselves. Moffett’s Ghost sees them seek help from a former-Firm programmer to remove Moffetts’ logic bomb, while others see Airwolf malfunctioning at awkward moments, Santini, for example, having to rewire the helicopter in Flight #093 Is Missing after a missile strike incapacitates its weapon systems. In proper Reaganite style, the show also highlights that Santini and Hawke are private sector workers and isn’t afraid to highlight government inefficiency and lack of oversight, with Santini, for example, defrauding the Firm of thousands of dollars to repair an infra-red coupling that he’s actually able to fix with a part from a coffee percolator in Severance Pay.

Still, despite the changes and the overall level of quality still being relatively good, CBS weren’t happy and for the third season, more changes were needed, including the departure of Donald P Bellisario.

Season three
With Bellisario replaced and the show in the seemingly safer hands of new executive producer Bernard Kowalski, the good episodes of the third season don’t even need one hand to be counted: two episodes involving an attempt by tycoon John Bradford Horn (The Phoenix villain Richard Lynch in season opener The Horn of Plenty and Knight Rider villain John Vernon in Discovery) to capture Airwolf, the latter involving Airwolf’s hiding place being discovered; the dramatically silly but adrenaline-fuelled Where Have All The Children Gone?, which sees Airwolf chasing nuclear missiles at Mach 2; and Airwolf II, which finally squares the circle of the show’s Reaganite credentials by revealing that Airwolf wasn’t the brainchild of some foreigner but had actually been created by his good old boy assistant Harlen Jenkins (Wings Hauser).

Purely for curiosity’s sake and for added Republican kudos, it’s also worth watching former Watergate burglar G Gordon Liddy playing a baddie in Day of Jeopardy, something that the now-absent Bellasario would echo in his occasional casting of Oliver North as a goodie in JAG.

However, these were the rare exceptions among the likes of Tracks, in which Hawke helps some fellow Vietnam vets who are now wheelchair-bound and on an outwards-bounds course, where they’re attacked by a deranged woodsman; Little Wolf, which sees Airwolf settling a child custody dispute; and Half-Pint, in which Hawke has to rescue St John’s half-Vietnamese son.

The show also tried to change Hawke and make him more likeable, in part by giving the once-‘cursed’ loner an increasing number of ex-girlfriends, in part by giving him new girlfriends. But while Jan Michael Vincent had been almost perfect casting as the self-contained, angry Hawke, the new open Hawke didn’t really suit his more brooding qualities.

Coupled with the reduced budget that necessitated considerable reuse of existing footage, the changes failed, the show became even more childish and ridiculous, and ratings slumped. CBS decided to call it a day. Airwolf was no more.

At least, on CBS itself.

Season four
Still wanting to cut costs, CBS decided it was time for more radical change. Out went Kowalski, filming moved to Canada, distribution switched to the USA Network and in a sweeping move, the entire cast was replaced with a considerably cheaper one: Archangel is reassigned to the Middle East and both Hawke and Santini are killed in the first episode. Caitlin? Who’s that?

In their place came the newly returned from Vietnam St John Hawke, now played by series killer Barry Van Dyke (Galactica 80), Archangel’s replacement Jason Locke (Anthony Sherwood), Santini’s niece Jo (Michele Scarabelli, who went on to the considerably better Alien Nation afterwards) and the man tasked by the Firm (now the Company) with finding Airwolf, Mike Rivers (a pre-Forever Knight Geraint Wyn Davies).

The show had a minuscule budget that forced almost exclusive reuse of footage from the previous three seasons; new footage, being filmed in Canada, often jarred considerably when juxtaposed with footage from the first three seasons, with cars driving down rainy, green Canadian roads suddenly turning right… into the barren, sun-ravaged landscape of Monument Valley.

Yet in many ways, season four was better than season three, with a return to the spy themes of the first season in episodes including Escape, Windows, The Stavograd Incident, On The Double and The Golden One. Rogue Warrior sees the Company clashing with Rivers and Locke and demanding the return of Airwolf after they disobey orders. Salvage sees YA superhelicopter that looks suspiciously like Airwolf II facing off against Airwolf.

But despite being cheaper and in some ways better than season three, the new network home and the loss of the original cast stopped many viewers from watching the continuing adventures of Airwolf, and finally CBS called it a day.

Airwolf was no more.

Just as the mid-to-late 80s saw the cooling of Reagan-phoria, the thawing of the Cold War and technology’s increasing presence in everyday life meant its gee-whizz factor was no longer so great, so Airwolf’s time had probably come – it was no longer part of the zeitgeist. Nevertheless, to this day, the show remains one of the best regarded of the supervehicle shows and that in terms of action and aerial photography, in many ways still hasn’t been beaten.

If you want to buy it, you can now get Airwolf: The Movie on Blu-Ray and the first three seasons on both Blu-Ray and DVD. Season four is available on DVD.