Airwolf was an American TV series in the 1980s that starred Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine, which was based around a long-range, multi-role, supersonic attack helicopter. In the USA, Airwolf ran for three seasons on CBS (1984-1986), and was then moved onto the USA Network for its fourth and final season (1987). The series also featured a memorable theme tune. In the UK, the series ran on ITV on Friday nights and was later moved to Saturday afternoons. Reruns can sometimes be found filling in gaps in the schedule, or on cable/satellite stations.
The series was created by Donald P Bellisario of Belisarius Productions (who would later go on to create the popular time-travelling series Quantum Leap). Airwolf grew from an intended helicopter-based spin-off to Bellisario's previous show, Magnum, PI. Additionally, Bellisario was influenced by the success of the movie Blue Thunder, which had also starred a high-tech helicopter (and which had also enjoyed a brief a spin-off TV series).
The pilot episode, 'Shadow of the Hawke', begins with the theft of the prototype Airwolf by its creator, Dr Charles Henry Moffet (played by David Hemmings.) Airwolf is eventually located by The FIRM (the government agency who developed it in the first place). The FIRM are reluctant to destroy the chopper, since Moffet erased the plans and they can't build another one. The FIRM's deputy director, Archangel, enlists the aid of Stringfellow Hawke, Airwolf's original test pilot, to go to Libya and steal the helicopter back. Hawke turn down payment for the job, insisting that he will only do it if the FIRM can find his brother, St John1, who has been MIA in Vietnam for 14 years.
Unbeknown to the FIRM, Hawke asks his best friend, Dominic Santini, to go to Libya with him. Together they recover the helicopter, only to discover that Moffet has killed Hawke's girlfriend, Gabrielle, and left her body in the desert. After violently avenging her death, Hawke meets with Archangel, telling him that Airwolf will not be returned until St John is found. Archangel agrees to support Hawke, in exchange for Hawke flying Airwolf on missions of national concern.
Hawke and Santini's cover during the series was 'Santini Air', Dominic's own private air service. The Airwolf itself was hidden in a hollowed out mountain ('The Lair') in a remote desert region known as 'The Valley of the Gods' (in reality, Monument Valley, Utah, USA).
In reality, the Airwolf was a converted Bell 222A, registry number N3176S. In the series, however, the helicopter boasted the following features:
Two turbo thruster engines; these could propel the aircraft to speeds in excess of Mach 1.
High-tech surveillance systems, including external microphones and cameras with infra-red filters.
Two offensive wing pods (one on each sponson or 'wing'.) Each pod contained two 30 millimetre chain guns and one 40 millimetre cannon.
The 'Auto Direction-Finding' (ADF) Pod, a missile launcher capable of 180° rotation. The ADF Pod could be loaded with a wide variety of missiles.
The mid-air refuelling intake, which allowed Airwolf to refuel from tanker planes.
Decoy launchers, containing 'SunBurst' decoys (to confuse heat-seeking missiles) and 'Chaff' decoys (to confuse Radar-guided missiles).
The Main Cast
- Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent)
- Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine)
- Michael Coldsmith Briggs III 'Archangel' (Alex Cord)
- Caitlin O'Shannessy (Jean Bruce Scott, Seasons 2-3)
- St John Hawke (Barry Van Dyke, Season 4)
- Jo Santini (Michele Scarabelli, Season 4)
- Major Mike Rivers (Geraint Wyn Davies, Season 4)
- Jason Locke (Anthony Sherwood, Season 4)
Archangel (played by Alex Cord), always wore a white suit and hat and limped along using a cane to support his damaged leg. One of his eyes was also damaged as one of the lens of his glasses was black. To those looking for deeper meaning in the series this is probably where it lies, check his name, check the colour of his clothing. This holy reference also extended to the pilot episode's female FIRM representative who was named Gabrielle and also wore white. Of course, once the pilot episode was over and the series began, it contained absolutely no depth at all.
At the start of the second season, and with the diet of action sequences being trimmed, the mostly male audience required something else to focus their testosterone urges on. This came in the form of a female pilot, Caitlin O'Shannessy (played by Jean Bruce Scott).
Like so many television series based around a single idea, the writers quickly ran out of them (as would anyone after writing 50 episodes). Likewise, a lack of budget meant that the action sequences became fewer and fewer with Airwolf often only getting an outing in the last ten minutes of each programme. The helicopter, of course, was the star of the show and this is what viewers actually wanted to see.
The fourth season of Airwolf suffered from a further reduced budget and weak storylines. The sequences which involved the Airwolf helicopter were created solely from stock footage from previous seasons, since by this stage the real helicopter was no longer available. The rest was achieved with weak model work.
The stock footage was probably justified in terms of budget. Mainly it would be a stock long-shot of Hawk and Santini driving their jeep into the mountain; cut away to a freshly made studio-based shot inside the mountain of them getting into the chopper wearing their cool G-suits and discussing the current plotline. Then cut back to stock footage of Airwolf rising out of the mountain top and then cut into a close up of booster jets on the side of helicopter. Finally, cut back out to stock footage of Airwolf shooting off across the screen. In fact, the booster jets were never seen in long range, probably because they wouldn't actually work on a real helicopter.
'The FIRM' was re-named 'The Company', and none of the original cast returned for the fourth season, although Jan-Michael Vincent did make an appearance in the opening episode, 'Blackjack', in which Stringfellow Hawke finally locates his long lost brother, St John. However, he and Dominic are involved in a helicopter explosion which kills Dominic and lands Hawke in hospital. It is up to Dom's niece, Jo, to take Airwolf and rescue St John. Along for the ride are USAF Major Mike Rivers, and Archangel's replacement, Jason Locke.
Stringfellow is reunited with St John at the end of the episode; when Locke gets there, Stringfellow's bed is empty. There is some debate among Airwolf fans as to whether or not Stringfellow actually died...
The Obvious Flaw
The most obvious flaw to the programme was how Hawke and Santini managed to keep Airwolf hidden from the FIRM, considering that:
It had to be within easy distance from the airport where Santini Airways was based.
The mountain they kept it in was in the middle of a desert with only a single road through it.
Therefore, the FIRM only had to watch 'Hawke and Dom' leave the airport and head into the desert to establish where it was being kept.
Satellite and radar tracking can't have been so bad that the FIRM couldn't have picked up where Airwolf was flying from.
All that said, maybe the FIRM did really know and just didn't really want it back for the previously mentioned reason.
The Computer Game
During its height of popularity, an Airwolf game was written for the ZX Spectrum and then converted onto other machines including the BBC Micro. It had about 16 screens that needed to be navigated around and items collected to open doors or enemies shot down. It was pretty easy to complete.
Here are some of the best Airwolf websites around:
The Official Airwolf Homepage - created by Haakon Kjole. This site has been around since 1994. It contains episode guides, a message board, bloopers lists, cast/crew interviews, and behind-the-scenes info. There are also links to other Airwolf sites.
The Ultimate Airwolf Episode Guide. This site contains an in-depth episode guide and high-quality multimedia files.
Airwolf: Online - created by Rumesh Paranavithana. This is a high-quality Airwolf game. Take control of the 'Airwolf' helicopter in a Campaign against 15 different aircraft, or play one-on-one against a friend. Note: requires Flash MX.
Airwolf II: Online - created by Rumesh Paranavithana. This is the experimental level for the second Airwolf game. An F-22 Raptor has been stolen by enemy forces. Fly the 'Airwolf' helicopter through the enemy's anti-aircraft defenses, before engaging the F-22 in a fight to the death. Note: requires Flash MX.
Airwolf is a licensed trademark of MCA/Universal Studios (C) 1984-2002.