Airwolf Pretty Much Shaped My Life And It Turns 35 Years Old Today
The ’80s action show about a reclusive pilot, a shady intelligence outfit and an incredible black helicopter got me hooked on a bunch of topics.
For some of us military technology and aviation obsessed souls, it wasn't Top Gun or Iron Eagle that most influenced us during our formative years, it was a show about a secret super-helicopter that was flown by an emotionally damaged and reclusive veteran helicopter pilot, his few aviation nerd friends, and a mysterious quasi-governmental espionage and intelligence agency known simply as The Firm. Airwolf literally came in hot on January 22nd, 1984, cannons and a synth-heavy soundtrack blazing, capturing imaginations and leaving a select number of us begging for more.
The truth is that most people wouldn't fall in love with the show until it was already deep in production hell towards the end of its run, or even after it was canceled, as reruns aired regularly on the then-popular USA cable network. So TV Guide was essential intel for planning to immerse yourself in the cold, violent, and at times somewhat cheesy, but intriguing world of Airwolf.
The show was similar to other hour-long action shows of the era, like the A-Team, Knight Rider, or Magnum PI, in its series format. Each week a new plot would be introduced and concluded, with some overarching themes playing lighter throughout its run. But where Airwolf differed greatly was in its tone. It was an action drama, not an action show laden with comedy, and it was violent in the final sense.
People died, lots of them. Bullets didn't stun the enemy. Major personal loss and deep pain were major plot pieces, and the overall tone of the show was far colder than its counterparts that aimed for a far broader audience. That doesn't mean it didn't have its lighter episodes, but those rarely paid off like their counterparts.
Case in point, the main character Stringfellow Hawke, played by then Hollywood hunk Jan Michael Vincent was increasingly loaded on set as the series progressed across its three core seasons. 'String' was a recluse that lived in a cabin on a picturesque lake among monumental landforms and was known to bust out his cello to string a heartbreaking dirge on his dock at sunset as bald eagles screamed overhead. Oh, and the source of his sadness? The tragic death of his parents at a young age, the loss of pretty much any women he loved, and above all else, not knowing the fate of his brother, Sinjin, who had gone Missing In Action in Vietnam.
So yeah, this is not Templeton Peck or B.A. Baracus we are talking about here.
Heavy themes of a government that couldn't be trusted, one that was often at war with itself and would go to illegal lengths to do what it deemed necessary were also part of the show's plot fabric. The on-again, off-again semi-ally, The Firm, was run out of a secret ultra-modern office complex at the hands of an eyepatch-wearing man named Archangel who wore all white suits and was driven around in a white limousine by beautiful bodyguards draped in white designer fashions. It was as absurd as it was enthralling.
Then there was the real star of the show, an experimental graphite-colored stealth helicopter called Airwolf officially, but 'The Lady' by Hawke and his crew, that was loaded with all kinds of tactical tricks. It had everything, from supersonic dash capabilities via afterburners, to a big selection of weaponry that was otherwise kept concealed when not in use, to the most advanced targeting and reconnaissance capabilities of any helicopter in the world. It was equal parts brawn and brain, with the ability to use guile and information over brute force when needed to accomplish its objectives. Oh, and everyone, and I mean everyone, wanted to steal it.
In reality, the aircraft used in the show was a dressed-up Bell 222A, but the thing is Bell's creation was so futuristic and impressive looking—appearing both muscular and elegant at the same time—that Airwolf didn't need all that much modification to make it look the part.
Watching the show today, it is kinda amazing all the concepts they worked in that seemed totally science fiction then, but are established capabilities today, even the more exotic ones. And back then, available information on sensors and weapons concepts was not what it is today, not even close. Keep in mind, when Airwolf premiered, the AH-64 Apache still hadn't even entered into operational service.
Some great stunt flying was executed for the show and the snippets were always the highlight of each episode. In fact, when most of us think of Airworlf, an image of a black Bell 222 dumping the nose over while staring straight at us and the sound of the show's iconic soundtrack is what immediately comes to mind.
All these elements, including the great character Domonique Santini, who would now be an AARP icon, played by the late and great Ernest Borgnine, were greater than the sum of their parts. While the overall plot of Airwolf sounds like a someone's mid-1980s cocaine-addled fever dream, it worked more than it didn't. And even though it had plenty of cheesy moments and some really uneven acting, just like most shows of the era, it really did take you to another place that not many shows of the time went. One steeped in espionage, secret bases, special operations raids, super weaponry, rogue intel agencies, a thankless government, terrorism, Cold War intrigue, and mercenaries. And yes, aircraft, lots of cool aircraft and exciting flying, all on a relatively minuscule budget by today's standards.
With all this in mind, it's abundantly clear how this show influenced my interests so heavily growing up. My curiosity in regards to these topics never died and spurred me to write about them in-depth later in life. As such, Airwolf is partially to thank, or to blame depending on your perspective, for this site. And I am not alone. I know many people, from pilots to engineers, who were also really influenced by this show.
So, although it may just be a stupid short-run action show that is too cheesy to watch now for many, for others it was much more than that or just shallow nostalgia. It was oddly inspirational and left us wanting to know and experience more. In retrospect, that is as a good a measure of success for a TV show than Nielson ratings or good critical reviews.
Happy Birthday to The Lady, 35 years old today.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com