Alan Purwin dies at 54; copter pilot in breathtaking Hollywood stunts

Alan Purwin picked up his taste for flying early.

When he was 5, he would perch on a stack of pillows in his father's Cessna so he could see past the instrument panel as the plane rose over the San Fernando Valley. When he was 16, he received his pilot's license. A couple of years later, he was a crop-duster in Indiana.

When he came back to Los Angeles and started flying for film studios, his aeronautical career took off in earnest.

Purwin, who staged heart-stopping helicopter chases for the movies and flew life-saving missions for critically ill children, died Sept. 11 in Colombia in the crash of a small plane being used to transport crews for the Tom Cruise movie "Mena."He was 54.

He was in Colombia helping to shoot the film.

Carlos Berl, a pilot who was also aboard the twin-engine Piper Aerostar, was killed after takeoff from the colonial town of Santa Fe de Antioquia, officials in Colombia told the Associated Press. Jimmy Lee Garland, a pilot from Georgia, was critically injured. It was unclear who was at the controls as the plane flew into bad weather on the short hop through the Andes to Medellin.

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FOR THE RECORD

Sept. 18, 10:18 a.m.: An earlier version of this obituary stated that the plane in which Alan Purwin died took off from San Francisco de Antioquia, Colombia. It took off from Santa Fe de Antioquia. Also, the obituary stated that Carlos Berl, the other man killed in the crash, was Colombian. He was a U.S. citizen.

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Purwin was the founder, owner and chairman of Helinet, a helicopter service based at Van Nuys Airport. With 18 choppers, Helinet works for TV news programs, does aerial shoots for films and TV, conducts surveillance for law enforcement agencies and flies donated organs to patients in need.

Sister companies founded or acquired by Purwin were involved in developing new equipment for aerial cinematography, including film shoots from drones.

"He was the quintessential entrepreneur," said Jack Snyder, Helinet's chief operating officer. "His passion was flying, but he was really able to anticipate trends and new uses for helicopter-related equipment."

Purwin worked on more than 100 films, including the "Transformers" series, "Armageddon" (1998), "Pearl Harbor" (2001) and "Tropic Thunder" (2008). In the 2003 remake of "The Italian Job", he piloted a chopper that screamed through skyscrapers, skimmed over traffic-jammed streets, raced under a bridge and churned through a tunnel as it chased bad guys driving Mini Coopers in downtown Los Angeles.

He plotted his stunts meticulously.

In the tunnel sequence, "I worked with the city on removing the vapor lights…and then I got the effects guys to bring in a huge fan driven by a Chevy engine," he told The Times in 2005. "I wanted the whole ceiling and the rafters blown out to see if there was anything loose that would come down and go into the rotor blades and cause a problem."

With all that done, Purwin had a small, powerful, maneuverable chopper trucked down the tunnel and wheeled in. "Then I had somebody rotating the blades so I could measure how much width I had. Once I determined it was all feasible, we kind of just laid out a plan and I went into it very cautiously."

Snyder, Purwin's colleague at Helinet, said the helicopter chases in "The Italian Job" were among the pilot's most iconic work.

"He loved the creativity, the ability to help directors realize their vision," Snyder said. "He liked the camaraderie on the set. Honestly, when he'd come back from being out filming, I didn't think I'd ever see him happier."

Born Aug. 28, 1961, Alan David Purwin grew up in North Hollywood. His father owned an auto repair business and flew a Cessna 182, which he owned with several friends, for enjoyment. He also volunteered to transport patients for a medical charity.

As a teenager, Purwin thought he might one day work for an airline.

"But after flying for a while, when I was 18 I started to get bored going from point A to point B," he said in The Times interview.

With his post-high school crop-dusting experience under his belt, he worked at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, shooting aerial footage of the cycling and sailing competitions.

That led to helicopter stunts on TV shows including "The A-Team," and then to work on Hollywood features.

Purwin co-founded Helinet in 1987. He later became involved in shuttling patients, organs and transplant teams. He was on the board of directors of Children's Hospital Los Angeles, where he donated a helicopter and offered transportation services to many patients at no charge.

"Doctors can't get caught in traffic or on the runway," he said. "You're essentially talking about life or death. For me, it's a lot more rewarding than moving around execs or shooting movies."

In 1996, Purwin was injured in a helicopter crash while filming a commercial near Palmdale. Michael Tamburro, his business partner, was killed.

"It was a very tragic event and a life changer," he said. "It put things in perspective and reminded me how fragile life can be and how dangerous this business is."

Purwin's survivors include his wife, Kathryn; children Kyle and Michaela ; mother, Sheila; brother Steve; and sister Tina.

A memorial is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Helinet's headquarters in Van Nuys.

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Twitter: @schawkins

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