Helicopters Keep His Life in a Whirl : ‘It’s Like Flying a Plane, Except You . . . Go Sideways’

Times Staff Writer

It all started five years ago when Pete McKernan bought a helicopter to use in his real estate business. Now his business is helicopters, particularly helicopters for Hollywood.

McKernan, a former Marine fighter pilot who already knew how to fly helicopters, decided in 1979 it would be easier to fly than drive to Ventura County to attend to his real estate holdings and oversee construction sites, so he bought a Bell JetRanger.

It changed his life.

Busy Schedule

These days McKernan, 52, has to squeeze his real estate work into a busy schedule with helicopters, flying executive charters and doing whirlybird stunts for some of television’s most popular shows (“Magnum, P.I.,” “Airwolf,” “The A-Team” and “Remington Steele”) and scenes from many action movies, among them “Starman” and “Blue Thunder.”


“Those blue eyes you see in the close-ups are mine, not Jan-Michael Vincent’s,” McKernan said of his role in the “Airwolf” series, recently renewed by CBS for next season.

McKernan does much of the flying of the gun and rocket-rigged helicopter for the series, and doubles the flying scenes for Vincent. When it looks like Vincent is at the controls, it’s really Pete McKernan.

Several other pilots from McKernan’s Jetcopters Inc. perform the additional flying scenes and those for Ernest Borgnine, who stars with Vincent as a pilot of a high-tech helicopter used for secret government missions.

McKernan and the other Jetcopters pilots all have SAG (Screen Actors Guild) cards “because we’re essentially doubles for the actors.”

During an interview at his office at the Van Nuys Airport, McKernan could show visitors the special “Airwolf” copter, a ferocious-looking machine with real guns and rockets, but couldn’t demonstrate its maneuverability in the air because he’s not allowed to fly it over the airport with the guns and rockets attached.

“You add something like guns and rockets,” he explained, “and that puts it in a restricted category. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) says you can’t fly it over populated areas with guns and rockets on it. I really don’t know what the reason is. Maybe because it would scare people.

“Anyway, what we usually do is hang the stuff on it once we get to the location (most “Airwolf” shows are shot on location).”

It was on location for an “Airwolf” episode near Newhall, about 25 miles north of Los Angeles, that McKernan’s company suffered its first accident in five years of film flying, tragically, a fatal one for stunt man Reid Rondell, 22, of Canoga Park.

Rondell, a third-generation stunt man, was killed Jan. 18 when the Jetcopters helicopter he was riding in crashed into a hillside during a scene and burned. Crew members managed to pull pilot Scott Maher to safety.

“You hate to lose a life,” McKernan said sadly. “We still haven’t gotten the final ruling from the FAA. I can’t say too much (because of pending lawsuits). He (Maher) was flying level right-hand circles and dropped 250 feet and hit the hill. We pulled him out of the wreck. Now he has traumatic amnesia. He can’t remember four days out of his life. He just can’t remember anything after that Wednesday.”

Maher, 36, is an experienced helicopter pilot, McKernan said, with several thousand hours of experience in low-level flight. He also is an Army Reserve helicopter pilot, has an instructor’s license, commercial and instrument rating licenses and has logged about 3,000 hours in helicopters.

Back Flying Again

“Scott’s great,” McKernan said. “He’s been with us two years, and now he’s back flying again. His license was suspended for three months (after the crash), which is normal in this kind of situation. But he started flying again May 18.”

Maher, McKernan said, is a specialist in “nap-of-the-Earth” flying, something he did for the Army in Vietnam. That’s low-level contour flying, meaning that you fly following the contour of the Earth.”

After the National Transportation and Safety Board presents its formal report, the FAA is expected to rule on the cause of the “Airwolf” crash sometime in late June or July.

McKernan’s company is now the biggest one of its kind in the West. Only Island Helicopters out of Garden City, N.Y., is larger. Jetcopters now has 23 helicopters (21 at Van Nuys, one in Hawaii and one in Orange County) and 14 full-time pilots, including McKernan’s son Pete Jr., the vice president of administration who runs the company when his father is gone. The company also has a dozen other pilots who can work part time, if the workload overwhelms the regulars.

McKernan also is in the process of setting up a charter helicopter subsidiary in Phoenix and another in Hawaii, primarily for sightseeing tours of the Islands.

“It all started when ABC News called and wanted to charter my helicopter to cover a flood in Hemet in 1979,” McKernan said. “The guy at Bell gave them my name. They had called all the other companies and they were busy.

“For three day’s work, I earned $5,000,” McKernan said. “I said to myself, ‘Well, $5,000 in three days. There just might be a business here.’ It’s sure a lot more active than real estate.”

McKernan, raised in Lake Ronkonkoma, Long Island, in “a big, poor Irish family of five kids,” knew nothing about flying planes or helicopters until he enlisted in the Marines in 1953. “When I was a kid, I was a real hayseed. I could never even make a model airplane,” he said.

“I got into the infantry and we were out in the snow and mud and cold, so I looked around to see where I could get a job that would be more comfortable,” McKernan said. “I put in for flying.”

He later became a lieutenant colonel and the commanding officer of an A-4 squadron and served on a Marine fighter acrobatic team. He also trained to pilot helicopters, but purposely spent little time flying them in the Marine Corps.

Avoided Helicopters

“I was a fighter pilot,” McKernan explained. “And I knew once you got into helicopters, then you couldn’t get back to jets. So I avoided helicopters like the plague.”

Today, McKernan spends 90% of his time flying helicopters, for films and TV, commercials and charters for business executives. He also has a helicopter school at the Van Nuys Airport.

“It’s not much different than flying an airplane, except you go backwards and sideways,” he said, grinning.

One of McKernan’s early students at his helicopter school was Don Bellisario, another former Marine who created the “Magnum” show and is executive producer of it. It was Bellisario who later came up with the idea for the supersonic helicopter, “Airwolf,” a modified Bell 222A.

“I still teach now and then,” McKernan said. “But I try to let the younger guys do it. We’ve probably graduated 200 students by now to private or commercial licenses. There were only two who couldn’t do it.”

Before coming to Los Angeles in 1976 to expand his real estate business, McKernan flew briefly as a co-pilot for United Airlines, sold avionics and computers and served as an executive vice president for Mutual of Omaha.

“I get very bored sitting behind a desk,” he said. “But I had never thought of getting into this business until that time of the flood when I saw what the potential was.”

At first, McKernan was doing well in the private charter/news media business and not thinking much about helicopters for movies and TV shows. Then he got a last-minute job in a “Hart to Hart” episode, and afterward contacted David Jones, a former Marine pilot who did the majority of the stunt flying for Hollywood.

McKernan and Jones did several projects together, and Jones went off to Hawaii to work on “Magnum PI.” McKernan got most of his mainland referrals from Jones, and eventually contracted one of his helicopters to Hawaii for the Tom Selleck series.

“David had the connections in Hollywood and no helicopter, so it really worked out for us,” McKernan said. “He is one of the pioneers in Hollywood with camera technique in flying. And he’s the best helicopter pilot I ever had the pleasure of flying with.”

Jones designed a special camera mount for the Hughes 500D, which allows the camera operator to sit outside the helicopter while filming.

McKernan has flown in several of the “Magnum” episodes, and eventually bought a red Ferrari, the kind that Selleck drives in the television program. “Tom talked me into it, and asked the Ferrari guy to give me a break on it, so I bought it,” McKernan said. “It’s 3 years old now and I like it, but I still like my Chevy station wagon.”

Roger E. Mosley, the actor who plays helicopter pilot T. C. in the “Magnum” series, actually is a licensed private helicopter pilot, according to McKernan, but Mosley is not allowed to do the stunts on the show.

Two Sets of Control

“In the show, you see T. C. taking off, with the camera on his hands or face,” McKernan explained. “But we take the other seat out and hide behind him. There are two sets of controls. Then there’s a cut and we land and he gets out so we can go do the stunt. You see one of us doing the stunts, but we have to wear a (black) body stocking with muscles to make us look like T. C.”

Ninety percent of his company’s film work is done below 500 feet, McKernan said. “It’s operating aerobatics, down in the dirt below 500 feet, so you have to get permission from the FAA. The movie manual (for the stunt flying) has to be written and approved by the FAA before we even go out. It’s safe, but you have to make sure your permits are in place.”

McKernan believes that most people don’t understand helicopters, and/or are afraid of them. “It would be ridiculous for them (movie and TV personnel) to tell us what to do, when we know what we can do and can work it out. I haven’t had to threaten anyone with not doing a stunt, but I don’t want anything unsafe being done, either.

“If the script says you’re supposed to fly upside down through a tunnel, what we do is make it appear that’s what happened,” he said. “You go in at one angle, and then coming out in another on the other side, it appears that way. Usually it ends up as good as can be. And it was safe. . . .

“Most people think (helicopters are) dangerous, but they’re the safest thing in the sky, safer than airplanes,” he said. “And they aren’t difficult to fix or to maintain. They just take a lot of kind care. We do all our own in-house maintenance, go by the manual. It’s preventive maintenance.”

McKernan still enjoys flying executives to business meetings.

“I don’t think people realize how easy it is to do by helicopter,” he said. “That’s why I got one in the first place, to cut down on the driving. A customer can visit, say, nine of his plants all over the place, San Bernardino, Pasadena, Rancho Mirage, Ventura, etc. in six hours. It would take four days if he drove it. It might cost $3,000 to rent the helicopter, but it would save three days.”

McKernan and his family also often use helicopters for vacations, or to hop over to Arizona for a weekend off. “We just call up the motel and ask if it’s OK to land in their parking lot.”

“The whole thing with helicopters is just such fun, and so vital,” McKernan said. “My biggest thrill was during the Olympics when we got to fly the attorney general (William French Smith) and his wife to the opening ceremonies at the Coliseum. We flew in formation with President Reagan’s helicopter and we got to spend the day with the President and his wife.”

For that duty, McKernan used his newest flying acquisition, a $3.5-million Sikorsky S76 twin-engine helicopter. The Sikorsky weighs 10,000 pounds (compared to regular helicopters that weigh from 2,500 pounds to 4,000 pounds), seats six passengers in a soundproof cabin and has a television and VCR, a bar, a stereo and an in-flight phone. It rents for $1,800 an hour.

“When I had two helicopters, I thought that was it,” McKernan said. “Then, when I had eight, I said, ‘That’s it.’ Now I have 23. I think that’s probably it. But who knows?”