The 80’s were, depending on your view, a Golden Era for television, or the time when big hair, big shoulderpads, and ludicrous technology overtook everything else. In fact, ludicrous technology was, for many a youngster growing up, the hallmark of 80’s TV. You had a man with an armoured and superpowered motorbike, a man with an armoured and superpowered car, a man with a crimefighting hologram, not to mention a group of Vietnam veterans who could build any weapon or vehicle out of a bunch of spare parts.
That said, one show didn’t get as much love as some of the others. The story of a lunatic, his helicopter, and the pensioner and his mate who nicked it. Welcome to the world of Airwolf.
Now for those of you who don’t know, Airwolf was the very Boy’s Own-ish tale of a super helicopter that could fly faster and strike harder than any other aircraft in the sky. Piloted by reclusive former US Army flight corpsman Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent), and World War II pilot Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine), the pair were often found fighting terrorists, drugs dealers and men of ill repute around the globe – and it was awesome.
It was also more complicated than I’ve just made it sound – particularly the first series. Airwolf was, originally, created for evil (shock, horror). Set in 1982, Dr Charles Henry Moffet was the mad scientist who created the helicopter itself, only to swan off to Libya and work for Colonel Gaddafi – embracing the WWE method of becoming a bad guy by working in the employ of a foreign power. That said, Airwolf’s willingness to throw in a non fictional character was its creator Donald P. Bellisario’s attempt to add a more mature edge to his show. Bellisario himself might be a name you’re familiar with from a wealth of genre shows, like Magnum PI, Quantum Leap and NCIS. A veteran himself, it’s no surprise Hawke’s background was that of a haunted pilot, and that the first season of Airwolf was based around espionage and high level military intelligence shenanigans.
Moffet’s character was that of the deranged genius, and Hawke and Santini were employed by the mysterious “Firm” (*SHADY GOVERNMENT AGENCY KLAXON*) to get the helicopter back. Hawke duly obliges, subtly launching a volley of missiles into the good doctor’s face, only to refuse to hand it back to the government. He then agrees to perform shady missions for his contact “Archangel” in return for searching for his missing brother, St. John Hawke (I bet school was a barrel of laughs for him with that name). Even with that agreement, the “Firm” still try and secure Airwolf from Hawke and Santini, being foiled at every turn (mainly down to 80’s secret agents not being able to figure out they’d hidden it inside a massive rock with the only entrance being the hole in its ceiling).
The darkness of the first season, sadly, was not continued from thereon. CBS, the network showing Airwolf, wanted a more family friendly approach to what they obviously saw as a direct competitor to the shows mentioned at the start of of this article. If Michael Knight can bouffant his hair and play Tammy Wynette mid climatic battle, then why can’t Stringfellow Hawke?
From season two onwards, the more edgier moments were shoved aside in favour of a more light hearted approach, combining with the introduction of Caitlin O’Shaugnessy, a police helicopter pilot who saved Hawke from a corrupt sheriff, and more domestically based, action orientated episodes. The relationship between Hawke and Santini, and the “Firm”, became far more cordial, with them basically become secret agents themselves, performing missions of national importance. The issue of Hawke’s brother rapidly faded into the background too.
Airwolf paid the price for trying to imitate other shows: Ratings declined. Bellisario disliked the direction the series was taking and departed as Executive Producer at the end of season two. Season three started to exhibit classic genre pitfalls: The evil twin (a replica Airwolf piloted by a weapons designer who dubbed it Redwolf), the long lost relative (criminally called “Half Pint”) and the “defend innocent villagers” thread (too many episodes to mention) – but it wasn’t doing anything that Knight Rider and The A-Team hadn’t already done, and better. It still completed its full run of 22 episodes, but CBS wanted to take the changes even further. With Bellisario gone and his replacement Bernard Kowalski on his bike, the network decided not to go ahead.
Instead, the USA Network picked up the slack, but radically changed the format. That was mainly down to costs, as we’ll explain shortly, meaning the original cast were to expensive to rehire. Binning the Hawke/Santini partnership (with an actionless goodbye from Vincent, and a body double of Borgnine being blown to smithereens), it suddenly discovered St. John, who had been said to be being held captive by South East Asian rebels, and not at all waiting in line to have his name changed by deed poll. It paired him with Hawke and Santini’s niece, and replaced the “Firm”, with the “Company” (*SLIGHTLY LESS SHADY GOVERNMENT AGENCY KLAXON*). Filming moved to Vancouver in Canada, and the team behind the show had a drastically reduced budget, less than one-third of the original CBS allocation. The original helicopter was also now out of bounds, meaning all the in-flight shots were reused from earlier episodes. Season 4 lasted for 24 installments, and went out with a whimper, a shame for a series that had started with such a bang.
The one thing that Airwolf always had going for it though, as with many of its counterparts of different channels, was the theme tune. Composed by Sylvester Levay, it’s immediately synonymous with its show, and combines synth keyboards with a bustling baseline. So if you remember nothing else good about Airwolf, then remember this.