Airwolf was a MACH-1+ attack helicopter with an assortment of 14 different weapons ranging from 50-millimeter chain guns to Sidewinder missiles to Sunburst flares. Hidden from the U.S. Government by its test pilot only to be returned when the pilot’s brother, an MIA in Vietnam, can be found.

This was the basis of the show named after the helicopter mentioned above, which starred Jan-Michael Vincent as Stringfellow Hawke. An idealistic loner and former military pilot who served in Vietnam, who along with the help of his friend and mentor Dominic ‘Dom’ Santini (played by Ernest Borgnine), a World War II vet who flew with Hawke’s father and owned the commercial flight business “Santini Air”, steal back a super helicopter stolen from the U.S. Government by its mad creator Dr. Charles Henry Moffet (played by David Hemmings). Once the chopper is in Hawke’s possession Hawke holds it until the government finds his brother St. John, who went down in a mission in ‘Nam.

In exchange for helping keep government agencies off Hawke’s back, Michael Goldsmith Briggs III – codenamed Archangel (played by Alex Cord), a deputy director of the organization that built Airwolf called the Firm, asks Hawke to fly Airwolf on missions of national interest. Noted aspects of Archangel are a white suit he always wore, not to mention being surrounded by a bevy of beautiful women who were dubbed his ‘Angels of Mercy’. His chief ‘angel’ was Marella, played by Deborah Pratt (the wife of the Airwolf series creator and executive producer, Donald Bellisario).

Airwolf was very much a product of its time, as it was set during the Cold War period of the 1980’s when the big enemy of America was the communist U.S.S.R. On another hand Airwolf was also very much a human interest show that put people above politics and money. The audience got to see real people placed in the world of international espionage and intrigue and try to come out on the other side with Hawke and Dom helping them out. Examples are when an American spy and his Russian family need to be smuggled out of the country, and the daughter says that she can never give up what’s in her heart (her homeland of Russia). Another example is when a young Shannon Doherty (Charmed, Beverly Hills 90210) played a young runaway hoping to find her father only to get trapped with Dom by a rogue Firm agent who hoped to capture Airwolf to cement his position in the government superstructure. And in a corporate setting Dom brought questions about how corporations do business at the expense of the American people in an episode called ‘Santini’s Millions’.

Airwolf dealt with Cold War threats, but it also dealt with terrorism as well. Before Osama Bin Laden became the terrorist of the modern world Mohamar Khadafi of Libya was the terrorist of the Cold War world who apparently operated with Russian support. Airwolf dealt with such terrorist threats from mercenaries employed by Khadafi, as well as militia colonels from Cuba as well as Soviet spies interested in acquiring the super chopper. In the second season Airwolf also dealt with domestic and human interest issues such as a group of Vietnamese farmers being terrorized by an old war criminal, a young teen pilot who sought to find who killed his uncle when he refused to fly drugs for his murderers, and a country western singer who was kidnapped by her ex-husband/manager who wanted royalties from her death.

Airwolf may have been in a Cold War setting but it had a timeless message about the value of the human being and helping people in trouble, comparisons of the world then can be applied to the world today. Such examples are in one episode where Archangel made a deal with Cuban criminals to supply them with weapons in hopes of toppling Castro’s regime. Also, government agencies pursuing their own agendas to where the left hand wasn’t sure what the right hand was doing. Yet in a world where there were varying shades of grey Hawke, Dom, and second season addition Texas Highway Patrol officer Caitlin ‘Flying Meter Maid’ O’Shaughnessy (played by Jean Bruce Scott of Magnum P.I. fame) were always the ones in the white hats who sought to do the right thing.

Another one of the show’s appeals was the music used in the episodes. Theme music for a specific episode often took on a haunting techno feel that had an orchestral background, giving the episode its own identity. The main theme music of Airwolf was also given a haunting techno-orchestra feel, and is considered to be one of the most memorable TV themes today.

The chopper itself was a modified Bell-222 that was built for executive transport. The helicopter was supposed to have a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ aspect as it looked like a typical executive chopper one minute then when brought into combat mode began to show its teeth. The logo design of Airwolf also had a wolf in sheep’s clothing design as it had a wolf wearing a sheep’s pelt on its back as if shedding its disguise and revealing its teeth.

However much of the domestic and human-interest angles in the second season were not brought about by Donald Bellisario (a producer on the original Battlestar Galactica) who went on to create shows like Quantum Leap and JAG. Those were brought on by a mandate from the CBS network that Bellisario didn’t necessarily agree with. The disagreement reached a point where Bellisario quit his own show and left before the third season would begin. This would be the first of many problems the show would have before its end. Another would be a crash of an Airwolf chopper during filming of the episode ‘Natural Born’ where Jan-Michael Vincent’s flight double was killed.

When the third season came about Airwolf’s problems came to a head. Airwolf was without its main producer and creator in Donald Bellisario. Adding to those problems were the substance abuse problems of Jan-Michael Vincent which made him very difficult to work with due to allegedly violent tendencies and apparently reporting to the set drunk a number of times. These reasons, along with high budget and stunt costs that couldn’t support the ratings it was receiving, led to CBS’s decision to cancel the show.

But Airwolf was not dead yet. The USA Network commissioned a fourth season that operated on a shoestring budget and made use of stock footage from the previous Airwolf seasons for the aerial combat sequences. Any scenes of the chopper that were not stock were done from a stage mockup. The purpose of this fourth season was for syndication stripping and made use of a new cast replacing the old cast, although Vincent would appear in one episode to pass the baton to the new lead pilot – his brother St. John (played by Barry Van Dyke of Galactica 1980 and Diagnosis Murder). Rounding out the cast would be Dom’s niece Jo Santini (played by Alien Nation’s Michelle Scarabelli) who takes over Dom’s helicopter piloting business after Dom is killed in a helicopter explosion that severely injured String, Major Mike Rivers (played by Gerald Wyn Davies of Forever Knight), and agent Jason Locke (played by Anthony Sherwood), who take over the Airwolf case after Archangel is reassigned somewhere in the Middle East. Caitlin O’Shaugnessy’s fate is never revealed, and Stringfellow’s fate is left open-ended after awaking from a coma caused when he was caught near the explosion that killed Dom.

The fourth season dealt with Cold War threats, but it also went in different (and at times unusual) directions. Airwolf was suddenly equipped with a whisper mode (taken from the Blue Thunder chopper) and now seemed to be incorporated with a laser. Missions also dealt with Locke and a friend being implanted with mind control chips in hopes of capturing Airwolf, and a scientist played by actor Dick Van Dyke – Barry Van Dyke’s father – who wanted all diseased people exiled to a remote island only to find the scientist is in fact an android. It should also be noted that when St. John was found Airwolf was not sent back to the government as String promised (possibly due to String not being in a position to keep that promise due to the chopper explosion from the first episode of the fourth season) and St. John and his crew were now part of what seemed to be an international crime fighting team dealing with threats as they came about.

Even though the fourth season was not considered to be of as high a quality as the previous three had been, it did the job of rounding out the Airwolf package for syndication and the series finally ended. A Japanese company was reportedly interested at one point of using the Airwolf chopper to film a commercial. But due to the original chopper being destroyed in a rescue mission when it was remanded to a German hospital the Redwolf (featured in the third season episode ‘Airwolf II’) was refitted with Airwolf parts and used instead. However, that commercial was not seen in the United States so it is not certain if this claim can be substantiated.

Today the first season of Airwolf has been released on DVD, with more seasons apparently to follow. So fans of today can enjoy the adventures of the super chopper and its crew, and compare the political climate of yesterday to the political climate of today. As well as enjoy great human drama all at the same time.

– Written by JSC1