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.
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.