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

June 07, 1985|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer

"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.

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