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Helinet Aviation has a longstanding reputation as a leader in the world of aerial movie and TV production, established and led by the high standards, skills, and creativity of founder and industry legend Alan Purwin. With Purwin at the helm, the company recorded a list of production credits that spanned hundreds of films and TV shows, working alongside directors including Michael Bay, James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, and Wolfgang Pieterson, to become an established member of the Hollywood production scene.
Tragically, Purwin was killed in a plane crash in September 2015 while travelling as a passenger during a movie shoot in Columbia. Helinet lost not only its founder and CEO, but the driving force behind its film production operations.
While movie work is just one of five of Helinet’s operational segments — which also include charter work, air medical transport (as the primary helicopter provider for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles), electronic newsgathering (ENG), and technology — it was one that was close to Purwin’s heart, according to his wife, Kathryn Purwin.
“Even though it was just one part of Helinet, it was the part that he did — it was Alan — it was what he loved the most, with the one exception of what we’ve done for Children’s Hospital,” said Purwin, who now serves as Helinet’s CEO. “He was happiest on a set, so it does seem like it’s sort of in the bones of Helinet to have a production division.”
Purwin said the production work understandably slowed in the wake of her husband’s death, as the company and its employees adapted to their new reality. However, the hiring of Kevin LaRosa II as VP of aerial film production in March 2017 — and the addition of a Sikorsky UH-60A Black Hawk (dubbed the “MovieHawk” by Helinet) to the company’s fleet in July 2017 — have represented the start of a new chapter in the company’s storied history of work in the sector.
LaRosa, a third-generation pilot, has been involved in aviation since he was born. His father, Kevin LaRosa Sr., has forged a highly successful career as a stunt pilot and motion picture pilot over the last 40 years, and LaRosa II has continued in the same vein.
“It’s a bit of a family business; when I grew up in the house, all I wanted to do was fly and my end goal was always to be an aerial coordinator and stunt pilot in the motion picture business,” he told Vertical. And while he left the “family business” for a few years to gain valuable aviation experience in other sectors such as ENG, air medical, and corporate helicopters, he has spent the last six years establishing his own reputation as a highly talented production pilot and aerial coordinator.
“Hiring Kevin was our first step in refocusing on the movie work and . . . it’s a new approach,” said Purwin. “We have a much bigger drone base now, we’re building up our drone department, and we’ve brought the Black Hawk in. Production is changing and we want to change with it.”
Helinet president and COO Jim McGowan, who was appointed by Purwin in November 2016, was instrumental in bringing LaRosa to the company. He said LaRosa’s expertise in coordinating large scale aerial sequences and flying for Hollywood’s top films made him a great fit for the company.
“We took our time to find the right candidate to lead our production department and feel very fortunate to have Kevin on our team,” he said.
A full-time Movie Hawk
LaRosa said the idea of getting hold of a Black Hawk dedicated to movie work had been on his radar for about a year and a half. Soon after joining Helinet, he pitched the idea to BHI Helicopters (a partnership between Brainerd Helicopters and Brown Helicopters) of Helinet taking the lead on marketing and contracting a BHI-owned Black Hawk specifically for aerial production work.
“We like to think we are a bit of a powerhouse as far as the movie business is concerned, and they liked the idea of it and thought that would be the way to go,” said LaRosa.
The aircraft, which arrived with Helinet in early July, is the first UH-60A Black Hawk in the world to be dedicated for use in the film industry. It has been outfitted to emulate the look and presence of a special operations MH-60M Black Hawk — a highly specialized version of the aircraft used by the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.
“We sat down and we made a list of items that our directors, producers and production companies would want to see, and basically gave our partner a wish list of how we wanted to see this bird made,” said LaRosa.
That wish list has resulted in an impressive number of customizations to provide the maximum amount of authenticity on set.
From the front, it carries an aerial refueling probe, and has a nose-mounted radome and inactive Wescam Matrix weapon system. Its External Stores Support System — wing-like stubs protruding from the side of the main cabin — provide it with the capability to carry authentic inert rockets and gun pods (such as 19-tube rocket pods and AGM-114 Hellfire missiles), as well as external fuel tanks. The MovieHawk can also carry window and pod-mounted inert M134 Dillon miniguns, and is equipped with a fast-rope insertion and extraction system.
Finally, a specialized military paint scheme allows production companies to create the most realistic and mission-correct scenes.
The MovieHawk is the fifth UH-60 that BHI has put into operation from purchase at U.S. Army military surplus auctions over the last three years (it has nine Firehawks/Black Hawks operating in its own fleet). According to Bart Brainerd, president of Brainerd Helicopters, the addition of the Black Hawks from the General Services Administration (GSA) auctions has allowed the company to specialize the aircraft.
“We used to have to split the different missions on the existing airframes we had,” he said. “So, the external lift, the movies, the firefighting and the R&D were all done on whatever aircraft we had that we could set time aside on, but with the arrival of the auctioned aircraft, it’s given us the latitude to start to specialize the aircraft for different missions.”
The conversion process from arriving from the military to civilian operation varies depending on the final mission, said Brainerd, with a firefighting mission that requires more modification taking more than six months, whereas a production conversion “is more in the months range.”
The MovieHawk is type certified, and most of the time when it’s being flown for film, it will be flown in the experimental category.
Brainerd said his prior experience of working with LaRosa and his father helped seal the deal for Helinet to take on the operational mantle for the MovieHawk.
“We’ve worked with them in the past on different productions with our aircraft, and they’re just great people to work with and are at the core of this teaming arrangement,” he said. “it’s a good synergy between the companies, as far as opportunities go, as there’s not really much overlap between us as far as what we do — we’re in different markets. This leverages Helinet’s contacts and experience with our background with the aircraft.”
Ready on Set
Before the appearance of former military Black Hawks on the civilian market, operators like Helinet were reliant on being able to secure permission from the U.S. military to use a real military aircraft for film work. That permission would depend on approval of the film or TV show’s script.
While the growing number of civilian Black Hawks provided another option over the last few years, securing use of those aircraft was not straightforward, either.
“We’ve been seeing the demand for them [from film studios], but we’ve also been seeing how challenging it is to get a hold of them,” said LaRosa. “It’s very difficult to get use of a Hawk for production work because the operators who have them need to get them on fire, utility work, or government contracts, which doesn’t make them available. My dream was to bring one to California and have a movie Hawk specifically designed for the movie business available to our customers.”
The fact that the MovieHawk is now hangared at Helinet’s facility in Van Nuys, California, not only guarantees availability of the aircraft when it’s requested, but also reduces costs to production companies through the elimination of ferry fees, said Purwin.
While the aircraft only arrived with Helinet in early July, it has already begun work on its first show — a new CBS TV series called Seal Team, being shot in Los Angeles. LaRosa said he expects the helicopter to work on between 15 to 25 shows or movies each year on average, some of which will likely be among the three or four big feature films Helinet works on each year.
The main lead pilot in the Movie Hawk is former Sikorsky experimental test pilot Alex Anduze, but the company has five other pilots that are also type rated on the aircraft — including LaRosa, who can fly as second in command if a shoot calls for it.
Safely maneuvering a helicopter to mimic a special operations mission for camera requires an extremely skilled pilot, said LaRosa.
“About three months ago, we had to do an operation where we had six very experienced stunt guys that were fast roping down the Hawk, at nighttime, on top of about a 60-foot obstacle. So as you can imagine, there was some precision involved with that, and lots of planning and safety precautions,” he said. “Thankfully, Alex Anduze spent 11 years flying Hawks for the Army, so he’s an extremely accomplished pilot. The other thing that makes our lead pilot so great is the fact that he can fly a picture ship correctly. Anybody can yank and bank a helicopter, but that’s only half the battle. The other half of the battle is being able to fly the Hawk for the camera, which is a very different type of mission.”
While he has flown many aircraft in front of the camera, LaRosa prefers to work behind the lens, either through flying the camera ship (Helinet typically uses an Airbus AS350 AStar or AS355 TwinStar in that role), or as an aerial coordinator helping a director or producer bring a scene they’ve visualized safely into life.
“What we do in the production business usually involves lower altitude, or night ops, so we can always expect that there’s a greater risk,” he said. “My job is to weigh all the risk, figure out how to de-risk as much as possible, and still give the customer the product they’re looking for. And one of the best qualities of a pilot or an aerial coordinator is the ability to say ‘No.’ ”
The MovieHawk is one of three additions to the Helinet fleet this year, with an Airbus AS350 B2 arriving the same day as the Hawk, closely followed by an Airbus H130. The three take the operator’s rotary-wing fleet to 19 aircraft. But despite the fleet growth, Purwin said the company remains focused on the markets in which it is already established.
“What we’re all trying to do is to improve on what Alan was already doing so well,” she said. “We’re already very diverse, so it’s difficult to imagine us adding other areas of work, but I certainly see us continuing to focus on keeping all of our departments strong while simultaneously finding the right opportunities for new growth.”