When it comes to aerial surf filming, Don Shearer of Windward Aviation has no peers. Photos by Bob Bangerter.
Legendary big-wave surfers like Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama have formed a symbiotic relationship with Don Shearer and the helicopter pilots at Windward Aviation, propelling both sides to ever-greater heights.
There is something to be said for the allure of the extreme. One could say that anything worth doing is worth doing to its maximum. And, in the world of professional surfing, big-wave riding is the max.
Winters on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, attract the best surfers from around the world, who risk life and limb for the ultimate ride. There is, however, one wave off the north shore of the neighboring island of Maui that few will dare to ride: a wave the Hawaiians call Peahi, otherwise known as Jaws.
Named for the Peahi/Jaws surf break, this wave is the pinnacle of big-wave surfing. Said legendary surfer Laird Hamilton, To surf Jaws is to ride one of the greatest big waves in the world, and it takes a lot of experience, courage and maybe even some denial. . . . Its dangerous and ultimately demands the utmost respect for the wave.
When conditions are right ” usually from December through March ” the big waves at Jaws can exceed 60 feet and require a special tow-in technique using personal watercraft to get the surfers into position. This technique, the pioneering of which is most-often attributed to Hamilton, Dave Kalama, Darrick Doerner and Buzzy Kerbox, has also seen surfers towed in by various powered boats and even helicopters.
Helicopters have also helped pushed these exploits into the mainstream, through such legendary films as Riding Giants and Billabong Odyssey. While much of the footage for these films was shot from the water by floating camera operators, the truly epic footage was taken from the air, courtesy of a special breed of helicopter pilot, like Don Shearer of Windward Aviation in Maui.
Don is at one with his machine, being able to do what he does, getting the helicopter sideways and backwards into the wind like he can. You really appreciate his skills when you see the footage, said Hamilton, Shearers long-time friend and frequent filming subject.
Anyone who has witnessed Jaws at its best has most likely seen Shearer and one or several of his yellow MD 500s flying above the thunderous surf with a camera crew onboard, documenting the action, up close and personal. This is Shearers airspace, and when it comes to his ability with aerial surf filming, he has no peers. Quite simply, he is the best.
Learning the Trade
Shearer has had a remarkable 30-plus years in the helicopter industry, starting as an airframe and powerplant mechanic for Robinson Helicopter Co. in 1979, at the age of 19. Not long after joining Robinson, he worked his way through his pilot qualifications and certifications, becoming a production test pilot and technical representative.
By the age of 21, he was traveling the country with a Robinson R22, doing demos and selling Robinson helicopters. It was a genuine adventure, and the sales mindset that Frank Robinson sent his young charge off with was, Go do something that only a helicopter can do.
His time with Frank Robinson obviously had a big impact on his future in aviation. Said Shearer, He was a mentor to me, and the best advice Frank ever gave me was to be honest, especially when documenting an incident or accident, and to never put money before safety.
Eventually, Shearer left Robinson to move into bigger and more complex aircraft, and worked throughout the Los Angeles Basin in Southern California, doing anything he could to support himself as a young aviator in both airplanes and helicopters. In 1985, he was offered two of his dream jobs in the same week: a helicopter flying job in Hawaii, and a pilot position at Continental Airlines. I felt that I could always get an airline job, said Shearer, but was not sure if I would ever get an opportunity to fly helicopters in Hawaii. So, I came to Hawaii.
Shearer did tour work initially, and subsequently moved into the utility sector, which honed his skills to even higher levels. Then, I decided, following an engine failure, that it was time to take control of my own destiny and start my own company. Windward Aviation was formed in May 1990 with one leased MD 500 and a lot of hope.
When he got into photo and film flights, Shearer drew heavily on his external-load experience. He saw film flying as simply an extension of external-load work: having your eyes out of the cockpit and having a keen eye for detail. Ive spent the better part of my career looking out the left door of the helicopter, he explained. The single most important aspect to my survival in flying for 32 years is that 99 percent of my flying has been done with the pilot door removed ” it gives me the ability to be outside the aircraft. It better develops your senses in wind direction, LZ [landing zone] layout and obstructions, and you have better visibility during approach and landing. With over 23,000 hours logged, of which 5,500 are sling-load, Shearers experiences have allowed him to develop the skills needed to operate the helicopter during filming so that he maintains the same relative position to the subject.
What Nobody Else Can Do
With todays film productions requiring both professionalism and experience, Shearer is in high demand. Plus, his no-nonsense approach has a strong connection to the bottom line of any project. With potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, and narrow windows of opportunity to capture the action, directors expect Shearer to deliver.
Yet, its not a case of being in the right place at the right time ” thats amateur hour. In the movie industry, directors typically have a clear idea of what they want, and entire scenes will be storyboarded, depicting camera angles and lens lengths for each shot. Shearer works well within these guidelines, but his expertise also allows for some improvisation. Its a team effort, he explained, and often the film or camera crew will come to me with a particular shot they have in mind. Theyll say they want this or they want that, and I try to accommodate them, but my whole thing is: lets put that camera out the side of the aircraft and let me show you what we can do with the helicopter, and theyll get the angle they wanted, and then Ill help get them footage they never even thought was possible with the helicopter. Ultimately, experience delivers. Many of the guys I work with regularly now, they dont even need to say anything, because I already know what they need.
When it comes to aerial filming, Windward has an impressive and varied clientele. From James Bond and other big-screen Hollywood films, to small independent productions, Shearer has seen and done it all.
His weapon of choice for film work is the MD 500, of which Windward has five. A lot of people prefer the [Eurocopter AS350] AStar, because its bigger and you can air condition them, but if you really want to get down there and get the shot with a strong weight-to-horsepower ratio that allows you to get in and power out, that aircraft [the MD 500] is phenomenal. It transitions well into sideways and rearward flight, and if its tracked and balanced right, its hard to beat. Moreover, the MD 500 is well suited for the companys fire and rescue contracts on the islands, which keep Windwards helicopters busy when theyre not doing film work.
Being busy with filming work is a little easier to predict these days. Thats because satellite buoys and advanced wave models have allowed for accurate predictions of approaching swells and their wave heights. So, when a big one is on the way, everyone knows it. Said Shearers wife Donna, president of Windward Aviation, Our phones start ringing three days before the swell gets here, and, at times, weve had three of our helicopters out there filming for different productions.
Even though Shearer is often the one everyone wants, Windwards other pilots have become stars in their own right. Said Donna, Many of the productions want to fly with Don, but our other pilots ” Peter Vorhes, Timothy Perry and Clifton Cates ” have risen to the pinnacle of aerial filming, too. Windward has armed itself with great aviators who can deliver.
For Shearer, he knows he cant rest on his laurels. With todays competitive surfing industry, the need for unique film footage and advertising photography is never-ending. And, the production companies just dont want the same old footage; it needs to be closer, edgier and more extreme than the last.
Prior to the start of any production, the pilots and film crew discuss the objectives for the day. When Laird Hamilton is involved in a production, he and Shearer will work especially closely together, sharing ideas on camera angles and how to overcome technical challenges. Theres a coordination that goes on, and we look at past footage and past situations and we try to keep evolving, Hamilton told Vertical.
Shearer, meanwhile, draws on his personal experience in photography to help his clients in composing the action unfolding beneath his helicopter. Said Shearer, After all these years, Im able to look out the cockpit and when I see something that looks good, chances are, the camera guys agree, and I work the helicopter into place to make it happen.
Surfing, of course, isnt the only dramatic watersport Shearer is called on to film. And, as dynamic as surfing is, wind and kite surfing are even more so. The anticipation you need filming wind and kite surfing is quite a bit more than surfing, said Shearer, because they can vary their speeds and direction dramatically, whereas when youre doing a surfing shot, the guy can only get whatever he can get out of the wave, and then its a case of exposing the angle you have.
Still, surfing does have an element of surprise. Often youll see something amazing and say, Whoa! That looked really cool, lets see if we can get that again on the next wave!
However, with every wave being different, the filming team needs to be adaptable and must know how to contend with many factors, including camera lens choice and the light and sun angle. But, one of the biggest problems experienced by Shearer at Jaws is the salt spray. Ideally, it would be great to have the guys take off on the first wave of a set, said Shearer, because then youre flying into clean, undisturbed air as you go in with that wave toward the shoreline. But nobody wants to take off on that first wave of the set, because if they get mopped, theyre going to get spanked by the next four or five waves.
Normally in big wave conditions at Peahi, the first wave in a set cleans up the water conditions, basically making the water a little smoother, but the air a little saltier. Youll have surfers taking off on the third or fourth wave, the air is full of mist from the previous waves, and if you have an offshore wind the last thing we want to do is fly into the salt spray. Not only does it affect the camera lens, but I dont want to ingest that into my turbine or rotor system. Inevitably, you will get salt on the aircraft, which is something I want to avoid, but whenever we come in from one of these filming flights, we rinse the aircraft thoroughly with the aircraft running, fly it around the pattern and then do an engine wash at the end as a preventative maintenance.
Shooting-wise, Shearer is always trying to be innovative and think outside the box, finding new angles for each scene. Well incorporate nose- and side-mounted cameras, but the one Im most excited about now is the slung-load Klaus Cam camera. Made by a company called CineMoves, the Klaus Cam is a fully stabilized, long-line camera system that can record stable footage from a hover, and be flown at speeds up to 110 miles an hour. The system allows crews to film subjects at close range without encountering the helicopters rotor downwash. This adds a degree of safety by providing additional altitude and distance between the helicopter and its subject.
The Klaus Cam has allowed directors to capture footage that previously could be achieved only through CGI (computer-generated imagery). The cameras operator flies on-board the filming aircraft and controls the cameras pan, tilt and roll remotely, while watching the footage on a small screen. With the rotor system on a helicopter, how close can you truly get to a car or cliff or tree? asked Shearer. This system allows us to get within a foot without sacrificing safety. Cinematographers can bring the camera in close to the subject, and then back it out and away for an incredible and unique perspective.
Managing the Risk
Of course, nothing extreme comes without risk. Inevitably, Shearer has a few critics who feel that the work hes doing with single-engine aircraft over such violent ocean surf is too dangerous. While Shearer acknowledges that some risk is inherent to the job, he believes that by flying his helicopters within their limitations and by maintaining them religiously, he and his pilots can operate safely in the big-wave environment. People need to look at the experience of the guy up there doing it, and ultimately it comes down to perception ” what may be uncomfortable for one pilot due to his lack of experience is comfortable for another who has thousands of hours in that particular area of flying.
Filming big-wave surfing requires the skill set of pilots who have had to pay attention to whats going on outside their helicopters ” pilots like Shearer, who has spent the majority of his career looking out that left door of the helicopter. You take someone with those combined skills, in an aircraft they know, and put them in an environment they have experience with, and you end up with a guy like me whos willing to go out there and do it with [safety] parameters. We can be a little limited with altitude here, but thats where proper planning comes in. . . . The photographers can get you into trouble if you let them, so you have to set limits, with the size of crews going along and so forth. The guys I work with the most realize that all they need are the cameraman and the camera, and trust me, well bring back the goods.
For Shearer, proper pre-flights and respect for the aircraft are the keys to staying alive. You need to listen to your machine when its talking to you, and know when to say when . . . Ive never put a dollar amount on safety ” if its not right, its not right. For this reason, all of Windwards pilots are on salary, which Shearer feels eliminates the incentive for them to fly in those times when they are out of their comfort zone.
Shearers wife, Donna ” an amazing surfer in her own right and the one Don credits for his success in life ” knows the dangers associated with big waves and has experienced them up close and personal. She admitted that she prays for Don every time he flies. I was with Laird [Hamilton] on the Jet Ski on the waves at Jaws recently, when surfer Jason Polakow went down and was held under by three consecutive waves, she said.
Not long after he was rescued, he was brought onto the boat I had been transferred onto, and the look on his face said it all… he had come close to the edge. She added, I obviously worry about Don, but his experience and preparation help reduce the risks.
Shearer also wears a floatation vest when filming over water and carries spare air, flares and portable, waterproof emergency locator transmitters. And, he is re-assured knowing his friends are below him on personal watercraft.
Of course, his friends are re-assured knowing hes in the air. To have him near you with the helicopter when youre doing something dangerous adds a certain amount of comfort, said Hamilton, because you have eyes in the sky that can come down and pluck you out when you get into a situation, like I have several times on the rocks at Peahi. The waves of Jaws hit the shorelines with massive force, and Shearer rescued Hamilton on an occasion when Hamilton was caught inside those waves.
If a surfer goes down at Jaws, he or she may be under water for over a minute, and the massive waves keep coming. In life-or-death situations such as these Shearer has been there, repeatedly, plucking surfers from the water before the next wave buries them.
For Laird and I, weve been through a lot together, and struggled in life like a lot of other people trying to create something for our families, said Shearer. If something was to happen to me out at Peahi and Laird, Dave Kalama and the boys were in the water, I know theyre going to be there to help me, just like Ive been there for them, no matter what.
Like Nothing Else
When the big waves come to Peahi, Shearer feels an excitement build within him. Theres nothing like watching an 80-foot wave racing toward you, he said, feeling the pressure waves as the massive surf pushes the air out of the way. Its absolutely incredible, the power of the ocean . . . you even feel the shock waves as the wave collapses. These thunderous waves are so powerful they can be heard in the helicopter even over the noise of the rotor system.
Its a special moment for me, seeing guys like Laird do what they do, and nowhere in the world can you experience what I get to experience on a regular basis here in Maui, whether its flying over a volcano, doing rescues or fire fighting, or filming the surf action of Jaws, Shearer reflected. Im very fortunate.
Well said, Don. Aloha.
Jason Colquhoun worked in photography in New York for seven years before becoming an ag helicopter pilot. He now resides with his wife, Lorie, and son, Grant, in peaceful Southern California.