File A56-7W. Top secret. Subject: AIRWOLF, a Mach-1 plus attack helicopter. Sought by governments friendly and foreign, AIRWOLF has been hidden by test pilot Stringfellow Hawke – to be returned to the government only if his brother, St. John, an MIA in Vietnam, can be found… Backed by unmatched firepower, AIRWOLF is a weapon too dangerous to be left in unenlightened hands. Finding AIRWOLF is your number one priority. END OF FILE.
The 1980s saw several “gadget as star” shows, with the most well-known probably being Knight Rider, but several others existed. Most of them failed to last more than a season – and generally deservedly so. But there was one that held my attention for its 3-season run: Airwolf. (Technically there was a fourth season, but as it changed out all the characters and slashed the budget for production on a completely different network, most people ignore it)
The premise, given by that abridged monologue above, is fairly simple: the only person qualified to fly a particular superweapon constructed by a top-secret agency called simply The Firm steals it and refuses to return it unless the government recovers his brother, missing and presumed to be a POW in Vietnam.
As seen in the pilot episode, it’s somewhat more complicated than that. The actual inventor of the eponymous super-copter, Dr. Charles Henry Moffet, turns out to be a sociopath as well as a super-genius, blows away The Firm’s bunker (nearly killing its director and succeeding at killing many others), and steals the Airwolf during its initial, fully-armed demonstration run, planning to sell it to Libya (which itself was somewhat unusual – often such a series will invent a fictitious country for these purposes, but busting on Libya was fairly common in the 1980s – witness Back to the Future).
Stringfellow Hawke (an attention-getting name in itself) is the only other qualified pilot for the Airwolf, so Michael Coldsmith Briggs (codename Archangel, for his name “Michael” and his white hair), Director of the Firm, goes to recruit Hawke to help retrieve the Airwolf; the super-copter represents a major leap forward in aeronautical technology, weapons deployment, and a number of areas, so its loss is not merely costly in terms of money and time, but in real and immediate national security terms. Put bluntly, there is currently no other aircraft capable of matching Airwolf in firepower or maneuverability, and very few that can match it in speed – plus it has the most advanced computing avionics on Earth.
Hawke agrees eventually with the caveat that the government will launch a mission to retrieve his missing brother.
Naturally, things do not work out the way either side plans. Moffet is ultimately defeated – blown literally to mist by the firepower of his own creation in the hands of Stringfellow Hawke – but not before he’s killed someone that Hawke had come to care about very much, and the government has not retrieved Hawke’s brother, Saint John Hawke, often referred to as “Sinjin” (a contraction of “St. John” which I had never encountered before).
So Hawke goes rogue, hiding the Airwolf inside a hollow formation in the desert, but flying missions for the Firm to show his essential goodwill in the bargain he demands.
Overall, the show is a classic of ridiculous premises; the idea of a single genius being able to create so many innovations in so many fields, or hide the plans and designs so no one else turned out to be able to replicate it, the creation of a helicopter capable of over Mach 2 speeds with enough firepower to level small countries, a rogue pilot managing to hide a multibillion dollar aircraft and not get caught in the first two weeks, and so on.
The show works for three reasons:
1) Rule of Cool. The Airwolf is undoubtedly one of the most awesome devices made for the small screen, and combined with one of the best pieces of theme music made for TV it simply makes you forget about how impossible it is while it’s busy splashing enemy jets, blowing up bad guys’ fortresses, and so on.
2) Characters. The main characters aren’t just distinct, they’re designed in a way that allows them to work together without always working together – that is, interpersonal conflict sometimes happens even between the main characters, in nontrivial ways. Stringfellow Hawke is a classic traumatized soldier; he’s moody, a loner, lost in many ways, trying to figure out where he fits in the world. His holding the U.S. Government hostage isn’t just a way of getting back a beloved brother, it’s also a way of asserting control over things that most of us will never control. By contrast, his best friend and mentor Dominic Santini is an open, cheerful man who’s always willing to help out someone in trouble. He’s also the mediator, the peacemaker; when others get into arguments, he’s the one who gets people to calm down – and he’s authoritative enough to force even Stringfellow and Archangel to listen. Archangel is a career man in intelligence who has, somehow, kept his basic moral compass intact even while working on black projects, and after a time becomes friends with Stringfellow and Dominic despite the fact that he should be on the opposing side in a way.
3) Writing. All the cool and characters in the world can’t save you if the writing doesn’t work. Fortunately, the writers for Airwolf were of generally excellent quality.
I never particularly liked Knight Rider, which was the main gadget-star show and the only one to have a reasonable survival (even managing to convince people to try a couple revivals), and there were two reasons for that; one was that I found Michael Knight, despite his checkered past, fairly bland, and the other was that I felt that the writers often got lazy.
Airwolf had a built-in challenge that, I think, helped keep the writers from getting as lazy as they might. Namely, that while it’s almost a non-issue to make sure that the hero has his car – most people go pretty much everywhere with their car – and to even assume most people won’t take much notice of the car, this doesn’t apply to a super-helicopter, especially one that the government would really very much like to get its hands on. So it is a more challenging assignment to have to write a story in which there is a problem which both allows the characters to have interactions and people-oriented drama, and that can be solved at least in part by bringing up that super-helicopter… and explaining just how the helicopter gets brought into things at the right time. Even with the assistance of The Firm to, for instance, provide in-air refuelling, getting a super-helicopter to sneak into Soviet Russia, or rescue someone on a desert island, or whatever, while still allowing your stars to have their screen time, takes some work.
Airwolf was of course far from perfect; I don’t consider it to be as good as, for example, The Six Million Dollar Man. It was a product of the 1980s which meant that it followed a lot of the science action-adventure stereotype plots (many of which The Six Million Dollar Man had almost codified), and had its own political assumptions that were less flexible in many ways. But it did have some marvelous high points (such as the quite chilling “Moffet’s Ghost”), and upon re-watching it many years later I found it held up surprisingly well.
If cool techno-thriller adventures are your cup of tea, I’d strongly recommend trying Airwolf!