Super-Vehicle Saturday: The 35th anniversary of “Airwolf”

"Airwolf" title card (CBS Entertainment)

In 1982, NBC introduced us to the shadowy flight that is Knight Rider with “the car of the future” that is KITT, aka the Knight Industries Two Thousand.  Two years later, on January 22, 1984, CBS brought us the “Shadow of the Hawke” with Airwolf, a Mach-1 plus helicopter that can kicked butt.

Created by Donald P. Bellasario (Magnum, P.I.Quantum LeapJAG and NCIS), Airwolf starred Jan-Michael Vincent as the handsome and brooding Stringfellow Hawke, a reclusive, renegade pilot and reluctant hero who pilots the most sophisticated attack helicopter on the planet.  When the creator Charles Henry Moffett (David Hemmings) stole Airwolf, the covert intelligence firm known as The FIRM enlists Hawke to retrieve it.  He agrees, but on one condition: that The FIRM help find his brother St. John (“Sinjin”), who’s been MIA since the Vietnam War.  

And thus set up the premise: in exchange for information on his brother’s whereabouts, Hawke flies Airwolf for missions of national concern on behalf of The FIRM and its deputy director Archangel: Michael Coldsmith-Briggs III (Alex Cord).  The FIRM may wear the white hats and suits, but the business they do allows them to operate in a world filled with shades of grey.  And that is why Hawke, his mentor and father figure Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine), Caitlin “Sweet Britches” O’Shannessy (Jean Bruce Scott) remain the true-blue good guys.  

1984 was the year of helicopters on television with Airwolf going up with CBS’ Blue Thunder and NBC’s Riptide with the “Screaming Mimi”.  But Airwolf defeat the competition hands down as “The Lady”.

After a very dark and moody first season (still the best by the fans), Airwolf brought in more humor and humanity with stories focusing less on espionage and more on becoming Knight Rider with a helicopter.  Still, season two delivered alongside the first half of season three (remember “Airwolf II”?), while the second half somewhat faulted (e.g. “Little Wolf” looked like an episode from The Dukes of Hazzard).

It was a bumpy flight behind-the-scenes that includes tension between CBS and Bellasario over the show’s direction: causing him and then-wife Deborah Pratt (she played Marella and wrote the fan favorite “Fallen Angel”): causing them to leave Airwolf after season two, where they went on to do Quantum Leap for NBC.  Another was Vincent’s domestic problems as well as his drug and alcohol addiction.  At the time, Vincent was the highest-paid actor on television.

After three seasons, CBS canceled Airwolf in the spring of 1986, but was picked up by USA Network in January 1987 with a brand-new cast headed by Barry Van Dyke as St. John, who was finally found and reunited with his brother String.  Together with a new team, they takes on sensitive assignments for “The Company”.  Fans didn’t like it and Airwolf was canceled for good that season.  In other words: the original remains the best.

After 35 years, Airwolf is still the best: completing the second part of the “Super-Vehicle” trinity.

“Airwolf” season one intro


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