After TV cars had been jumped, crashed and smashed throughout the 70s, in the next decade producers decide to up the ante with flying transport. The two most famous of these are Airwolf and Blue Thunder. So which is the best whirlybird?
APPEARANCEAirwolf: Bell 222Blue Thunder: Aérospatiale Gazelle
Had Blue Thunder retained much of the Gazelle shape it would have won this point easily, but they entirely rebuilt the front of the copter to make it totally angular. The end result is that Blue Thunder is so ugly that almost makes the Apache Gunship look attractive.
The sleek appearance of Airwolf was actually intentional, because the original premise of the show was that it could appear to be a civilian copter. This was reflected in the Airwolf badge logos worn on the flying suits, which featured a flying wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Ironically, the changes that they made to Blue Thunder also made it nose heavy and reputedly very difficult to fly. Many of the stunts seen in the movie finale were done with models, as they where considered too dangerous to try in the real hardware.
Winner: Airwolf (1/0)
Airwolf: 30 mm Cannon (×2), .50 BMG Chain gun (×4) firing up to 40 rounds per sec. AGM-12 Bullpup missiles (×2), AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles (×12), AIM-95 Agile missiles (×4), AGM-45 Shrike missiles, M712 Copperhead shells, FIM-43 Redeye missiles, AGM-65 Maverick missiles, AGM-114 Hellfire missiles.Blue Thunder: 20mm electric cannon which can fire 4000 rounds of ammunition per minute
Oops! I think Blue Thunder is slightly out-gunned here. While the chain gun on the Thunder is impressive, it’s the belly missile pod on Airwolf that can unleash a seemingly script-unlimited number of deadly ordinance. In one episode it’s even suggested that they have nuclear tipped missiles, which trumps just about anything else, really.
Given a straight fight, I’d suggest that poor old Blue Thunder would be toast before it got within range to use its gun.
Winner: Airwolf (2/0)
CREW AND CAST
Airwolf: Stringfellow Hawke (Jan-Michael Vincent), Dominic Santini (Ernest Borgnine), Michael ‘Archangel’ Coldsmith Briggs III (Alex Cord), Caitlin O’Shaughnessy (Jean Bruce Scott)AirWolf II: Major Mike Rivers (Geraint Wyn Davies), Saint John Hawke (Barry Van Dyke), Jason Locke (Anthony Sherwood), Jo Santini (Michele Scarabelli)Blue Thunder Movie: Frank Murphy (Roy Schneider), Capt. Jack Braddock (Warren Oats)Blue Thunder TV Show: Frank Chaney (James Farentino), Clinton ‘JAFO’ Wonderlove (Dana Carvey), Lyman ‘Bubba’ Kelsey (Bubba Smith), Richard ‘Ski’ Butowski (Dick Butkus), Captain Braddock (Sandy McPeak), J .J. Douglas (1 Ann Cooper)
Blue Thunder’s crew choices went from the sublime to plain bizarre. In the original film Roy Schneider takes the controls as the post traumatic combat vet ‘Frank Chaney’, who’s so impressed with the helicopter that he ultimately destroys it by placing it in front of a train. Warren Oats, in one of his last every performances gives some crusty support and moustache twirling villainy is provided by his nemesis, Col F E Cochrane, played by Malcolm McDowell.
After such a strong start the TV series came along and erased all that with James Farentino, who seemed to realise from the outset that this was a short-term experience. Alongside him was Dana Cavey, before his success in Wayne’s World with Mike Myers, and subsequent career demise. But, by far the weirdest Blue Thunder crew members were Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus., both famed for being professional gridiron footballers.
What football has to do with assault helicopters isn’t obvious, or at least not to me. This was almost certainly a marketing lead exercise, where they even gave Bubba’s character the same nickname, so people would realise it was him!
Airwolf was initially piloted by Jan-Michael Vincent, who is either considered monolithic or of limited acting ability, depending on how generous a mood you are in. But, and this was clearly in Donald Bellisario’s mind when he created the show, he balanced the flat presentation of Vincent with the wonderfully expressive and passionate Ernest Borgnine.
More excellent support appeared later on in the form of the lovely Jean Bruce Scott, as the feisty Caitlin O’Shaughnessy. Her character contrasted heavily the passive female roles that were presented in the A-Team and Dukes Of Hazard.
Sadly Jan Michael Vincent’s growing problem with alcoholism ended his involvement, and the shoestring fourth series was filmed with relative unknowns. It was also compromised by the fact they no longer had the helicopter, and were forced to use only stock footage from the earlier episodes and the Airwolf mock-up.
The cast of season 4 was bravely piloted by Geraint Wyn Davies, who is undoubtedly the only Welsh person to fly Airwolf. It was an unmitigated fiasco that lasted for 24 episodes.
Given they both had their ups and downs with cast members, I’ll call this a draw.
Winner: Neither, half a point each (2.5/0.5)
Airwolf:· Acrobatics· Hidden Weapons· Turbo thrusters, giving a top speed of Mach 2· Midair refuelling probe· Sunburst anti-missile Flares (×10)· Bullet-proof armoured fuselage· Learning flight/combat computer· Silent hover/flight mode· Radar/Radio Jammer· Helmet Targeting
Blue Thunder: · Jet turbine engine with boost capability, enabling 360° loops· Heat sensing infra-red filter for night vision· Closed circuit TV-camera with a 100:1 zoom-lens· ¾” code-numbered video-system; the tapes can be erased on signal· Wide-band scanner· “Whisper Mode” for silent flights· Three TV-monitors. The centre monitor is connected to a vast array of data-banks· Twin long-range, high-sensitivity shotgun microphones· Cabin microphone; records cockpit conversations· A Harrison helmet-mounted fire control/targeting system
Historically Blue Thunder came first, and Airwolf was a development of the same concept, so the fact they then added all sorts of features wasn’t unexpected. The one feature that made Airwolf truly different was the turbo boost, enabling it implausibly to travel supersonically. There is a very good reason why helicopters can’t fly faster than about half the speed of sound, and they never actually explained in Airwolf how it was achieved. Because Blue Thunder had more factuall- based technology I’m going to award it this round.
Winner: Blue Thunder (2.5/1.5)
Airwolf: 79 episodes over four seasonsBlue Thunder: 1 Movie, 11 episodes over a single season
The question here is does a movie trump 79 episodes, and as good as the movie is, I doubt it does. Blue Thunder’s cancellation after just 11 episodes is pretty damning, even if the final season of Airwolf was made with entirely different people, and is abysmal.
The quality of the writing and characters in the first 55 Airwolf episodes is very high for TV from that period, and so for that and overall longevity, it’s got to be Airwolf.
Winner: Airwolf (3.5/1.5)
MUSICAirwolf: Theme and incidental music by Sylvester LevayBlue Thunder: Original score by Arthur B Rubenstein
This isn’t the obvious no-brainer that you might expect. If you can find the Arthur B Rubenstein’s score for Blue Thunder it’s a really excellent theme, which uses a complete range of the The Synclavier II, Jupiter, the Prophet and the Moog analogue synthesizers to full effect. However, ask anyone to hum it and you’ll get blank looks.
On the other hand most people remember the electro-pop Airwolf theme built around the rotor sound, and it’s now synonymous with the show and helicopters in general.
Credited to Sylvester Levay, it’s been covered by numerous rock bands and performers since. Sylvester Levay and Udi Harpaz also wrote lots of other music which was used in the TV show, and is available on CD.
Musically, it’s got to be Airwolf.
Winner: Airwolf (4.5/1.5)
And the Overall Winner is: AirwolfWith a final score of 4.5 playing just 1.5 for Blue Thunder, Airwolf is undoubtedly the high tech helicopter of choice. It’s faster, looks better and stay on our screens longer. But will its turbo boost ever roar again? Maybe not.
Postscript: After The Productions Ended
The sad fact is that Airwolf no longer exists. Only one real chopper was made for this production, and after the end of the show it was returned to its original appearance and sold to a German company. The Bell 222 was then modified to be an air ambulance, until in 1991 it crashed during a thunderstorm, killing all three people on board. A number of fans have since started to convert another Bell 222 into a static replica, a salute to this bygone TV star.
Anyone visiting the MGM studios attached to Disney World in Florida prior to 2005 might have seen what’s left of two Blue Thunder mock-ups used in the TV show, as they rotted on the Disney backlot. Where these have been taken is unknown.
For the movie two Blue Thunder helicopters where fashioned, one main and a backup. One of these was sold to a helicopter salvage company after the TV show folded, and after being hired for a number of productions was ultimately dismantled and sold for spares. This was also the destiny of second Blue Thunder, so disappointingly from either franchise not one single helicopter actually survived.