It’s midnight. A loaded Black Hawk helicopter weaves its way through a moonlit canyon, where an elite group of soldiers will begin a daring rescue operation.
The helicopter makes its final turn out of the canyon and the drop point comes into view. Soldiers ready their weapons and take a deep breath—the last they’ll get before the mission.
The pilots steady the Black Hawk to a hover. Ropes drop from both sides and soldiers fast rope down onto the drop point, a rooftop on the outskirts of the city. Part one of the mission is a success.
If you’ve ever watched a military movie or TV show, chances are, you can picture this scene. And while we know it’s not real, our hearts race like we’re part of the action. For that, you might be able to thank Helinet’s MovieHawk—a surplus U.S. Army Black Hawk helicopter finding its second wind in the entertainment industry.
The GE Aviation Blog caught up with Helinet’s chief Black Hawk pilot, Alex Anduze, and Vice President, Kevin LaRosa II, who together pilot the GE T700-powered MovieHawk for TV and film productions all over the United States.
Briefly, what’s the history of the MovieHawk?
Alex Anduze (AA): The MovieHawk is a surplus Sikorsky UH-60 helicopter, better known as a Black Hawk. It’s an A-model, meaning it’s the first Black Hawk model, which were produced from the late 70s through the late 1980s. It uses the original General Electric T700 engines, -700s.
Kevin LaRosa II (KL): This particular aircraft flew overseas combat missions with the U.S. Army in its previous life, and believe it or not, one of the MovieHawk’s mechanics actually worked on and flew in it when he served in the Army. It’s been featured in a number of well-known productions, including “SEAL Team,” “SWAT,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “NCIS,” as well as some upcoming feature films.
How did you get your hands on a surplus U.S. Army helicopter?
AA: Many people know the famous “boneyards” that some decommissioned military aircraft go to once they’ve finished serving their mission, but there are auctions for a limited number of surplus military aircraft. They come in various stages of airworthiness—some are bought and used just for spare parts, while others you can buy ready to fly. I have a passion for flying and restoring older helicopters through my company, Anduze Helicopter. So, through some great partnerships with Brown Helicopter and Helinet, we were able to purchase and market what’s now known as the MovieHawk.
KL: I’m a third-generation pilot, second-generation stunt pilot for the motion picture industry, and bringing a Black Hawk to our operation was a dream of mine for years. We all saw a unique opportunity to fill a niche market with the MovieHawk. Previously, if you wanted a military-realistic helicopter, you could use something older that was no longer in an active military role, like an older model Huey. Or, you’d go through the Department of Defense and pay to use its equipment for a motion picture. Having the MovieHawk gives us the flexibility we need and that accuracy productions are looking for. We can modify it any number of ways to look like something you’d see the Army use today.
What are some of those modifications?
KL: The MovieHawk has an External Stores Support System, or ESSS. With that ESSS, we’re able to use inert military equipment that really looks the part. Missiles, rocket pods, guns, external fuel tanks, a refueling probe, you name it. We can swap equipment in and out based on what a specific scene demands and make the MovieHawk look like different Black Hawk variants. It’s up to each individual production to determine what configuration will fit their needs, and then we make it happen on screen.
Alex, you’ve flown Black Hawks in a military capacity. How does the MovieHawk compare?
AA: So, I served in the U.S. Army for 14 years and flew Black Hawks in combat missions overseas. I also worked previously as a flight test engineer and test pilot at Sikorsky, so I’m quite familiar with the aircraft. Training to become a Black Hawk pilot is, as you might imagine, pretty intense. The advanced maneuvers I was trained to do in the Army are comparable to what we do in the MovieHawk. More and more, productions want realistic combat scenarios, and because of what I learned through the Army and Sikorsky, we can recreate those scenarios safely and realistically. One unique feature of the MovieHawk is its Fast-Rope Insertion and Extraction System, known as FRIES. It’s a rarity to have that capability with a civilian helicopter, so that’s a feature very similar to my Army piloting experience.
What happens behind the scenes to make the MovieHawk perform on screen?
KL: We’re hired to look the part of a real-deal military helicopter, and what people probably don’t know about is the level of detail and preparation that goes into that. Flying for a camera requires weeks and sometimes even months of planning. You spend several days on a set, and then have the MovieHawk on camera for what could be just a few seconds. We’ll often fly a few takes, put the Hawk down, watch the playback, take notes, and get back in the Hawk to do the same maneuvers all with the goal of achieving the look our customers want.
AA: Another huge consideration any time we take the MovieHawk to a set is safety. Before we begin flying, we have a safety briefing for anyone who’s going to be involved in a helicopter scene. As it turns out, the industry is quite small, and that means we get a consistent group of former military personnel with years of experience and training as our stunt actors. That allows us to pull off realistic maneuvers safely. One recent example where that was important was when we lifted HEC, or Human External Cargo. That’s something you’d only do in an emergency in the military world, and in this instance, we were able to replicate it safely thanks to all the safety prep work ahead of time.
And, of course, we’re engine geeks around here. What can you tell us about the MovieHawk’s T700 engines?
AA: That Human External Cargo situation is a great representation of how much faith we put into your trusty T700s. We were lifting someone on an external line up over a hill, and to confidently pull that off, you’ve got to have trust in your engines. Having flown Black Hawks my entire piloting career, T700s have been there the whole way. They’re predictable, reliable, and very tolerant to the difficult environments we exposed them to in the Army, and even now with the MovieHawk. You just get a good feeling that they’ll be there to do exactly what you need.
KL: From an operator’s standpoint, these engines have been bulletproof for us. They’re as-advertised, get-the-job-done engines, and we’ve got an FAA-certified maintenance team here that follows the Army maintenance manual to the letter to keep the 700s in great condition. These motors take great care of us.
All MovieHawk photos are courtesy of Helinet.