I was probably 12 years old when I first watched Airwolf. That was around 1996 so the show had long since passed by then. My uncle brought up two VHS tapes of the show he had got at a car boot sale (garage sale to the North American readers) and handed them to me knowing I had a keen interest in aviation. The first was the pilot episode/tv movie and the second was the season 4 two-parter “The Stavograd Incident”. Needless to say I was intrigued upon watching them and I sought out the whole series.
In case you have never seen the show, Airwolf is about a futuristic attack helicopter developed by the US government. It is the only helicopter that can fly faster than the speed of sound (in reality the fastest helicopters can barely break 250mph). As well as this phenomenal speed the aircraft was heavily armed with an array of weapons. In the pilot episode it is stolen for the Libyans by the very man who designed it and it is up to Jan Michael Vincent’s character, Stringfellow Hawke, to recover it. With the help of Dominic Santini (played by the late, great Ernest Borgnine) Hawke recovers the Airwolf and uses it to force the CIA to try and find his brother, an MIA in the Vietnam War. As the series progresses Hawke and Santini use Airwolf on a string of missions to help Archangel of the CIA who is (it appears) looking for Hawke’s brother in return. This was the basic premise of the first three seasons.
I will clear something up right now. I will distinguish between the first three seasons and the final season for reasons that will become apparent later.
The first three seasons have surprisingly stood the test of time very well. Watching them back recently this show was a true Cold War thriller in the Tom Clancy style and as long as you remember that this was the early eighties the show really stands apart. Yes you had the hi-tech helicopter but first and foremost it was about spies, political intrigue and world affairs. I remember Airwolf itself quite vividly but watching it again has made me realize that the helicopter had around 10 minutes of screen time in each episode at the most.
Jan Michael Vincent wonderfully portrayed the Vietnam Veteran Stringefellow Hawke. I have seen him in other things and his performance for me has never matched what he achieved in this show. Ernest Borgnine was probably an unlikely choice for a pseudo-sidekick given his age but he did a damn fine job and the two of them had excellent chemistry on screen. I truly believed these were life long friends. Another actor worthy of mention is Alex Cord as Archangel. He really had the CIA spy role nailed down and although there were episodes where he appeared to be helping Hawke find his brother you always had this feeling he was out for himself.
Over the course of the first three seasons the show did go through some changes; the special effects became better and an additional character was added to the Airwolf crew in the form of Caitlin. Nevertheless the show retained its basic premise although more episodes seemed to focus on drug cartels and organized gangs rather than the Soviets as in the first season. Then in the forth season the whole series was revamped – and for the worse.
Season four saw Dominic get killed, Caitlin disappear(?) and Archangel get reassigned. A whole new crew was introduced (headed by Hawke’s brother who was in surprisingly good health for a 20 year PoW in Vietnam!) and the production of the show changed. The new show was more glitzy with fancy effects that just made it look cheap frankly. It was the scriptwriting however that suffered the biggest hit. The stories in Season 4 were terrible in comparison to the previous seasons. In fairness season 3 hadn’t been spectacular but it was still better than the forth season. The only episodes that stood out were the two-parter of the Stavograd Incident (one of the very videos that set me on the path of enjoying Airwolf). These episodes had a storyline based on the Chernobyl power plant disaster and were released on video as a movie – “Airwolf II – The Stavograd Incident”.
Season 4 spelt the end of Airwolf and rightly so. In truth it was starting to die out in season 3 and season 4 now appears as a desperate albeit misguided attempt to save it. I hate it when a show can’t die with dignity especially after such an amazing start. I still remember the early Airwolf with fondness for its complexity, maturity and drama and this overshadows the lousy end it got. Sadly Airwolf was not the only show that suffered this ignominious fate. Quantum Leap anyone?