Ex-Navy pilot now flies for Hollywood

 - October 16, 2006, 9:19 AM

Dundee, Scotland-born David Paris, 55, joined the Royal Navy in January 1967, for an eight-year hitch as a pilot. He trained on de Havilland Canada Chipmunks, Hillers, Westland Whirlwind 7s (based on the Sikorsky S-55), Wessex 1s (based on the Sikorsky S-58/Choctaw) and the anti-submarine Wessex 3, on which–in early 1969–he was posted to the aircraft carrier HMS Eagle with 826 Naval Air Squadron.

His only “ditching” took place quite early in his career, in 1969, after a distracted gull swooped under the rotor disk and disappeared into the (single) engine air intake. Sheets of flame came out of the exhausts below and all the gauges “went red.”

“I was flying with the squadron instructor at 150 feet downwind on a training flight. To simulate IMC, we had orange screens fitted on the windows and wore blue goggles, so I couldn’t see anything. When it happened I yelled, ‘You have control,’ ripped the blue goggles off and got ready to ditch. The maneuver actually went quite smoothly; we got out safely and Sarbe (the company that made the helicopter’s homing beacon) sent me a mug.”

Toward the end of this first front-line tour, he converted to the new twin-engine Sea King (HS-3) at Culdrose NAS in Cornwall. As the youngest pilot on the unit he got all the undesirable jobs. If the notoriously fickle weather, known as “Culdrose clag,” restricted flying, the squadron’s senior pilot might dispatch him to hover near the tower for the afternoon, to burn off some hours on a gearbox that was close to overhaul. “I would sit there, hovering this thing manually in the fog, while the rest of the squadron drove past on the way to the bar.”

Two more Sea King tours led to his eight-year breakpoint in late 1974. He left his ship in Mombasa, Kenya, and enjoyed a two-month holiday.

Civilian Flying

Back in England, unemployed and unqualified, he put the remainder of his gratuity toward a ground-school course leading to a professional license. He needed a type rating and approached offshore operator Bristow, which used the Hiller to train its pilots.

“They asked me why I was paying for the type rating myself and I said that I didn’t want to fly over the North Sea. They said I wouldn’t need to because they saw me, a young single man, as perfect for short-term vacation-relief jobs around the world. So they paid for the training, I signed up and they sent me straight to Aberdeen.”

While he was in Scotland, Paris found himself caught up in a 1977 pilots’ strike. The company was non-union and its founder, the mercurial Alan Bristow, was rabidly against them. Another pilot, who was openly trying to get others signed up to British pilots union BALPA, was suddenly told to take a position in Nigeria. “Many of us thought this enforced move, which broke the terms of his contract, was unfair and so started a petition, demanding that it be withdrawn.

“When Bristow refused to consider that, a nucleus of us decided to withdraw our labor. Of the vast number of pilots who signed the petition threatening to strike, only about 50 of us followed through, and we were sacked immediately. The company managed to keep things going without us, so after a couple of months, it fizzled out.

“We set up a pilots’ cooperative and managed to find jobs for many of the sacked pilots–some with British Airways (BA), others with Groenlandsfly but the bulk of them with Norway’s Helikopter Service (HS). We placed the least-qualified in BA and Groenlandsfly first because their employment contracts would make it difficult to lay off full-timers. The more experienced among us sought contract work, particularly with HS. We went as far as putting deposits on two S-76s, but an accident made the oil companies wary of using them.

“We ran our cooperative for six years, flew nearly 700 hours each a year and saved HS a pile of money. Then, inevitably, an industry slowdown led to the cancellation of the HS contract.”

Hollywood Comes Calling

Paris remembers waiting in a hotel lobby in Stavanger, about to leave for home, when a friend called with a job offer from Air Hanson. Hanson was a British tycoon who owned dozens of companies around the world and had set up a helicopter charter operation near London.

“At Air Hanson I started picking up film and TV jobs when they came along, mostly because the others didn’t want them.” One day someone asked if Paris could help him find a helicopter to act as a gunship in a movie, and Paris talked him into using the Bell 222, which he had on his license.

“The guy in London handling the aerial end of the movie was Mark Woolf, and it involved our flying for a month in Morocco on that legendary flop Ishtar. The 222 turned out to be just right for the job; I enjoyed the work and, thereafter, if Mark was double-booked, he would put the work Air Hanson’s way. Six months later, he asked me to work for him full-time.”

“Soon after that, we formed Flying Pictures and got involved in some big movies including Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Air America and Cliffhanger. For much of the time we acted as camera platforms and were in front of the camera for about 20 percent of the time. I was working more and more in the States, and I had just married an American so it made sense to move here.”

Paris now lives in Florida and flies to Los Angeles when he has to. “Quite soon after arriving I got involved in three big movies–Turbulence, Air Force One and GI Jane–and saw that, to get the work, I didn’t need to be in LA.” He now divides his time between working for Helinet Aviation Services based in Van Nuys, Calif., and doing aerial work for movies.

Recent credits of his include Vertical Limit, National Treasure, Black Hawk Down, Starsky and Hutch and the remake of Flight of the Phoenix. Other recent films include Domino and The Island.

“I like the teamwork in movies. I fly a lot with David Nowell and he tends to fly the on-camera ship, while I prefer to carry the camera. We each know what we need to do and it can be quite an intimate relationship. In Flight of the Phoenix, director John Moore flew with us all the time. He could hear our cockpit chit-chat and complained that it was like being with a married couple.

“I like the equality on a film set. Everybody is on first-name terms because everybody’s job is vital. I couldn’t do another flying job but, if I had my time over, I would like to have worked as an assistant director. The AD runs the set, plans the movie and is totally involved from start to finish,” Paris said.

“Just because you can fly a helicopter doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make it as a movie pilot. You can fly the perfect profile 14 times and something else might go wrong, but if you muck it up the 15th time, it was your fault and people remember. You have to want to contribute to the finished product. Unless you’re committed to getting the perfect shot, you’re in the wrong business."