Helo pilot brings flying experience to movie-making

 - December 10, 2007, 11:51 AM

It’s a good bet that you’ve seen Al Cerullo’s work, even if you don’t recognize his name. In fact, if you’ve ever watched movies, television shows, commercials or music videos, it’s a certainty that you’ve viewed aerial footage taken from a helicopter Cerullo was piloting.

Over the past 30 years or so, he’s been making a living as a film pilot/aerial coordinator serving the East Coast, especially New York City. His credits include movies such as Superman, Spiderman (and its sequel), Conspiracy Theory, Mr. Deeds, Two Weeks Notice and Meet the Fockers; television shows such as The Sopranos, CSI (Miami and New York), Law & Order and The West Wing; commercials for Delta Air Lines, Chrysler, Hyatt Hotels and Levi’s; documentaries for Epcot/Disney, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel; music videos for the B-52s, U2, Billy Joel, Ricky Martin and The Rolling Stones; and print ads for Sears, Revlon, Citibank and Toys R Us.

But this impressive list merely scratches the surface of his credits–according to the Web site for Cerullo’s Long Island Republic Airport, N.Y.-based company, Hover-Views Unlimited (www.hoverviews.com), he’s contributed to 332 movies, 92 TV series, 178 commercials, 38 documentaries and specials, 24 print ads and 25 music videos. But even these numbers have not yet peaked, since Cerullo has no plans to retire despite turning 60 this month.

Cerullo holds a commercial pilot certificate, along with instrument and CFI ratings, for both rotor- and fixed-wing aircraft. He estimates that he’s logged about 21,000 hours, with the majority of that time in helicopters, including Hueys; Bell JetRangers and LongRangers; Eurocopter TwinStars and Dauphins; and Sikorsky
S-76s, S-55Ts and S-62s.

If he’s not behind the controls of a helicopter with a cameraman aboard shooting air-to-air or air-to-ground footage, he might just be in front of the camera flying a helicopter as an actor usually playing himself. (He’s a member of the Screen Actors Guild, which allows him to have speaking parts on film.) And if he’s not in the air, he could be on the movie set as an aerial coordinator.

While he’s worked with some of the biggest names in the movie business, the “Hollywood” attitude hasn’t rubbed off on him. Cerullo is a down-to-earth person who loves getting his hands dirty working on cars. He told AIN that he has a basement full of various auto parts and is involved in several car clubs. A Corvette enthusiast, Cerullo has owned one of the sports cars just about continuously since 1970. Cerullo currently drives a 2004 model but has a 500-hp Z06 on order. Right now he’s looking for a 1956 Chevy two- or four-door hardtop to work on.

Cerullo is also a big aviation proponent–he’s a project pilot for the EAA Young Eagles and regularly volunteers for aviation career days at local schools. One of his success stories is Ken Solosky, who is now the chief pilot of the New York Police Department aviation unit. When Solosky was 11 years old, Cerullo gave the then-budding aviator his first ride in a helicopter (they still stay in touch). He also routinely takes kids bitten by the aviation bug with him and his helicopter (currently a Eurocopter TwinStar) to movie sets as well.

He’s no hotshot pilot either. “Safety is always my first priority, and I’m proud that I’ve never had an incident while filming,” Cerullo said. “However, this has been no accident–all of the aerial work I do for films is carefully planned and executed. For film work, I’ll fly only twin-engine helicopters. And I always have to be careful since I routinely fly close to buildings with lots of people on the ground below. Most of all, I like coming home to my family at the end of the day.”

That family includes Christine, his wife of 34 years, and sons Darren, 25, and Wayne, 22. Both of his boys have received enough helicopter instruction from their dad, “but they just don’t have aviation in their blood like I did, so they never got their licenses.” However, Darren and Wayne can be found on the movie set doing ground coordination while their dad is in the air.

From Vietnam Draftee to Film Pilot

But Cerullo didn’t plan on becoming one of the most prolific film pilots. He’d
had an interest in aviation since he was a kid, and after graduating from high school he attended a local college in hopes of fulfilling his dream to be a commercial pilot. But his post-secondary education was cut short in 1965 when he was drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War.

When he was drafted there weren’t many attractive job choices in the Army, so he signed up for truck maintenance. But soon after starting truck school, he applied for, and was subsequently accepted for a transfer to, helicopter maintenance at Fort Bragg. When he found out he could apply for helicopter pilot school, he jumped at the chance. However, the transfer took some time, enough that he finished helicopter maintenance school for Hueys. He then spent the next year as a maintenance crew chief for Hueys.

But two weeks before his company was to be shipped out for a tour in Vietnam, Cerullo’s orders came through for his transfer to helicopter pilot school to fly Hueys. In 1966 he graduated fourth in his flight class at Fort Rucker, in part thanks to his extensive knowledge of the helicopter’s systems gleaned from maintenance school. And he not only got his wings in helicopters during this period–he also earned his airplane private pilot certificate at a local flight school.

In 1967 he left for a 13-month tour in Vietnam flying helicopters. Cerullo logged a total of 1,605 hours in Vietnam and was even shot down once, earning him a Purple Heart.

After his tour ended in 1968, he spent two years at Fort Stewart as an instructor pilot in both gunships and slickships (aeromed transports), in addition to obtaining his civilian licenses. He left the Army in 1970 with a job offer from Petroleum Helicopters in New Orleans, “but in Vietnam I had to ditch into the water once, so offshore flying didn’t really appeal to me.” So Cerullo went back home to Long Island and started instructing, charter flying and crop-dusting for Island Helicopters. While there, he became the first helicopter pilot to land at New York City’s 34th Street Heliport in 1972. He also said he was the last pilot to land on a Manhattan rooftop heliport while filming for Wrong is Right.

It was almost fate that he got involved in aerial filming in 1974. One day an aerial camera-mount representative called Island Helicopter looking for a pilot to fly
a helicopter with the mounting system along with a cameraman in the back. Cerullo’s colleagues at the outfit turned down the offer since it was cold outside, and flying the mission required taking the door off. But Cerullo accepted, and the rest is pretty much history.

Cerullo’s first movie work was for The Gumball Rally, a 1976 film about a coast-to-coast car race in which the winner receives the glory and a gumball machine (hence the title). While the movie didn’t break box-office records, word-of-mouth advertising about Cerullo was apparently spreading through Hollywood, though it did take a while for his business to pick up. He did movie work part time while he worked at Island helicopter until he went full time in the mid-1980s. In 1995 he left Island Helicopters and started his own aerial filming business, Hover-Views. (Island Helicopter ceased operations in 1997.)

Some of his more memorable work includes flying the S-76 in Two Weeks Notice (2002), starring Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullock. Cerullo actually had a speaking part with Grant in the Sikorsky’s cockpit, but the movie was rewritten mid-shooting and the scene was subsequently cut.

He’s particularly proud of his aerial work for Ladder 49, which starred John Travolta as the chief of the Baltimore Fire Department. Cerullo flew his camera-equipped TwinStar between simulated-burning buildings in downtown Baltimore. “However, the pyrotechnic guys did their job a little too well. At one point I could barely see through the smoke, and I had to pull up and stop shooting. So they toned the smoke down and we were able to resume filming safely. Needless to say, that job was a real challenge.”

Then there’s the time about 20 years ago when his wife and kids, then five and three years old, couldn’t find him on the set of Sweet Liberty. It turns out that Cerullo was doubling for Michael Caine and, separately, Lois Chiles in a helicopter taking off.

“I sat in the right front seat to double for Caine, and then I had to put on a wig and dress and sit in the left front seat to double for Chiles. My wife and kids came while I was doubling for Chiles, and they couldn’t find me because I was dressed as a woman,” he recalled.

Superman also sticks in his mind, not because it was a huge box-office success, but because of one of the aerial filming sessions. “I was hovering pretty close to an apartment building so we could film Lois Lane [played by Margot Kidder] on her balcony. The studio was renting the apartment for the movie, but there were people living in the other units,” Cerullo said. “So I was hovering outside while filming, and the guy one apartment below came out onto his balcony and wasn’t too pleased about the racket. He then started throwing tomatoes at the camera mounted in the helicopter. That was pretty interesting.”

More recently, he filmed air-to-ground footage of rock band U2 riding on the back of a flatbed trailer through Manhattan for a music video for the song “Because of You.” That video made its debut early last month.

Another of Cerullo’s newer credits includes aerial film work for Stephen Spielberg’s remake of the War of the Worlds, which will hit theaters later this year.

He also did the air-to-ground filming for the recent Corvette C6 commercial, which was done on the 59th Street Bridge and other streets in New York City. However, the spot was pulled weeks after its debut because it depicted a 12-year-old boy driv-ing the sports car as part of a dream sequence. “People were upset because it looked like the 12-year-old was really driv-ing the car, but in reality it was a professional stunt driver. The commercial was titled ‘The Dream,’ after all, but people protested nonetheless and General Motors eventually gave in. But I still have a copy on DVD,” the Corvette enthusiast noted.

During air-to-ground filming of another car commercial, this one for Lamborghini, the Italian racecar driver was having so much fun driving 100 mph down a closed section of New York City’s FDR Drive that he actually went beyond the closed-off portion. “A cop clocked him doing 100 on the open road and pulled the Lamborghini over. It took us a good half hour to get that mess sorted out.”

All in all Cerullo finds working with the stars to be a pleasant experience. Asked about his favorites, he immediately named Alan Alda, who Cerullo termed “a real gentleman.” Travolta is also one of his favorites, “and of course the conversation between us quickly changes from the movie we’re working on to aviation,” he noted. Others on this list include Robert DeNiro, Sandra Bullock, Tom Cruise and George Clooney. To be fair to the rest of the movie stars he’s dealt with, off the record Cerullo could cite only one actor he doesn’t like to work with.

The End?

Cerullo looks back fondly on the day when, during aerial filming for the King Kong remake, he flew between the World Trade Center buildings. However, the chilling image of the second hijacked 767 hitting the World Trade Center on 9/11 will forever be etched into his memory.

On that dark day, Cerullo was flying his helicopter toward New York City on a scouting expedition for an upcoming movie. He was about six miles from the city when he witnessed United Airlines Flight 175 strike the South Tower. “ATC immediately asked me what my intentions were, and I said I wanted to go back to our home base at Republic Airport,” Cerullo told AIN.

“I thought 9/11 was the end of my career since New York City and Washington, D.C., were off limits to air traffic,” he said. “After five or six months, we were able to start doing work in New York again, but there’s obviously no more aerial filming in D.C.”