Flying high
January 10, 2013
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  • By: Matt Jachman

    Creative work offers lift as Canton helicopter business changes

    A Plymouth helicopter pilot whose company is rooted in Detroit’s automobile industry is making a mark in Hollywood and in the popular music world.

    Nick McMahon, operations director at McMahon Helicopters in Canton Township, flew for the new Tom Cruise movie Jack Reacher and this year landed work in music videos for two major rap stars. His company has an impressive list of aerial camera-work experience — from live Super Bowl stadium flyovers to aerial shots for television commercials — and that list that has grown rapidly in recent years.

    It’s all part of McMahon Helicopters’ evolution as the nature of its business mainstay — the parts-hauler of last resort for automakers — changes, and as Michigan and the Detroit area continue to attract filmmakers.

    “We basically reinvented ourselves all over in the last 10 years,” said McMahon recently during at his company’s headquarters.

    The business was founded by his father, Brian, in 1980, and it was the elder McMahon’s experience in television news and his pioneering of aerial camera systems and helicopter camera mounts, that lifted the company’s creative work to its current level.

    “When I started doing it there were not too many people specializing in it,” said Brian McMahon, who is still active with the company, by phone. He had to design specialized camera systems and mounts for the work, he added. “There just weren’t any.”

    Another son, Nate McMahon, also works for the company; he is a pilot but concentrates on Internet and marketing work, his father said.

    Business evolution

    McMahon, the company, runs four helicopters, three Bells and a giant Sikorsky that’s mainly used for carrying freight, out of a hangar near Mettetal Airport.

    Nick McMahon describes the company as the emergency parts-shipper for automobile factories facing an assembly-line shutdown because of a supply truck breakdown or a batch of bad parts.

    “We’re the emergency service that gets them by,” said McMahon; the choppers can fly directly from components suppliers in the Great Lakes area to the factories in need of the parts, he said.

    It’s an expensive way to deliver a small amount of freight, but less costly than an unscheduled shutdown, McMahon added.

    That work was keeping the company busy for much of the 1990s and the early 2000s, but the downturn in the industry during the Great Recession changed that picture.

    “It’s been a rough ride,” McMahon said of auto parts delivery. “The last 10 years have been tough.” The company also flies passengers — usually top-level executives — but that part of the business has been reduced too, he said.

    But film, television and video work, projects the company would turn down years ago in favor of the more steady freight business, has picked up, McMahon said. “We’ve evolved and changed our business accordingly,” he said.

    Creative experience

    Companies that do similar creative work are more common in New York and Hollywood, he said, but few and far between further inland.

    “It’s a specialized field,” he said. “It’s not something that just anyone can go out and do.”

    McMahon said he and his father have learned what directors are looking for in a given scene or aerial shot and are able to translate the creative ideas of directors who don’t have flying experience into a finished product.

    “You get to know what look they want, what looks good and what looks bad and how to line it up,” he said.

    For Jack Reacher, McMahon played a police helicopter pilot for a chase scene filmed in Pittsburgh in late 2011; his on-screen partner was also an experienced flier. Another pilot flew the copter with the camera filming McMahon and his co-pilot.

    The scene involved a lot of low-level flying, and McMahon isn’t sure what made it into the movie.

    In October, McMahon worked for three days with rapper 50 Cent on a video for his single My Life, which was released in late November. Featuring Eminem and Adam Levine (from the TV talent show The Voice), the locally made video depicts the singers on the run from a low-flying helicopter that’s trying to put a searchlight on them.

    “That was definitely a highlight,” McMahon said of his work on the video. “I like that there’s a lot of helicopter in it.” Usually, he said, his flying work is behind the camera, not on it. McMahon also worked on another video last year with rapper Big Sean.

    Brian McMahon said Nick is a “natural pilot” who flew with him often as a boy and seemed to pick up the skill by osmosis. He was flying before he was licensed to drive, he said.

    “Neither one of my sons were steered by me at all” into the helicopter business, he said. “If I had tried to steer them in that direction they probably wouldn’t have done it.”