What It’s Like to Fly a Stunt Helicopter for Michael Bay
Frédéric North has been performing aerial stunts for Hollywood’s biggest action movies for more than 30 years
Frédéric North is one of the world’s most sought-after stunt helicopter pilots and aerial coordinators. For over three decades, he has piloted aircraft for Hollywood’s biggest directors, racking up an epically long list of credits, including a heavy presence in the Fast & Furious and Transformers franchises. He also holds the world record for altitude in a helicopter, reaching 42,500 feet back in 2002. His work will next be seen in the upcoming Netflix feature Chaos Walking.
Below, North describes what it’s like to spend a day on set with Michael Bay, for whom he has worked on a number of high-octane projects. His story appears as told to Charles Thorp, and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Before I got into flying for Hollywood I spent eight years back in France doing utility work, long line and helicopter rescue in the mountains after I got my helicopter license. Back then, they still used civilians for primary rescue in France, to help mountain climbers who were in distress.
There were a few rescues that we did that were pretty perilous, at high altitude, that taught me about improvising under pressure. They were matters of life or death. Following that I spent years being a chase vehicle for rally car races in the desert. Those experiences really prepared me for working in the film industry.
The only machine that I fly in for movie gigs now is the Airbus H125. By now I have more than 15,000 hours in it. The cabin is perfect because I can see where the cameraman is at all times, and so much of the structure is connect. The sideways flight and turns are very smooth.
The stunts that we do are incredibly challenging, but with the proper amount of preparation and discussion, it becomes almost safe. We put a very detailed plan together; a plan is necessary when you are trying to push boundaries.
Of course the audience is going to think what we are doing insane, because they are seeing it the context of a few moments, but there are many days spent in preparation. Not only that, but we are having to perform each of these crazy stunts somewhere between 15 to 20 times.
One of my favorite directors to work with over my career has been Michael Bay. The first project with him was Armageddon. There are many great directors out there, but not all of them have the ability to share what they are seeing in their mind. Michael has the vision, the eye, and a knowledge of where the camera needs to be.
No matter what location we go to, anywhere in the world, he just knows where the lens needs to be looking to get the best result. At this point we have worked together enough that Michael will hand me a script or project with insane action sequences, look at me and say, “Do what you do Fred.” That is when I go find the producers, production designers, DP and get started.
There is always an explosion when you are working with Michael. I remember when we worked on Bad Boys for Life, there is a massive bridge chase that is supposed to take place in Miami. The action lasts on the screen for 45 seconds, but we planned it over two months.
That is the prep you need to do when you are flying a helicopter two feet off of the ground, into oncoming traffic, with explosions going off, and filming lights in your face because you are doing it all at night. Even with the rehearsing, my adrenaline kicks in during those moments. I know that I need every shred of focus and there is no room for error.
Six Underground was another challenging project, and was amazing to work on with Michael. The level of action is high, and we were building entire sets for those locations right in Rome. There are a lot of scenes with the helicopter, which meant a lot of work for us.
They built the entire top part of a building for the penthouse sequence where the roof is blown off and the swimming pool crashes down into the street. It was built in a parking lot just to be destroyed, with cranes everywhere, so that we could get the aerial shots that we needed.
If there is a single moment that I have doubt during the rehearsals, we will address it. I don’t let a doubt remain in my head. I acknowledge that what we do seems crazy, but it is an organized craziness. Seeing those scenes in the movie, and having friends see it — there is no job quite like it.
The key factor during those big spectacle happenings is that we are the ones who actually cue the explosions. We are the ones with the detonator, for the safety of those in the helicopters that are in close proximity. That is especially important when Michael is directing, because there are combustibles going off every two seconds. Each one is a surgical strike.
Michael is on the radio speaking with us when we are up in the air, if he isn’t operating a camera. He wants to be able to give us the “go.” I have noticed most of the time he isn’t looking at the monitors, he is actually watching us in the air, that is how deep is understanding is. He can tell when we have a good take by where we are and where the cameras are.
Once the cast gets into the helicopter, we shift into a more conservative mode, because those scenes are more about the plot. Not to mention we have to take care of our talent. If we are shooting an action sequence then the stunt double is going to jump in. We still push it a little bit with the cast in, but not close to what we are usually doing.
Michael doesn’t jump in the helicopter a whole lot, but he will hop in when it is convenient for him to get home. That happened during Six Underground, when we were in the UAE and we were wrapping up for the day. The commute back at the end of the shoot day was going to a be 20-minute flight rather than a five-hour drive.
I remember giving him rides home while we were filming Armageddon in France too. When Michael is riding with us, usually a producer will come by to give us a heads up. It can get a little tricky because we are only cleared to take off until a certain time at night, so if we are getting close to that time I will have to go give him a little reminder.
I don’t mind though, I love having him on board.
This series is done in partnership with the Great Adventures podcast hosted by Charles Thorp. Check out new and past episodes on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts from. Past guests include Bear Grylls, Andrew Zimmern, Chris Burkard, NASA astronauts, Navy SEALs and many others.
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