Like many of her colleagues in aviation, Kathryn Purwin has gotten The Call—the one that delivers dreaded news about a loved one or coworker, the one that transforms your life into Before and After. Some time around Sep. 11, 2015, Kathryn learned that her husband, Alan Purwin, had been killed when the airplane he was on crashed in Colombia.
Best known for his film production work as a helicopter stunt pilot and aerial coordinator, Alan was the chairman of Helinet Aviation Services, a multimission helicopter operator based in Los Angeles. Since 1984, he had flown for nearly 150 movies and television productions, including the box-office blockbusters Air Force One, Armageddon, The Fast and the Furious, Jurassic Park, and Transformers. Considered an innovative film production pilot, he was responsible for iconic stunts such as the helicopter chase scene in the 2003 movie The Italian Job.
Alan founded Helinet, originally called West Coast Helicopters, in 1987 at Van Nuys Airport (KVNY) in Los Angeles. Starting with a Bell 206 LongRanger, Alan and a partner, Michael Tamburro, provided flight services for several Los Angeles–based business professionals and athletes. In 1988, West Coast began transporting organs for LA-based transplant centers. Two years later, it secured its first newsgathering contract.
Charter, organ transport, electronic newsgathering—the fledgling helicopter company was acquiring a diverse list of missions. “I’ve watched this company grow from the very beginning,” says Kathryn. “I remember when Alan had one helicopter, one desk, and one phone line.”
Kathryn first met Alan at—where else?—an airport. She had attended the University of California, Los Angeles, with a double major in history and political science, intending to become a lawyer. But that plan was sidetracked when a friend took her flying. She was hooked.
Instead of a lawyer, Kathryn became a commercial pilot, flying business jets (she holds commercial multiengine and instrument fixed-wing ratings and also holds a helicopter license). When Alan started West Coast Helicopters, the two were already friends; they married in 1994.
In 1998, Alan merged West Coast Helicopters with Helinet Aviation Services. His reputation as an aerial coordinator and stunt and production pilot for film and TV productions was growing, and the company was expanding into new missions, including helicopter air ambulance work and aircraft management.
With the birth of their children, Michaela and Kyle, Kathryn became less directly involved in the company. After Alan’s death, she didn’t initially plan to be an active owner of Helinet. There were all the other details that needed attention, and of course, her children. Besides, Alan had hired a management team three months before the accident.
Kathryn initially left it to that team to run the business. But without Alan to provide continuity, the company he had created was losing focus. He was a visionary, charismatic leader who could run a complex business out of his head. Replacing him as CEO seemed like an impossible task.
“After he was gone, it wasn’t my original intent to come in,” says Kathryn. “But I saw that I needed to do that for Alan’s legacy to continue. He worked so hard for it. It was my commitment to Alan that I was going to keep this place alive. That’s why I came in, and that’s why I’m still here.”
Choosing to Lead
And so in 2016, about six months after Alan died, Kathryn took over as Helinet’s CEO.
Stepping in for her husband wasn’t easy, she says. “Both my children needed me—it was a difficult time for all of us. But it was good for them to see me come in here to take a stand for their dad.”
Keeping up morale was a top priority. “These people had been through a lot. They had lost their leader, and then the wife comes in? They had families, their careers—it was a scary time for them, where there was a lot of instability.”
One reassuring strategy Kathryn employed was listening.
“A few months after I came in, morale was still low, especially with the pilots,” she says. “So I put a schedule out and said, ‘Look, anybody who wants to meet with me, just sign up.’ And every single one of them did. Some people took 20 minutes, and some took two hours. It took a month to get through them all, but just listening to what they had to say went a long way. Now there’s a great sense of family in this company, which is something I work very hard to create.”
Kathryn understood immediately that Helinet would have to evolve. “People like Alan don’t come around very often. He was a brilliant man and an entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word. Coming in, I knew I couldn’t fill those shoes,” she says. “But I knew I could build a team that could do it.”
One of her first moves was to begin to create her team. She recruited trusted business associates to join a board of advisers who would provide strategic direction for growth. Each board member would bring a unique background that provides Helinet with valuable perspective from its service markets.
Current board members include Thomas Norton, a former director of US Customs and Border Protection’s National Marine Training Center; Arnold Kleiner, former president and general manager of KABC-TV, who had been an early champion of marrying high-definition cinematography and helicopters; and retired US Coast Guard Vice Adm. William “Dean” Lee.
“I was in the military, and so I’ve seen a lot of leaders in my life,” says Lee. “I admire Kathryn so very much because the easy thing to do when her husband—who had largely been running the company while she raised the family—died would have been to sell out and go. She has more than risen to the occasion, and now she’s running this company.”
Another recent addition to Kathryn’s team is Sean Cross, Helinet’s president and COO and a retired US Coast Guard captain and aviator. “A big part of my job is to ensure high standards for professional operation and maintenance of our aircraft, while making sure the individual lines of business are working together and doing what’s best for Helinet,” says Cross.
One advantage to having a team is hearing different perspectives, says Kathryn. “It’s good to see things with a fresh set of eyes. Our CFO, Brad Sather, has a sign in his office that says, ‘The 6 Most Expensive Words in the English Language: We Always Did It That Way.’ And that’s so true. Helinet doesn’t look the same now as it did five years ago and five years before that, and it may not look the same in five years.”
Under Alan’s leadership, Helinet established a large footprint in providing aerial services for movie, television, and media production. The company has steadily expanded its capabilities in this area, providing film production companies with an array of aerial services, from cast and crew transport to helicopters and drones outfitted as camera platforms to aircraft that appear on-screen.
Helinet’s “picture ships” include a wide variety of aircraft that can be “cast” in various missions, including the 18 aircraft that it owns and the four in its aircraft management program. A standout in Helinet’s fleet is its MovieHawk, a Sikorsky UH-60A Black Hawk ESSS model. The unique aircraft can carry actual, if disabled, external weaponry and fuel tanks, as well as a system for fast-rope insertions and extractions. The company also has an Aero L-39 Albatros aircraft, dubbed the CineJet. With a custom Shotover camera mount designed for high-speed aerial cinematography, the CineJet captures images at speeds exceeding 350 knots and during maneuvers approaching 3 Gs.
Helinet’s camera ships include six single- and two twin-engine aircraft outfitted with camera mounts that can accommodate a film production company’s desired cameras and lenses. The company also uses 14 drones to capture aerial footage.
But it’s the Helinet team that makes the magic happen. Aerial coordinators pore over the logistics of every shoot, including locations, aircraft, maintenance, fuel, pilots, crew, safety, and regulatory compliance. A 30-second aerial sequence in a movie can take eight hours of preparation—or more.
Helinet’s production pilots work closely with the film production team to choreograph aircraft movement, a task that’s even more difficult when you’re dodging the imagined movements of a 30-foot Transformer that doesn’t actually exist.
“It’s both a physical and mental exercise when you’re out in the helicopter making these shots,” says Kevin LaRosa II, the ATP-rated pilot who heads Helinet’s production team. “You’re not only flying an aircraft, you’re directing another helicopter or multiple helicopters on how they should be flying, and you’re watching the image to make sure you’re putting yourself in the right place.”
“I hired Kevin to fill the gap in our production department left by Alan’s death,” says Kathryn. “He’s done a great job of preserving Helinet’s reputation in the film production community, which is very small and competitive,” says Kathryn. “Word gets around quickly, and the way you get asked back is by being well-organized, perfectly prepared, and able to improvise safely and efficiently—because on-site conditions and creative requirements are constantly evolving.”
Helinet is also a major player in the LA electronic newsgathering (ENG) market, providing a range of services to several TV stations in the area, including KABC, KCBS, and KTTV (Fox).
“We provide all the aircraft and pilots,” says Cross. “The companies actually invest in the equipment on board the aircraft because that’s a competitive advantage. All clients provide their own on-air reporter, but some bring their own camera operators and for others, we provide them.”
While current battery limits and regulatory permits limit the use of drones in ENG work, Kathryn foresees their eventual use by that sector. Meanwhile, a Helinet ENG aircraft recently had a too-close encounter with an sUAS.
“Our helicopter flying ENG for KABC-TV, Air7HD, was hit by a drone on Dec. 4. Our pilot thought it was a bird strike and put it down, but there [were] no feathers or other evidence,” says Kathryn. “The NTSB can’t be sure, but they found metal fragments lodged in the aircraft. If that drone had hit a bit farther back, it could have been fatal.”
“That helicopter was flying at 1,100 feet agl, where no drone should be flying legally,” adds Cross. “There’s a lot of unprofessional people out there flying drones. The aviation industry needs more than luck to prevent a tragedy from happening.”
Transport for LA-area hospitals’ organ donor programs was one of the first contracts Alan won, and it’s a service Helinet still provides today. “I’m extremely proud that over the last year, we’ve transported 20% of the organs transplanted in California,” says Cross. “Through this mission, Helinet has impacted the lives of over 1,300 people.”
The service requires complex planning and precise timing. “We’re not just going from hospital pad to hospital pad in Southern California,” Cross says. “We’re going to get organs that are being harvested as far away as Seattle, St. Louis, or Salt Lake City.
“Our organ transport pilots demonstrate a culture of conservative decision-making, and that’s penetrated to other business lines at Helinet,” Cross adds. “Our pilots have to think really hard about decision-making because of the viability of that organ. ‘If there’s going to be a delay, is it better to use land transport? Because if I make a bad decision, someone who needs this organ might have to go without.’ ”
Of all of Helinet’s missions, Kathryn is most proud of one the company has been carrying out since 1999: providing Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA) with free round-the-clock helicopter air ambulance service.
“Helinet provides everything—the helicopters, the insurance, the maintenance, the pilots. Children’s doesn’t pay for anything, and neither do the patients or their families. We transport about 450 kids a year,” says Kathryn.
In 2015, CHLA renamed the program the Alan Purwin Emergency Transport Program. “It’s something that means a lot to the entire company. It certainly means a lot to me,” says Kathryn, who also sits on the Children’s Hospital Foundation Board of Trustees. “This was an important mission for Alan, and under another owner, this would have been one of the first missions to go.”
Helicopters as Tools
For all that made Alan a pilot’s pilot—someone who loved the detailed planning that goes into, for example, safely flying through a tunnel for a movie scene—he was also a technologist. As a stunt pilot, he had a deep understanding of what a helicopter could do. As an entrepreneur and a businessman, he knew the many ways in which helicopters could be used, so Helinet has a long history of branching into complementary lines of business.
As a sought-after film production pilot, Alan grasped the technical challenges of aerial photography. In 2004, Helinet bought Cineflex, a high-definition aerial camera system developed by John Coyle, and then sold it in 2007 to a company that’s now part of General Dynamics.
Coyle’s next brainchild, Shotover Camera Systems, was purchased by Helinet in 2012. Used by broadcast, news, utility, and film production organizations around the world, the Shotover line of gyro-stabilized camera systems provides an open-architecture, highly stable platform for cameras.
It’s not just what the Shotover platform can do; its success also lies in what it doesn’t do. The device’s carbon-fiber body doesn’t weigh a lot, making the unit easy to transport. Its open architecture means clients aren’t restricted in their choice of cameras and lenses. Its gimbal relies on commercially developed software, meaning there are no export or trade restrictions on its use.
Helinet’s technical expertise provides yet another line of business: Helinet Technologies, which offers acquisition, installation, and support services for aerial surveillance systems for law enforcement, public safety, and government agencies. “Every solution is different,” Kathryn says, “and we’re vendor-agnostic, so we design a system that’s right for their requirements.”
Helinet’s post-installation service and support are critical. “Without a company like Helinet involved, when these agencies encounter technical difficulties, it can be hard to identify the problem within these complex installations. With Helinet Technologies, the customer experiences less frustration and more system uptime,” says Allison Rakun, senior VP of marketing and business development.
“Our clients just don’t have the time to deal with technical troubleshooting,” says Kathryn. “They just want to go out and catch bad guys, so our experts give them turnkey service to support that.”
With Cross on board, Kathryn’s job continues to evolve. “While Sean oversees day-to-day operations, I’m increasingly going to focus on strategy and vision: what the future of Helinet looks like,” she says. “We just started a Part 133 operation, so we’re expanding into the firefighting sector. One of our Hawks is being converted. We just won our first call-when-needed contract with the US Forest Service, so that’s a big thing for us.”
Kathryn is also looking at the future of airborne transportation. “We teamed with Sikorsky for an event called CoMotion LA, which was all about the future of urban air mobility.” She acknowledges the tremendous volatility in that sector but says the future is coming fast—after all, you can already book a Helinet charter through an app on your phone. However, she thinks it’s likely drones will make an impact in sectors such as organ transplant and law enforcement before anyone climbs into an Uber Elevate.
“Airborne transportation is evolving before our eyes, and we want to be a part of that,” Kathryn says. “We’re continuing to do what Alan always did—exploring opportunities, growing where there’s room to grow, and reevaluating the industry all the time.
“I want to honor Alan’s legacy, which is everything he created, but also evolve into the future. And the future never looks like the past, ever.”