Waypoints: One pilot's influence

October 1, 2009

Harrison Ford strode in through his open hangar doors, stopping along the way to introduce himself to the busy crew transforming his hangar into a mini-movie set. “You look familiar. Haven’t we worked together before?” he asks one cameraman. “Yes,” the shooter replies, shocked that Ford remembers the small project they had worked on together years before. Rather than pretentious and late as might be expected of a celebrity, Ford is charming and early—three hours early, in fact. “This OK to wear?” he asks me. The khakis and long-sleeve shirt are just fine for our purposes of filming the passionate aviator and actor for 30- and 60-second commercials for the GA Serves America campaign.

Ford is early to find out if he is dressed appropriately and to see the setup. Then his plan is to fly his Bell 407 helicopter from Santa Monica to Orange County Airport down the California coast to visit an elderly aunt for lunch, back in time for our afternoon shoot. “You want to come?” he asks me. I hesitate for about a nanosecond. Soon, we’re a few hundred feet over the beach headed south. While expertly piloting the helicopter and frequently checking in with ATC, Ford points out the highlights of the LA basin—Catalina Island off the coast, the Queen Mary cruise ship/hotel in Long Beach, the Robinson Helicopter factory at Torrance. On the way back north, the soft-spoken actor tells why he loves to fly. “Here it’s just me. It’s a chance to be alone and completely in control of what is happening. I enjoy the challenge—and there’s always a challenge in flying. It’s not something you ever completely master.” Ford is known among the pilots at Santa Monica as someone who works tirelessly to perfect his skills—flying on the most challenging days, going to formal training multiple times throughout the year, keeping his small fleet of airplanes meticulously maintained.

“This is something that we have to protect, something to pass on to our kids and grandkids. Flying in the U.S. is unlike it is anywhere else in the world and we need to protect that,” he says, explaining why he agreed to donate his time to AOPA’s GA Serves America project. The campaign is meant to educate members of Congress and other influencers around the country about the benefits of GA to all of society. The Web site carries not only the commercials by Ford and fellow actor and pilot Morgan Freeman, but also the stories of numerous business leaders and others who rely on GA transportation to make their businesses and medical practices successful.

The television, radio, and Web commercials showing Ford extolling the benefits of GA have been playing in the Washington, D.C., market and in select other markets around the country. One influential Washington publication noted that traffic to the online ads featuring Ford is the highest it has ever seen for any ads. In addition, AOPA’s awareness campaign has driven millions of other visitors to the GA Serves America Web site that is rich with information about GA’s important role.

Months later, we’re back in Ford’s hangar with another film crew setting up for additional footage of the A-list celebrity touting GA. Again, he arrives on time and ready to go. This time we’re asking his support in creating longer messages describing the benefits of GA for Web sites, meetings, and other venues. He offers suggestions to enhance the scripts and is soon in front of the camera using his commanding on-camera presence to connect to the unseen audience. After shooting several versions and angles, the director declares: “We got it.”

“No, one more time,” Ford insists, as much a perfectionist in front of the lens as he is in the cockpit.

Visit the GA Serves America Web site to see the ads and www.aopa.org/pilot key word: Harrison Ford for a behind-the-scenes look at how we shot the ads. As Ford so eloquently says, “GA serves America. Let’s keep it that way.”

As Editor in Chief of the world’s largest aviation magazine, Tom Haines frequently gets to share GA successes with influencers across the nation. E-mail the author at thomas.haines@aopa.org.